HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s government warned protesters on Tuesday they would face the “full wrath of the law” if they heeded a call by a detained preacher to continue with the biggest demonstrations in a decade against President Robert Mugabe.
Baptist minister Evan Mawarire has become a household name in Zimbabwe since he started a social media campaign in April that has tapped into mounting public anger over corruption, high unemployment and economic woes.
In a video recorded before his arrest on Tuesday, Mawarire urged supporters to go ahead with further ‘stay at home’ demonstrations. He had called for a one-day protest last week which closed businesses across the southern African nation in the biggest strike since 2005.
“The police whose mandate is to protect life and property will be out in full force to deal with any disturbances that may arise,” Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo told reporters.
“Let me warn the instigators behind the intended protests that they will face the full wrath of the law,” said Chombo, flanked by the ministers of defence and state security.
Chombo said there were no plans to deploy the military.
Mugabe, Africa’s oldest leader at 92, has led the former British colony since independence in 1980. Since then it has gone from being one of the continent’s most promising economies to being a country mired in economic crisis with a reputation for rights abuses.
After initially ignoring his grainy online videos, shot on a cellphone and calling for mass protests, Mugabe’s administration has started to push back, especially after they attracted support from thousands of unpaid civil servants.
“Yes, he has been arrested for inciting public violence and disturbing peace,” Mawarire lawyer Harrison Nkomo told Reuters. He said police had raided his client’s Harare home, office and church.
Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba was not available to comment on the charges.
A copy of a search warrant seen by Reuters said police believed Mawarire was in possession of a stolen police helmet, baton stick and “other subversive material” that could be used to incite public violence.
The law under which the bespectacled 39-year-old has been detained carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years. According to Zimbabwean law, he must appear in court within 48 hours. He was summoned by police early on Tuesday morning.
Mawarire said he broke no law in calling for the one-day shut-down last Wednesday.
International Crisis Group analyst Piers Pigou said Mawarire’s #ThisFlag movement had rattled Mugabe’s government but was still a long way from becoming the first “Arab Spring” south of the Sahara.
“It’s provoked a certain amount of panic from the authorities given the scale of the stay-away,” Pigou said. “But a stay-away doesn’t translate into active support for rebellion against the regime.”
More protests are planned for Wednesday and Thursday as part of #ThisFlag, which aims to appeal to Zimbabweans’ national pride and exploit the widespread use of social media in the country.
In a pre-recorded video posted on Twitter under the #ThisFlag hashtag after he was charged, Mawarire said his arrest should not stop Zimbabwe’s 13 million people going ahead with demonstrations.
“No matter what has happened to me, you and I have done well. We have stood up and raised our voices to build this nation,” Mawarire said.
Last Friday police summoned and arrested Prosper Mkwananzi from social media group Tajamuka - meaning ‘We refuse’ - on charges of public violence. Mkwananzi was released on bail on Monday.
Mawarire launched #ThisFlag in April after struggling to pay school fees for his two daughters or bus fares. His complaints struck an immediate chord with Zimbabweans and 120,000 people watched his video in its first week.
Within three months, some have even started likening him and his adherence to non-violence to Indian anti-colonial hero Mahatma Gandhi, who started becoming politically active as a lawyer in neighbouring South Africa in the early 1900s.
“There is nothing wrong from learning from the people like Gandhi because they achieved a lot of things in pushing the non-violent aspect of things,” Mawarire said in an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper this month.
“If we fight violence with violence, the result will be more violence,” he said. “There comes a time when we have to use a different strategy to that being used by the people we are confronting.”
Additional reporting Pete Vernon; Editing by Joe Brock, Ralph Boulton, Sonya Hepinstall and Pravin Char