Africa, Politics

African democratic renaissance spreads to Malawi

By Simon Allison 21 July 2011

In April, the British ambassador to Malawi described the country’s President Mutharika as autocratic, saying governance in the country was deteriorating as rights violations increased. The ambassador was promptly kicked out of the country. On Wednesday, thousands of Malawians took to the streets to level the same criticisms. Unfortunately for the president, he can’t kick them out too. By SIMON ALLISON.

In scenes that are becoming increasingly familiar in Africa as well as in the Middle East, ordinary Malawian citizens protested on Wednesday against the rule of President Bingu wa Mutharika. Significant demonstrations occurred in the major cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, defying a court injunction declaring the protests illegal as well as a presidential warning “not to be inspired by events in Egypt”. Demonstrators reportedly burnt cars and even houses of government officials, while police used tear gas to disperse them in what a spokesperson for Malawi’s Human Rights Commissioner described as “running battles”.

Although no official figures have been released, a journalist in Malawi told Daily Maverick that thousands of people took part in the marches in the capital, Lilongwe. The journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for her own safety, added there were unconfirmed reports that four people had been shot dead in Mzuzu and one in Lilongwe, that 50 protesters in Lilongwe had been detained by the authorities, and that at least one journalist had been admitted to hospital after being beaten up by suspected government forces in Lilongwe. Despite the harsh response, she argued that the protests were a success. “The impact of this demonstration on Bingu’s government is that now the people of Malawi have realised the power of the masses. For several hours they took charge of the streets in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, chanting, looting, and in some areas causing havoc and the authorities were helpless.”

Photo: A burnt pick up truck belonging to DPP (Capital Radio Malawi)

Private radio and television stations were banned from covering the protests. Earlier in the day, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) reported that masked assailants had destroyed live broadcast vehicles belonging to the Zodiak Broadcasting Station. A spokesperson for the CPJ condemned “these blatant attempts to intimidate Zodiak Broadcasting Station”. http://cpj.org/2011/07/assailants-destroy-malawi-broadcast-trucks-before.php/

The protests were a response to Mutharika’s increasingly autocratic governing style, which has seen restrictions placed on press freedom, intolerance of criticism, a major diplomatic incident with Britain and the expulsion from the ruling party of the country’s vice-president Joyce Banda. Mutharika’s explanations for his actions have also grown increasingly bizarre. When asked why he expelled Banda from the party – a move widely believed to pave the way for the succession of Mutharika’s brother to party  and country leadership once Mutharika’s term runs out – the president replied: “Before you start faulting me for being intolerant because I have sacked Joyce Banda from DPP [the ruling party], fault God for sacking Lucifer from heaven.”

Photo: Anti-government protesters with home-made signs bearing a clear message to President Mutharika in Blantyre. (Capital Radio Malawi)

Economic issues are also playing their part in the general discontent. The country, already one of the world’s poorest, is experiencing a severe fuel shortage, with corresponding rises in the cost of goods and transport. There is also a severe foreign exchange shortage which is impeding economic growth. These issues have been exacerbated by the recent deterioration in relations between Malawi and Britain, causing Britain to suspend aid packages worth around US$30 million to Malawi. This was a punitive measure after Malawi expelled British ambassador Fergus Cochrane-Dyet for labelling Mutharika as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism” in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

But Mutharika can’t expel the thousands of citizens who have come out against him and his government. And neither can he leave office. Global Voices Malawi blogger Steve Sharra, who was in Mzuzu on Tuesday, told the Daily Maverick that Mutharika can’t resign because that would hand power over to his political enemy, the estranged vice-president Banda. But Sharra added that most protesters were not seeking to topple the president. “They just want him to get off the rollercoaster he’s  been on since the beginning of the year. Every time he opens his mouth, something will be in the headlines the next day. They’ve had enough,” he said.

What the protesters really want is for the president to give guarantees of good governance and the protection of human rights, as well as to embark on more sensible economic policies which will increase the standard of living and bring petrol back to the pumps. They also want Mutharika to apologise to Britain and get the aid money reinstated, seeing that as a big factor in the country’s economic woes. Unless the president accedes to these demands, he might have to tolerate a lot more unrestrained criticism than he’s used to over the next weeks and months. DM


Main photo: Demonstrators in Victoria Avenue, Blantyre. (Capital Radio Malawi)

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