On an April evening in 2016, Evan Mawarire made a four-minute video and posted it to Facebook—a simple act but one that changed the entire trajectory of his life. The video, in which Mawarire pleads for change in his troubled home country of Zimbabwe in southern Africa, set off a chain of events including the launch of a major political movement and him being arrested and beaten multiple times. When he hit the “post” button on that video, Mawarire never dreamed it would ultimately lead to him and his family living in exile in the United States.
Mawarire, the inaugural Dissident-in-Residence at Johns Hopkins’ SNF Agora Institute for the 2022–23 academic year, is on a mission to warn the world how easy it is for a dictator to take over a country.
Done Being Quiet
When Robert Mugabe became the first president of Zimbabwe—formerly known as Rhodesia and under the rule of the white minority—in 1980, people were hopeful about their hard-won independence. By the 1990s, however, it became clear that Mugabe didn’t care about the welfare of the citizens. Only about staying in power. The economy had completely collapsed, unemployment soared, the education system faltered, and what was once rich farmland became arid. Even after losing a 2008 election, Mugabe simply refused to leave.
Fast forward to 2016, when Mawarire, a 39-year-old pastor, husband, and father of two young girls with another on the way, was frustrated and sad.
“I was struggling to put food on the table for my family,” says Mawarire. “I realized that my daughters would grow up with nothing. I was done being quiet.”
But speaking out could lead to disastrous or even fatal results under the Mugabe regime.
Those who publicly criticized were either arrested and put through endless prosecution. Or, they were “disappeared,” meaning they were abducted, tortured, and murdered.
One evening, having had enough, Mawarire wrapped himself in the flag of Zimbabwe and hit the record button. Describing the colors of the flag and what they stand for, Mawarire passionately asked, “Is this just a reminder of a sad past?” He implored his fellow citizens to “stop standing on the sidelines,” and said, “This flag is begging for you to get involved and cry out. This flag.”
The video went viral, and the movement known as #ThisFlag was born. The corrupt president heard about it, and called out Mawarire.
“When I heard Mugabe talking about me, I was so scared,” says Mawarire. “I had never been involved in movements or politics. Everyone said to me, ‘You’re dead. This is the end of you.’ But I knew I couldn’t let fear debilitate me.”
Because any public protest was illegal, Mawarire and his colleagues hatched a plan. Instead of asking people to protest on the streets, they chose a day and asked people to stay home from work and school. Just stay indoors and shut down the nation. It worked. The country came to a standstill.
Continuing the Protest
What followed were multiple arrests of Mawarire, and he spent time at the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. The prison is notorious for its violence and drastic human rights violations, which Mawarire experienced and witnessed.
Mugabe was forced out of office in 2017, due in part to the strength of the #ThisFlag movement. Unfortunately, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s right-hand man, was declared president by the state-run court. #ThisFlag continues its fight against a corrupt regime.
Pressure on Mawarire intensified, even after Mugabe’s ouster. He realized he had no choice but to flee Zimbabwe with his family. He is now the director of education for the Renew Democracy Initiative, which includes his appointment at Johns Hopkins.
Mawarire continues to condemn the regime running Zimbabwe, and he also gives talks to students and others about how dictatorships can happen, despite the will of the people.
“The failure of democracy in our own countries helps us understand that a history of success shouldn’t make anyone complacent. All it takes for this tradition to crumble is for one leader or group to seize the reins of power and refuse to move on.”
The video that launched Evan Mawarire into a life of activism.