The leader of popular protests in Zimbabwe has called on the international community to put pressure on the government of the 92-year-old autocrat Robert Mugabe to “listen to its own citizens”, and threatened further demonstrations.
Protests paralysed much of the southern African nation last week after Evan Mawarire called for a one-day shutdown. Mawarire, a 39-year-old Baptist pastor, told the Guardian there would be new shutdowns next week – lasting two days this time – if the demands of his #ThisFlag movement were not met.
These demands include the sacking of corrupt ministers, the payment of delayed salaries and the lifting of roadblocks that residents say are used by police to extract bribes.
“The [government] has stolen our money. It is out of touch with the problems we have. It must begin to listen to the people and stamp out the corruption which has crippled out economy,” Mawarire said, speaking from a secret location in Zimbabwe. “The international community cannot help us if we do not help ourselves.”
During last week’s protest, streets were deserted, shops shut and businesses closed in the capital, Harare, the southern city of Bulawayo and elsewhere – the most widespread demonstrations of dissent in Zimbabwe for many years. Many government offices were affected as key staff stayed away.
Organisers say they now fear a fierce crackdown by the authorities. Protesters clashed with police in several locations, scores were hurt and more than 100 demonstrators were arrested.
There are fears that Mawarire, who is in hiding to avoid arrest, will be detained or abducted. “They are stubborn and full of pride,” the pastor said of the government. “Their instinct is to threaten, intimidate, arrest and detain. They have shown that again and again. But we are a non-violent movement. That’s very, very important. It’s a confrontation of truth.”
International campaigners have long criticised Zimbabwe for its poor record on human rights. In March last year Itai Dzamara, a 36-year-old journalist who led a peaceful protest movement, was abducted by armed men.
Last week the leader of a new youth political party‚ Viva Zimbabwe‚ was detained. There have been reports that at least two activists involved in the recent shutdown have disappeared and are thought to be in illegal detention.
“It is tough at the moment,” Mawarire said. “They are looking for me. I don’t know what for. I have committed no crime. I have never committed a crime but they will not listen to their fellow citizens.”
Officials have described the protesters as “terrorists” and blame foreign powers for sabotaging the economy and stirring unrest.
Ignatious Chombo, the ruling Zanu-PF party’s administration secretary, said western embassies in Harare and opposition parties were trying to cause anarchy. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation described last week’s shutdown as a “flop”.
Government officials warned that “all sim cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user” and that anyone making offensive or subversive statements on social media “can be easily identified”.
Observers say the pressures on Mugabe, Africa’s oldest leader, and on Zanu-PF are immense. Mugabe has led the former British colony since independence in 1980. A series of controversial measures over the last 20 years – such as stripping white farmers of land more than a decade ago – have caused massive economic disruption.
In 2009, hyperinflation forced Zimbabwe to adopt foreign currencies – largely the US dollar – after its own collapsed. In 2013 Zanu-PF won an election amid widespread claims of vote rigging.
Now the government is struggling to finance its $4bn (£3.1bn) annual budget, and soldiers, police officers, doctors and teachers are being paid weeks in arrears. Foreign investment and donor support has dried up and anticipated aid from China has not materialised.
In April the government halved its 2016 growth forecast to 1.4% – an estimate that independent economists believe is optimistic. A drought threatens up to 4 million people with famine.
Analysts say these challenges come amid an increasingly intense internal battle between factions seeking to take power when the increasingly frail Mugabe dies, which has significantly weakened the ruling clique’s ability to respond to the crisis.
“It is always very difficult to call an endgame, they are facing challenges of a much greater scale than they have faced before,” said Brian Raftopoulos, an expert in Zimbabwe at University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
Officials have appealed to the International Monetary Fund and other major multilateral lenders for aid. Zimbabwe already owes $8.3bn, of which $1.8bn is in arrears.
Private companies have been nervous about investing in the politically unstable state in recent years, and though the IMF is reportedly keen to restart lending to Zimbabwe, it is likely to demand wide-ranging reforms in return for assistance.
This poses a dilemma for the ruling party and Mugabe, as many measures may significantly weaken Zanu-PF’s hold on power. “The conditionalities could be about law, process, elections [due in 2018] and property rights. It doesn’t look like the state will be able to respond,” said Raftopoulos.
Some believe further loans would simply allow officials to remain in power and fuel endemic graft.
The protests in recent weeks have bypassed traditional opposition parties such as the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsangvirai. Zimbabwe last witnessed unrest on this scale in April 2007 when Tsvangirai led anti-Mugabe demonstrations.
Besides #ThisFlag, other social media movements have also appeared, such as Tajamuka – “We refuse”, in Zimbabwe’s Shona language – which has launched spontaneous demonstrations in the last month.
This month a handful of protesters stormed a hotel in the centre of Harare protesting against the vice-president Phelekezela Mphoko’s stay there since December 2014, saying this was profligacy by a government that claims it has no money.
Ibbo Mandaza, a leading academic and political commentator in Zimbabwe, said: “Clearly there is a coincidence or intersection of national grievances across the board, economic and political. That intersection has proved lethal in the last days. We are in a new phase of politics.”
In Makokoba township, a suburb of Bulawayo, where protests have broken out, there is evidence of increasingly severe hardship. Herds of goats chew the bare dirt under sparse trees. Garbage litters the edges of the road, and the smell of raw sewage hangs in the air.
“Those who have money will import food,” said a local tour guide. But many had no funds at all. If rains failed again, it would be a disaster, he said.
On a brick wall at the edge of Makokoba, graffiti has been scrawled: “Mugabe out.”
Mawarire said: “We have been sleeping, and we have been beaten, jailed and were afraid. But now we are waking up.”
The pastor, who launched his movement with a video that went viral this year, has said he had been moved to protest when he had been unable to withdraw money from banks to pay school fees for his two children.
Political analysts say divisions in the ruling party over Mugabe’s successor has spilled into state security organs and it may become more difficult to rely on the police to quell political unrest when officers themselves are angry at not being paid.
Mandaza said: “We have a state which is fatally divided, a security sector which is fatally divided. I can see the government increasingly coming under siege, incapable of responding. We are clearly going into a crisis.”
Zanu-PF retains some support, particularly in rural areas. In May several thousand Zimbabweans joined a march through Harare in support of Mugabe after the main opposition party staged its own rally.
The marchers, many of whom had been transported to the capital by bus, sang songs praising the president and wore T-shirts displaying his image as they gathered at a central square to hear him address the crowds