Malawi: A country on the edge of collapse | by Reinford Mwangonde

by Oct 17, 2011Africa

Malawi’s president recently declared war on his citizens after they shook the country with protests on 20 July 2011, doubtful of their leader’s ability to alleviate the country’s problems. At the opening of an agricultural fair in the southern commercial city of Blantyre, the president made a speech that clearly showed his refusal to listen to the people’s demands. He gave homage to Bishop Zuza, the chairperson of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (a grouping of all interfaith denominations in Malawi), who stated at a vigil for peace that the country’s current issues are a result of the people’s own making. The bishop also said that Malawians should unite rather than point fingers-at the government to find solutions. The president was very touched by the latter’s ‘candid’ ceremony. Angered civil society organisations  cancelled protest actions planned for 17 August to give dialogue a chance under the facilitation of the United Nations.
Malawi was ruled by the dictator Kamuzu Banda for three decades, until the early nineties, and the recent protests are the first since the country pushed for a multi-party democracy. This year, the riots were unprecedentedly violent: on 20 July, 19 people lost their lives. The protests were led by human rights activists, students, churches and opposition parties and were joined by the general public in the quest for better democratic institutions, good governance and poverty reduction in the country. Citizens were protesting against rising poverty levels, the lack of basic social services (particularly water and electricity), the mismanagement of the economy, the trampling of democratic freedoms and the corruption from senior government officials – especially as the rumoUr ran that the younger brother of the president will be the next in power, after the upcoming 2014 elections. The death of those 19 innocent civilians occurred as the police and military personnel fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters to quell the uprising. Two hundred and seventy-five people were arrested for unknown reasons. The President, Bingu waMutharika, made things significantly worse by threatening to ‘smoke out’ organisers of the protests.

Malawi is undergoing profound political, social and economic volatilities due the alleged lack of good governance by the government of Bingu waMuntharika, who enjoyed economic gains in his first term of office. The President managed to bring food security to the table with his controversial agriculture inputs subsidy programme and received international accolades for contributing to the end of hunger in Malawi. He was also applauded for making food security an absolute priority when Malawi was the chair of the African Union in 2010. Malawians did give waMutharika a parliamentary majority in the 2009 elections. However, he has been abusing his majority power by introducing and passing draconian laws against the wishes of Malawian citizens.

Malawian people refuse to have their legitimate expectations taken for granted as they thrive to consolidate their hard-earned democracy. They demand that the president desist from perniciously influencing established institutions, ones that uphold tenets of good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

It seems like the president is having difficulty believing that Malawians, perceived as passive and apathetic, are questioning his authority. He has exercised poor judgement on issues of public interests. The continued abuse of power by the police when suppressing peaceful protests is an attack to the Malawian constitution and a threat to democracy. Above and beyond, the continued utterances by President waMutharika evidently show his intolerance for civic freedoms, but Malawian people have a legitimate right to protest against oppression and government overindulgences. Is the Arab spring permeating into sub-Saharan Africa? Maybe yes. Malawians are angrier now than ever, and another vigil is planned for 21 September.

Reinford Mwangonde is the director of Citizens for Justice (CFJ)/Friends of the Earth, Malawi, an environmental, economic, social and human rights lobby group based in Malawi.

Malawi is now experiencing a real economic downturn and faces fuel and water shortages, power outages and a lack of foreign exchange. The country’s relations with its traditional donors have also suffered greatly following accusations of bad governance. Up to 40% of Malawi’s national budget has been dependent on donors. Amid this crisis, the President surprisingly dissolved the government on 20 August, with no justification whatsoever. Malawi’s president was running the country’s 22 ministries on his own. Political and economic analysts said that his delay in appointing a new cabinet showed that he had lost complete control of the country. Even now, with a new cabinet in place, recent regional elections in the north of the country show that he is losing in popularity. Civil society organisations in Malawi want to see government action on demands that can be addressed immediately, as a show of commitment to reform, otherwise they will go ahead with a planned protest on 21 September. There is growing impatience that little progress has been made by government to address demands despite the UN-facilitated dialogue, for which civil society cancelled protest actions planned for 17 August. As a result, Civil Society Organisations – an umbrella body of NGOs – said they have decided to withdraw from the talks because of a crackdown against civil society leaders, and said that the 21 September protests would go on. Government officials, including the Malawian President, have continued to make statements in efforts to undermine civil society. It is reported that President Mutharika has declared war on civil society, saying he is prepared to take them on if the 21 September protests go ahead.

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