Evan Mawarire has been arrested in Harare. Picture: TWITTER
Evan Mawarire has been arrested in Harare. Picture: TWITTER

Harare — Leading Zimbabwean activist Evan Mawarire was arrested on Wednesday when he was taken from his house by armed police in a widening crackdown after violent anti-government protests. 

The nationwide protests were triggered by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s announcement at the weekend that fuel would more than double in price as the country’s economic crisis deepens.

Police had been at Mawarire’s property for more than two hours before he was driven away in a pick-up truck.

“Armed police surrounded his residence this morning,” Teldah Mawarire, his sister, told AFP. “I was directly in contact with him until he was taken and he could no longer be online. We are very concerned.”

Mawarire’s lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, told reporters he had been taken to a city centre police station.

“He has been arrested [and] accused of inciting violence through social media,” she told AFP.

Security forces have shot dead at least five people and wounded 25 others during the crackdown since Monday’s protests, according to Human Rights Watch.

The organisation said security forces responded with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas on Monday after protesters burnt a police station, barricaded roads and looted shops in Harare, Kadoma and Bulawayo.

Zimbabwe’s mobile phone networks and internet were shut down for the second day on Wednesday.

President dismisses protests

Mawarire, a pastor, became a prominent voice in 2016 protests when he posted social media videos criticising the government while he wore a Zimbabwean flag around his neck.

The videos inspired the #ThisFlag movement that led mass protests across the country against Robert Mugabe, the long-time president who was ousted in 2017 after a military takeover.

Mawarire, who was holding a Zimbabwean flag as he was taken away on Wednesday, has also been a fierce critic of Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor.

Mnangagwa, 76, left on a trip abroad after unveiling the fuel price hike in a televised address late on Saturday.

“There were some protests happening yesterday but they are almost fizzling out,” the president told Russian media on Tuesday.

Police and soldiers have been accused of indiscriminately dragging people from their houses in Harare and beating them. About 200 people have been arrested.

Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former deputy, has claimed that he represents a fresh start and has vowed to revive the shattered economy by attracting foreign investment.

But since his disputed election victory in July, the country has been hit by renewed shortages of fuel, bread, medicine and other daily essentials.

‘Unsolvable economic mess’ 

“Mnangagwa was not able to engineer any sort of economic recovery so he hasn’t been able to open up political space,” said Derek Matyszak, a Harare-based analyst at the Institute for Security Studies.

“Investment he was hoping for has not materialised. The economic mess is unsolvable in the short term, so the administration is reacting in the way of Zanu-PF knows best - with a very heavy hand.

“The biggest signal of the return of repressive policies of Mugabe is the shutdown of the internet. They obviously have no qualms about how the international community sees them.”

Zimbabwe’s economy has been in ruins since hyperinflation wiped out savings between 2007 and 2009, when the Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned in favour of the US dollar.

Official inflation is at 31%,  though many say the real rate is far higher. Long queues lasting hours or even days form outside petrol stations and banks, where both fuel and cash are rationed.

With US dollar notes scarce, Zimbabweans are forced to withdraw “bond notes” — supposedly equal to US dollars but worth far less in reality.

Mugabe, now 94, was ousted in November 2017 when the military, fearing that his wife Grace was being lined up to succeed him, seized control and forced him to resign.