Malawi protests paused, but who will compromise?

By Simon Allison 17 August 2011

A massive demonstration planned for today against the rule of Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika was halted at the last minute as the UN stepped in to mediate. This is lucky for the president, who’s so unpopular at the moment that he can’t even give a bottle of beer away with causing trouble. But Mutharika’s not very good at compromise, and the demonstration organisers have stressed that mass action is still on the table. It’s not over yet. By SIMON ALLISON.

It looked like Malawi’s embattled president Bingu wa Mutharika just couldn’t catch a break. There’s almost no petrol in his country, or foreign exchange. Britain and the USA have suspended aid to Malawi thanks to his shady governing practices. The Malawi Human Rights Commission, a government body, released a report yesterday accusing his police force of exercising excessive violence to quell the last round of protests in July, using live ammunition to kill 19 people and injure another 58. He’s facing a barrage of criticism, both internally and internationally, for his heavy-handed, autocratic and personality-driven policies, which include the recent anointment of his brother to succeed him as party leader.

His latest attempt to turn things around also failed. In an attempt to win over an important constituency – the street vendors who ply their trade in the markets of Blantyre and Mzuzu – the president hosted a lavish feast at State House, amid rumours that he’s doling out cash (roughly R100 per vendor) to secure their support. The gambit backfired, but not for the reasons you might expect. Explained one Blantyre vendor to Nyasa Times: “It is a rare case to drink at State House. I drank a variety of beers and as I was coming from there, I could not balance my body. My friends had to help me. I failed to wake up on the next day because I was too drunk. While I appreciate the gesture of the president, the beers choked our businesses on the following day but anyway what else can we do?”

But he was facing an even bigger problem today than street salesmen battling government-sponsored hangovers. Wednesday, 17 August had been designated for weeks as the day that the opposition to Mutharika’s rule would take to the streets in a peaceful demonstration. The turnout was expected to be good, and Mutharika’s response brutal, just like it was at the last protest on 20 July. Mutharika had already warned protestors that he would meet them on the street. Was this a threat? “Yes, it is a threat,” he said.

But in a sign that things are turning round for Mutharika, and perhaps for Malawi, the organisers of the protests postponed them at the last minute yesterday after the United Nations stepped in to mediate discussions between the government and the civil society coalition which has come to represent the popular opposition. Organisers said that in light of the mediation and possible reaction of their president, who now has a proven track record of brutal suppression of dissent, they wouldn’t be going ahead with the march. They also wanted to allow time for the High Court to rule on whether the protests would be legal, after two Blantyre-based businessmen took out injunctions to stop the march.

Not all opposition figures are happy with the postponement, especially in the light of rumours that some key civil society figures were bought by the government for the princely sum of R40,000. At least one group, the Youth for Development and Democracy, is planning to go ahead with the march today, and it’s unclear how many others will join them. “It’s just after seeing what happened in England, Malawians are riled up,” said one Malawian journalist, speaking to iMaverick on condition of anonymity.
The mediation discussions will likely centre around the issues raised in a 20-point petition which demonstrators presented to the president on July 20. Among their demands, which were largely fairly sensible, was that the president declare his assets, that restrictions on protests be lifted, that the government stop buying luxury cars and sell the presidential jet, that the fuel and forex shortages be dealt with and that academic and press freedom be respected.

Mutharika has said that until now, he hasn’t had enough time to address the demands. “Do they seriously think all those issues would have been resolved within three weeks?” he asked in an address to the nation. “Would they, if they were sitting in my position, have brought in foreign exchange, fuel, electricity supply within three weeks?”

Probably not, is the answer to that, but they might have tried. Mutharika’s bluster and defensiveness over the last few weeks hasn’t won him any friends, and has done nothing to convince people that he’s taking the concerns seriously. For the mediation to be even remotely successful, he’s going to have to start doing so. March organisers were at pains to stress that the protests had been postponed rather than cancelled – the option remains on the table.

But there are a couple of things Mutharika could do immediately if he wanted to get things off to a good start. First and foremost would be to apologise to Britain for summarily dismissing their ambassador, and perhaps get British aid flowing back into Malawi. It might also be a good idea to find a candidate to succeed him as party chairman, who is not his brother, and restore the trappings of office to his estranged Vice-President, Joyce Banda, who he dumped to make way for Peter Mutharika.

But chances of that happening are slim, and given the president’s unfamiliarity with compromise, it’s more likely that the mediation attempts will merely delay the mass demonstrations, rather than make them redundant. DM

Read more:

  • Malawi protests cancelled on Eyewitness News;
  • Malawi report says 19 killed, 58 injured in protests on Reuters Africa;
  • Malawi’s president works to thwart anti-government protests on Voice of America;
  • President Mutharika, the man who’s overstayed Malawi’s hospitality on the Daily Maverick.




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