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Terror strikes at Malawi's democratic protesters

In August, Stuart Weir wrote of the Malawi government crackdown on the July protesters. Here, one of the participants in the protest movement reports on what has happened since in this terror campaign of murder, arson, beatings and oppression. He vividly describes the difficulties of holding the protest movement together, and the weak response of the UNDP and influential donor community to the crisis.

The Constitution of Malawi

This Constitution is founded upon the following underlying principles:-

i. All legal and political authority of the State derives from the people of Malawi and shall be exercised in accordance with this Constitution solely to serve and protect their interests.

ii. All persons responsible for the exercise of powers of State do so on trust and shall only  exercise such power to the extent of their lawful authority and in accordance with their responsibilities to the people of Malawi.

iii. The authority to exercise power of State is conditional upon the sustained trust of the people of Malawi and that trust can only be maintained through open, accountable and transparent Government and informed democratic choice.

Despite the above principles upon which our Constitution is premised, Malawi suffers from an inequitable neo-patrimonialist paradigm, built upon a pervasive system of political patronage, compounded by systemic poverty, illiteracy and ignorance, which politicians are adept at mobilizing and exploiting.

The Government of President Bingu wa Mutharika enjoyed a remarkable landslide victory in the 2009 General Elections following a turbulent first term characterised by his defection from the United Democratic Front (UDF), which had hoisted him into the Presidential driving seat and, with this divorce, creating a unique scenario wherein the incumbent President had no party in Parliament to support his policies and pass legislation necessary for his programs.

The first term could thus be described as a political comedy which could have easily turned turned tragic but, despite being held in check by a rampant opposition, he achieved remarkable economic growth, made noticeable democratic advances and managed to address the perennial problem of persistent hunger with the help of some competent ministers. In February 2005, Mutharika also created his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is now the governing party in Malawi. 

However, the political gloves were removed in his second term to expose the entrenched structural instabilities of Malawi's political order and the deep insecurities of incumbency. His second term has been a veritable litany of woes, ranging from muzzling the media, passing oppressive laws that violate the very spirit of the Constitution, shrinkage of political space for alternate views, inappropriate economic policies leading to acute foreign currency and fuel shortages, exacerbating economic woes through wanton profligacy and reckless expenditure, cutting off vital support by arbitrarily deporting the British High Commissioner - thereby alienating the international community -  and, in so doing, jeopardising revenue inflow amounting to over 40% of the national budget, and imposing punitive taxes on essential goods and pro-poor services whilst refusing to curb governmental expenditure.

The petition

Faith-based groups, academics and civil society organisations (CSOs) all earnestly attempted to petition the government on these issues – urging the authorities to halt the descent towards authoritarian one party rule. But the government simply disregarded all such concerns, blithely continued upon its destructive path, and responded to growing discontent by threatening critics and harassing civil society activists. Civil society subsequently began to mobilise into a semblance of coherence that would be required to exert the necessary countervailing influence and change the current course towards catastrophe.

The Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) provided the umbrella under which various disparate groupings such as the faith communities, the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU), the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) amongst others, gathered with a common cause – i.e., to convince the President and the government to become more accountable and responsive to the electorate.

A petition highlighting key concerns and recommendations pertaining to economic and political governance was collectively drafted and, after having being endorsed by all the stakeholders, plans were laid to hold nationwide demonstrations during which the said petition would be delivered to various offices throughout the country for the direct attention of the President.

The demonstration

With the economic situation worsening by the day, thousands of people took to the streets on Wednesday, 20 July 2011 in a series of marches that had been planned and advertised well in advance. Ironically, the same government that outlawed ex parte injunctions against any governmental action, applied through a proxy and obtained an ex parte injunction from a newly promoted judge (Chifundo Kachale) to stop the demonstrations from taking place. This blatant manipulation of the justice system fuelled widespread anger when it was announced to those gathered to march the next day, especially when the police used it to delay, harass, scatter and even beat demonstrators. As a result, mob violence inevitably broke out and buildings and property known to belong to the Presidential inner circle were looted and targeted for destruction. The police, in a typical show of unfettered brutality, used live ammunition against unarmed civilians to control the situation – and slaughtered 20 people with hundreds being seriously injured and arrested. But the point had been made, the corridors of power had been shaken,  the power elites paused to lay out their plans to deal with this new perceived threat to their sense of complacency. 

The ill-fated vigil of 17 August, 2011

Days after the demonstration, the government remained unapologetic with the President using public speeches to issue obdurate threats such as, "I'll smoke you out” against the organisers of the march. Arrest warrants for treason were issued for civil society leaders: Undule Mwakasungula, McDonald Sembereka, Rafiq Hajat and Benedict Kondowe, who promptly went to ground, but remain resolute in the face of Presidential threats to "smoke out"  detractors. [Under executive powers, those accused of treason may be arrested and held without trial- editors.]

The government was given until 17 August 2011 to respond to the 17page petition that had been delivered in all the major cities after the march, but a positive response was noticeably absent, thereby making follow-up protests inevitable. The situation became even more confused by the army (Malawi Defence Force - MDF) threatening to march because their commander was summarily (retired) removed from his position and replaced with someone from the same tribe as Mutharika, who could thus be relied upon to exert greater control of the MDF. To make matters worse, the civil service were becoming more discomfited by the day, due to unpaid salary arrears whilst Mutharika graciously rewarded the police force with bonuses of MK60,000 each (blood money) for their performance (shooting unarmed civilians) on 20-21 July 2011.

Meanwhile, the First Lady, who may have been irritated by the petition mentioning her "salary" of MK1.2 million per month (backdated by 6 months) ostensibly for her charity work, went on public record by telling NGOs "to go to hell" at an opening ceremony for a health centre that was, ironically, built by an NGO! In the same speech, she is reported to have told the villagers that they had no need for fuel because they did not own vehicles and no need for foreign exchange because they did not engage in cross-border trade! According to her, the disturbances were largely being driven by NGOs and urban-based elites who were disgruntled by the success of the Mutharika regime. This cavalier arrogance drew widespread criticism from all quarters of society but Madame Callista remained trenchantly unapologetic!

The capitulation

The clock was ticking. The count down to the vigil scheduled for August 17 was uppermost in the public mind. But the government continued stonewalling on the issues raised in the petition, preferring instead to issue veiled threats about dire consequences if the vigil went ahead. Rumours were rife about the "DPP Cadets", reinforced by a force of approximately 300 armed  "mercenaries" who had ostensibly been imported from Zimbabwe, being unleashed on demonstrators who would be left totally defenceless without even a vestige of police protection.

On 16 August, the writer was visited by two young men, driving a hired car, who claimed to have penetrated a group formed by DPP functionaries to sow terror amongst dissidents by using various tactics, including burning offices and homes! They went on to say that a house had been specially rented for the terror team in Zingwangwa (a local suburb in Blantyre), from which all such operations would be coordinated. They then produced a list of names that were targeted for "special attention". This memory later returned to haunt the CSO Leaders when one of the men, Robert Chasowa, identified as the president of an activist group, Youth for Democracy & Freedom (YDF), was found brutally murdered on the Polytechnic campus on Saturday, 24 September 2011.

On August 15, the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) held an interdenominational prayer meeting at the COMESA Hall in Blantyre where Bishop Zuza delivered a searing homily with great courage and conviction. He cautioned against rampant egotism and arrogance, apportioning blame and the disastrous consequences of creating strife in a peaceful society. The function was attended by President Mutharika who sat through the sermon with a stony face, but the cadre of DPP spokespersons were soon busy denigrating the sermon and demanding that the bishop apologise for thinly veiled insults allegedly levelled against the head of state.

“My dear brothers and sisters, the person who thinks and believes that he or she is perfect is actually the most stupid and foolish person. In Chichewa and Tumbuka we call such people as 'chitsiru chamunthu' (a veritable idiot) or 'chindere chakufikapo'.  Do we want to be called 'chitsiru' or 'chindere' because we think and believe we’re perfect and therefore we have all the best solutions for the storm that is passing through our country? Fellow Malawians, let us not become stupid people.”

On the same day, a group of activists and representatives from political parties went to the High Court in Blantyre to vacate an injunction that had been applied for by two "businessmen" (vendors) on the grounds that demonstrations disturbed their business and thus harmed their livelihoods. The fact that President Mutharika had spent the previous few days on a whistle stop tour of vendor markets, urging vendors to oppose and resist any demonstrations, was seen as probable cause and also the probable source of the funds and confidence with which two young vendors had lodged such an audacious application through a judicial system that is normally viewed with suspicion and antipathy by the informal sector.

At the same time, the Southern Region Organising Committee was meeting at the office of the Institute for Policy Interaction, the de facto meeting place for the region since the commencement of the campaign, to finalise strategy and logistics for the vigil scheduled for August 17. During that meeting, one of the attendees, Billy Banda, received a telephone call from the chair of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, Undule Mwakasungula, who informed him that the the vigil had been called off due to the lack of security and police pressure. The main coordinating committee had instead opted to request a United Nations team that was currently on a fact-finding mission in Malawi, to facilitate dialogue between civil society and the government on issues raised in the petition.

Needless to say, this caused tremendous discomfiture amongst the Southern Region Committee members, who saw it as a betrayal of the public confidence that had been vested in civil society and as such, undermining the very raison d'etre of CSOs. The meeting broke up in an atmosphere of gloom and despair and scheduled an emergency meeting at IPI for the morning of the next day.

During the emergency meeting, a prominent lawyer, Ralph Kasambara, provided a legal overview and opinion on the quandary facing the committee; i.e., whether to proceed with the vigil or not?  The meeting agreed that it would not be appropriate or, indeed, even feasible, "to go it alone" and members instead decided to hold a press conference to announce the postponement of the vigil (instead of cancellation – as had been suggested by the main committee) as well as the reasoning underpinning the decision and the setting of a specific future date (September 17) for the continuation of the event. It was hoped the subsequent press release would help to allay public perceptions of a "sell out"' by civil society leaders -  though the ensuing backlash soon disproved that theory.

UN debriefing & CONGOMA/HRCC explanatory meeting

The Council for NGOs in Malawi (CONGOMA), together with HRCC, called for a meeting of civil society leaders at Lilongwe Hotel on Saturday, August 20, which appeared to be an ideal forum to provide explanations and answers. The Southern Region Organising Committee were quite optimistic that all outstanding concerns would be allayed by their colleagues on the main committee and travelled eagerly 310 kilometres up to Lilongwe on the Friday. They arrived in Lilongwe at 19.00 hours that evening and rushed to attend a debriefing meeting that had been pre-arranged beforehand by the main committee with the UNDP Resident Representative, Richard Dictus, in order to ascertain what exactly was the role of the UN in the deferral of the vigil and how it came to be?

They learned from Mr Dictus that the UN had become involved partly due to the coincidence that the fact finding mission happened to be in town at the time that the main committee had approached the UN for help in resolving an impending disaster that could occur as a result of the envisaged vigil. Mr Dictus was very quick to mention that the role of the UN was purely to facilitate a neutral space in which dialogue talks could take place in a peaceful and constructive manner. The UN was not thus playing a mediatory role as had been commonly perceived by the media and public - which was why the laborious UN procedures that normally preceded mediatory interventions had not been required in this case. These explanations partly satisfied the Southern Region Committee members. 

At the debriefing meeting the next morning, the CSO representatives were soon taken aback by the agenda, which allocated two precious hours to topics such as the background history and role of CONGOMA and of civil society in effecting change on the political terrain. The relevance of the agenda was soon queried in view of the fact that this was supposed to be a half day meeting and there were many weighty issues to be discussed. But the queries failed to make any impact on the organisers who proceeded throughout the entire meeting to meet every query, question and objection with adamant resistance. This resistance extended to the method and criteria used in (s)electing the CSO Dialogue Committee, who would be mandated to negotiate with Presidential Committee on Dialogue (PCD). A pre-determined list of names was projected onto the wall and passed with little alteration – largely due to Malawian culture and habitual public politeness. In view of the predominant focus on issues pertaining to economic/political (mis)governance in the Petition, It was quite obvious the chosen members of the dalogue committee did not possess the necessary depth of knowledge and expertise on the predominantly economic and political misgovernance issues raised  by the petition and that the government PCD team would run rings around them - but that observation was submerged in the wave of collective mindlessness. It was a shocking display of the opacity and manipulation  typical of party political meetings, but not in a Civil Society gathering.

The climax came when coordinators for various activities were being (s)elected and IPI was chosen to be the National Coordinator for the vigil  envisaged for 21 September. This was the most dangerous task on the list and IPI admitted that much as it had been the base for the July 20 demonstration and the ill-fated August 17 vigil in the Southern Region, it did not have the capacity to handle coordination on a national scale in the absence of solid support from CSO members. The IPI Executive Director further went on to appeal that it was imperative to identify organisations who had the structural and financial capacity to handle such coordination as most CSOs were not up to that standard. This comment met with disapproval and the meeting broke up in an acrimonious manner. IPI, which was accused of "being too close to opposition political parties and having a different agenda" firmly resolved to wash its hands of any further involvement in organising such activities with HRCC & CONGOMA and made it clear that any participation would henceforth be on a strictly personal basis.

The new Forum for Defence of Democracy

This resolution did not however preclude IPI from continuing on its quest for a responsive government and a small group of like minded people met at IPI on 25 August to form the Forum for Defence of Democracy (FDD) as a pressure group to provide a bridge between CSOs, trade unions, political parties, academia, faith communities and any citizens with outstanding democratic convictions who were committed to the same ideals and vision as the forum. 

The FDD formative group won a very encouraging response from its consultations with key stakeholders, thereby raising hopes that the Forum would burst on the scene by mid October with a national coordination network in place. A meeting was held at IPI on August 30 to update all members on events that had occurred thus far.  It was proposed that there would be two national cordinators – one from civil society, the other from the political parties. The meeting decided upon Rafiq Hajat (CSO) and Kamlepo Kalua (politician) as Joint National Coordinators. Rafiq Hajat was then mandated to introduce the FDD aims and objectives at an HRCC/CONGOMA meeting scheduled  to be held in Lilongwe in September 2011, but not to commit the Forum to any organisational activities leading up to the national CSO vigil  envisaged for September 20. 

The terror campaign - arson attacks

This fateful FDD meeting might well have led to the calamity that followed. The IPI offices were torched by arsonists on the night of September 2.  The fire, fed by all the archives, books, furniture and carpets, swept through the building and gutted it completely – destroying years of records, information resources and priceless research materials. It was wanton destruction and brought back echoes of the presidential threats to "smoke you out" – for one cannot have smoke without fire.

This incident raised an outcry from Malawian society and the CSO community issued a warning that such behaviour could seriously affect the ongoing dialogue with government. But the international community, including the UN Resident Representative, Richard Dictus, remained strangely silent in the face of this blatant display of terror which would normally be be regarded as an incontestable violation of human rights– even when the Presidential Spokesperson, Heatherwick Ntaba, in alleged outrageously that the fire was self-inflicted – ostensibly to destroy evidence of misappropriation of donor funds provided to IPI for pro-gay demonstrations. This message was then consistently  brayed through all public media until a seed of doubt has been sown in the minds of the public – especially since the IPI management properly remained silent on the issue for the police to complete their investigations and for the case to be heard in court. IPI has now sued Dr. Ntaba for defamation and slander in en effort to exonerate itself from such malicious misinformation.

But the silence from Malawi's international donor community [an influential group in Malawian politics- editors] has had an effect, for it appears to have convinced the DPP thugs that their terrorist behaviour is being condoned and they have continued in a rampage of arson and murder. The homes of the Reverend Macdonald Sembereka, the National Coordinator of HRCC, and of Salim Bagus, a prominent opposition politician in Lilongwe and the Blantyre flea market, were petrol bombed on September 10 and on September 18.  Worse was yet to follow.

The terror campaign – beatings

Dennis Bisika, the lead organiser of the September 20 vigil for Zomba was attacked late in the afternoon at Ndindeya Motel as he was having a late lunch.  A team of  six party cadets from the ruling DPP, driving in a Toyota Hilux double cab, registration number ZA 9622 (silver in colour),  swarmed into the place where they closed both the main gate and the door to the restaurant. They reportedly charged Bisika with being among those critics giving sleepless nights to Bingu and said that they had been sent to teach him a lesson  As they began to assault Dennis, he managed to escape through another door. At this time, the assailants also moved outside to smash his vehicle, but when they saw a big crowd approaching (reportedly after the bar attendant had mobilised them), the assailants quickly drove away.

Dennis has sustained scratches in the legs and arms and strained his left knee as he fell during his escape. Fortunately, four people have been identified as follows: Mr Bamusi - DPP Director for Youth - Eastern Region; and DPP youth members Phinious; Daniel Nanthambwe; and Lawrence Kandiziwa (also reportedly assistant to Hon Yunus Mussa, who is also reported to be the owner of the car they were driving).

The assault was duly reported to the police who gave Bisika a letter for him to access treatment at the hospital. However, the role of the police in the affair seems suspect to the extent that people are speculating that they might have been aware beforehand about this attack. Firstly, it is reported that the Zomba police spokesperson, Tomeck Nyaudi, came to the scene towards the end of the attack. Barely a few minutes later, a team of 15 police officers walking on foot also arrived. Finally, before the matter was even reported, one CID officer had already started interrogating Ndindeya personnel about the incident. Indeed, it is rather unusual that the 15 police officers were not a Rapid Response Unit, which ordinarily would have used a vehicle for transportation and further, in view of capacity and resource limitations, it is highly unusual to see 15 police officers rushing to a crime scene together.  

The terror campaign - murder

The terrible month went from bad to worse. On Saturday, September 24, a Polytechnic student was found dead at the campus with his head almost split in two according to eye witnesses. The death of the student, Robert Chasowa, who was in fourth year engineering, was deemed suspicious by the students at the campus, as he had been very critical of President Bingu Wa Mutharika and was also apparently being hunted by the CID. 

It is reported that the police had come to the campus looking for him for his role in an anti-Mutharika grouping, Youth for Democracy & Freedom, which releases the weekly Political Update. The publication minces no words in condemning Mutharika’s dictatorship. In one of its publications, the YFD published details of DPP's sinister doings, including the names of the arsonists (led by DPP Governor Masangwi and DPP Cadet Leader Ngalande) who had allegedly petrol bombed IPI's offices.

The death of the student came just days after police raided the home of 21 year old Black Moses, President of the YDF, whisking him away to an unknown location where he was apparently being questioned over a one-page article that used critical language against Mutharika’s authoritarian rule. Black Moses is now apparently incarcerated at Chichiri prison and efforts are being made to find out what charges he faces.

According to eye-witnesses, Robert Chasowa looked as if he had been thrown approximately eight to 15 metres off a tall building but one eye witness, who refused to be  named, stated, "it's a murder, he never jumped, because no part of his body bones has been broken. He is a political victim….because he has been a staunch critic of Mutharika via the Youth for Freedom and Democracy in which he was the Vice President".

Students at the campus were not fully aware of the incident at the time of writing this article, but there are strong indications of a major misunderstanding between the police and students, as anger brewed among students waking up to the news. Students at the college and the police have crossed paths in recent months, and the news of the student being found mysteriously dead certainly exacerbated the tension even further. There was no immediate comment from the police but it is understood that investigations are underway trying to establish the cause of the death.

It is now Sunday, September 25, 2011. This is a month that we will remember with horror whilst we await the next atrocity with bated breath – because we now know that the campaign of terror will not cease until all opposition and dissent, whether real or perceived, has been extinguished amidst a miasmic fog of fear reminiscent of 1964. The only hope left now, is that the awakened spirit of the Malawian populace, which has learnt to speak out and express their discontent against the implacable wielders of power, will not be stifled but instead swell into an irresistible crescendo that is impossible for any government to ignore and in so doing, bring about the change that we all dream about – A Better Malawi For All Malawians!

About the author

Author withheld.


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