I saw Mugabe wreck a democracy

Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe

Evan Mawarire, an evangelical pastor and the director of education at the Renew Democracy Initiative, is the inaugural Agora Institute-RDI dissident in residence at Johns Hopkins University.

By Evan Mawarire

In 2008, the sitting president of my country, Zimbabwe, lost his bid for reelection but simply refused to leave office. Robert Mugabe, the dictator who went on to rule Zimbabwe for a total of 37 years, mobilized his party thugs to brutalize those who voted against him and proceeded to claim the presidency.

My countrymen and I watched helplessly as African leaders rewarded Mugabe by brokering a supposed shared-power deal that gave him the immense powers of the presidency and awarded a token, ceremonial prime minister role to Morgan Tsvangirai, who had actually won the election. (Tsvangirai died in 2018, Mugabe the following year.)

As members of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6., 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol hold televised hearings, it might be easy for many people to ignore the proceedings, chalking them up to Washington infighting. That’s understandable — millions of Americans are dealing with more immediate, pressing concerns, such as spiking inflation and chronic gun violence.

But the hearings represent much more than just the political jockeying that Americans have come to expect from Washington. These proceedings, in particular their focus on the role played by then-President Donald Trump on that terrible day, represent the very thing that Zimbabweans never had with Mugabe: accountability. These hearings seek to hold those people accountable who would have taken America down a path that I know all too well.

In Zimbabwe and in many other unfree countries, leaders are often able to avoid the accountability and transparency that Americans have come to take for granted. As has been widely noted, the Jan. 6 committee hearings are occurring as the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in arrives on June 17 — another event that ultimately showed U.S. democracy functioning exactly as it should.

For all of its flaws, scandals and mistakes, democracy in the United States has been remarkably resilient. Dissidents like me have often looked to it for inspiration.

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 Jan. 6 hearings underline the difference between the United States and countries where sham elections make a mockery of democratic values.

What might not be obvious to everyday citizens is that the hearings are a testament to the rule of law. The stakes are high: Not only will the country as a whole see whether the wrongdoers of Jan. 6 are held accountable, but the world will also bear witness. Authoritarian governments that defy accountability for their anti-democratic actions — and long to see U.S. leaders do the same — are no doubt taking notice of how the hearings unfold.

Six years ago, when I launched the #ThisFlag citizens’ movement in Zimbabwe seeking to end Mugabe’s corrupt rule, our goal was to hold the country’s leaders accountable. Instead, I was jailed and tortured for my efforts. I moved to the United States in 2020 after escaping Zimbabwe, which remains a repressive state in the post-Mugabe era, and I am pleased to live in a country where the citizens enjoy collective rights to demand answers and justice from those in power.

The Jan. 6 hearings should command the attention of everyone who cares about living in a free and fair society. I hope — and, as a pastor, I pray — that they will reveal the integrity of my adopted home’s democracy in the face of a naked challenge to its very existence.

A public that neglects this process would risk telling the world that Americans can’t be bothered to care all that much about their own republic, and that accountability is elusive even in the United States.

That would send a dangerous signal. For if even the nation that is the leader of the free world can’t bring anti-democratic forces to justice, who will? In my home country, the judiciary and parliament did nothing as Mugabe destroyed our institutions and what was left of our democracy. I’ve seen this happen once; I couldn’t bear to watch it happen again.