Malawi President Bingu Wa Mutharika is an African leader who is facing growing criticism for dictatorship, suppressing democratic freedoms and causing
economic decline. Malawi
Mutharika’s sinking popularity has been caused by a series of appalling political occurrences and the apparent economic collapse which is reminiscent of the Zimbabwean situation.
The following is an outline of the killing of 19 unarmed protesters and the detention of prominent human rights lawyers, human rights activists and opposition political leaders.
It all started on 20 July when Malawians under a coalition of 80 Civil Societies and NGOs, religious and students groups (collectively known as “Concerned Citizens”) went to the street protesting against perceived poor economic management and poor governance by Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party.
The protestors’ grievances were highlighted in a 15- page petition which included a list of 20 demands like ending the acute and growing fuel shortage problem which has progressively become worse over the past two years, the forex shortage and bad governance.
However, the day before the protest, the government set out to intimidate protestors. Two vehicles belonging to the independent private radio station Zodiak Radio were set alight by masked men and in the commercial capital Blantyre, five official DPP vehicles carrying DPP youth Cadets were seen driving around the city waving machetes.
Malawi police killed 19 unarmed citizens, shot 58 others during the protests and arrested 275 people; a development which was condemned by both local and international human rights bodies.
Speaking in a telephone interview former president Bakili Muluzi described the killing of 19 unarmed citizens as inhuman. Muluzi accused his successor of turning Malawi back into a one party state.
“This is not what we expected when we voted for democracy in 1994, Malawians have a right to assemble freely without being intimidated.” Said Muluzi
On the 21st of July, the riots continued because of the manner in which government had responded on the previous day. Government clamped down on journalists, radio stations and citizens who participated. When police failed to handle the situation the army was sent in as reinforcement. At least two people were killed after Mutharika vowed to “use any measures I can think of” to quell the unrest.
On 22 July, the director of the Church and Society rights organisation, Moses Mkandawire, who was also one of the protest organisers in the northern region, said government using police blocked funeral processions for people who were murdered during the riots. “Armed police stopped our arrangements to bury the heroes”. Protest leaders started receiving death threats which forced them to go into hiding for fear of arrest or worse.
Some protest leaders sought refuge in diplomats’ residences.
Rafiq Hajat, the director of the Institute for Policy Interaction and one of the protests’ lead figures warned Mutharika that if he did not address protesters' demands by 16 August, demonstrations would resume on 17 August with the goal of ending his regime. The Public Affairs Committee, a group composed of both Christian and Muslim activists, also warned that "should government continue to harass people for no proper reasons, another demonstration will be inevitable. Bullets and tear gas have never triumphed over the will of the people."
The Concerned Citizens of Malawi planned to stage another protest on 17 August in the form of a national vigil for the victims of the 20 July protest. The vigil was, however, cancelled a day before the protests due to the intervention of the United Nations who engaged civil society groups and the government in dialogue. The dialogue later broke down because of what the civil society groups said was continued intimidation being faced outside the meeting.
In September a string of arson cases were also reported, whereby unidentified assailants threw petrol bombs at the homes and offices of several government critics, including the activists ,Reverend MacDonald Sembereka and Rafiq Hajat and an opposition politician, Salim Bagus.
President Bingu wa Mutharika was accused of being behind the arsons, particularity since he threatened protest leaders by saying he would "smoke you out." He later denied being behind the arsons. No one was arrested or found guilty of partaking in the arson cases.
The two markets in Blantyre and Lilongwe were also burned down on 20 September a day before the protests on 21 September.
On 21 September a national stay-at-home was organised with the aim of shutting down the economy via a general strike, civil servants also participated.
On what the organisers called "Red Wednesday." Businesses and banks across the country were closed; at the same time there was also a heavy police presence and protestors clad in red. People were also urged by the organisers to hold vigils at home to commemorate the deaths of Malawians killed during the protests in July.
The protest was held on Wednesday to mark the day 19 people were killed during the July protests; it also marked the beginning of a planned for three day stay-at-home strike.
On 27 September, Bingu wa Mutharika called for an end to the strike on the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation warning that "You can’t bully me into submission. The government can’t be taken to ransom by a few disgruntled individuals hiding in the name of civil society. If you stop people from going to work, I will deal with you." He added that the strikes were illegal, while telling people to return to work the next day.
Following the violence, Mutharika called on the people of Malawi to "stop the rioting and let's sit down to discuss. I have a responsibility, based on the powers vested in me by the constitution to bring law and order."
Mutharika who accused the protesters of being "led by Satan," then blamed his former deputy Joyce Banda and opposition leader John Tembo, as well as other civil society leaders of being responsible for the violent protests. "The blood of these people who have died is on you. Let their spirits haunt you at night. This time I'll go after you! Even if you hide in holes I'll smoke you out!”
He also said that those organising the protests should face the "consequences." His rhetoric saying to protesters saying that he would "smoke you out" was in reference to former United States President George W. Bush, who used the same words for Osama bin Laden.
First Lady Callista Mutharika publicly castigated the NGO's that organised the protests for allegedly being paid by Western donors to "disturb the peace" and promote homosexuality, stating that they would "go to hell." She further said that villagers should not have an interest in the protest over fuel and foreign exchange since they do not drive cars and because they don't engage in cross border trade. She urged village chiefs and the rural population at-large not to protest. Her response was received with much criticism from civil society.
On 19 August, Mutharika made a surprise move by sacking his entire cabinet without announcing a reason for the move. Analysts speculated that it was related to the protests and the freeze in aid from the United Kingdom triggered by the government's response, however other DPP members of parliament also speculated that some cabinet ministers were planning to impeach Mutharika.
He reappointed a new trimmed down cabinet on 7 September. However, it still included controversial posts such as his wife Callista Mutharika as a cabinet member, his brother Peter Mutharika as Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture Ken Lipenga as Minister of Finance, while excluding former Vice President Joyce Banda, wa Mutharika has repeatedly referred to the cabinet as a "war cabinet" charged with defending the "integrity of nation."
Mutharika hastened the retirment of the head of the army, General Marko Chiziko and appointed a new army chief after the protests. The former army chief was replaced by General Henry Odilo.
Mutharika was accused of hiring mercenaries from Zimbabwe to patrol the streets and suppress protestors in preparation for the second protest which was to take place in the form of a national vigil. They were hired after consultations by wa Mutharika with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe after it became clear that the Malawian army would not shoot at Malawians during the planned protests due to discontent in the army. The Zimbabwean personnel were stationed in Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Blantyre, and Zomba.
In spite of the nationwide protest against the Mutharika regime, in early August 2011 the DPP National Governing Council (NGC) endorsed Peter Mutharika, the president’s brother, as a presidential candidate for the 2014 presidential election. This early announcement came a few days after the protests.
The appointment decision was made by President Bingu wa Mutharika and endorsed by the council without a party convention. DPP Secretary General Wakuda Kamanga stated that they are optimistic that the country will elect another Mutharika in spite of the protests because the "anger would phase out." The party also sacked other leaders that had been against the promotion of the Peter Mutharika as a candidate, including first vice-president Joyce Banda and second vice-president Khumbo Kachale.
In October 2011, police arrested five civil society activists – Habiba Osman, Billy Mayaya, Brian Nyasulu, Ben Chiza Mkandawire and Comfort Chiseko on charges of “holding an illegal demonstration” They were taking part in a small, peaceful demonstration outside parliament, calling on president Mutharika to a referendum, to resign and to hold an early election, they were later out on bail after five days.
Police and ruling party supporters have also been implicated in the intimidation, arbitrary arrest and beating of journalists attempting to report on political events. On October 11, police summoned and questioned two journalists from the Malawi News, Innocent Chitosi, a deputy editor, Archibald Kasakula, a reporter and George Kasakula of Weekend Nation after two papers published stories about the death of a university of Malawi student activist Robert Chasowa and Mutharika’s critic who was murdered at the campus of Polytechnic College.
On September 12, police arrested and questioned a journalist, Ernest Mhwayo, for taking pictures of president Mutharika’s multimillion dollar farm. He was charged with “conduct likely to cause breach of peace” and released on the following day. Several journalists were beaten and detained by police in July as they covered demonstrations throughout the country.
On February 13, police arrested a prominent lawyer, and former Attorney General Ralph Kasambara, and five of his security guards in Blantyre, after the guards apprehended three men who wanted to petrol bomb Kasambara’s office. Police charged Kasambara and his guards with assault. The arrest came after two national newspapers had published details of the interview in which Kasambara criticised Mutharika’s record on human rights and governance and called for his resignation. Kasambara was detained for several days before being let out on bail. However the three men who attempted the attack were let free without charge.
Political analysts believe that the attempt attack against Kasambara is directly related to his work as a human rights lawyer and his support to civil society organisations.
Responding to his arrest Kasambara said he believes his case is politically motivated because he has been outspoken in his criticism of Mutharika and true in his pledge that he would not be deterred from opposing the president.
He told local radio station Capital FM " Mutharika must resign immediatelly, infact he must have done that yesterday"
On March 15 the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) a religious rights group, called for the resignation of the president or for a referendum for Mutharika to seek a fresh mandate from Malawians.
However President Mutharika responded to the call by saying he could rule Malawi forever if he wanted to.
“If I wanted to, I would use the majority I have and amend the constitution to rule another term” he told supporters at a rally.
Commenting on the issue human rights activist Undule Mwakasungula accused the president of misusing the majority he has in parliament to fulfil his personal gains.
“I am not sure why Mutharika made a sudden change but I believe the majority he won in second term might have surprised him too”. Said Mwakasungula
“We have always felt the majority would have been used to better use than seeking third term or introducing bills in parliament that are not human right friendly” added Mwakasungula
Recently Bingu made a shocking move when he signed a newspaper ban law, which was described as an intimidation and a threat to the journalism profession.
The Malawi National Assembly amended Section 46 of its Penal Code and made it into a new law in November 2010.The statute now reads “if the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the publication or importation of any law publication would be contrary to the public interest, he may, by order published gazette, prohibit the publication or importation of such publication.” Initially,the Penal Code empowered the information minister “to prohibit the publication of any seditious materials”
Local political and law experts have questioned these amendments and Blessings Chisinga, a renowned political analyst from the university of Malawi described the amendments as “a strategic movement towards 2014 general election”
According to Chisinga the signing of the new law further thwarts the ratification of Access to Information Bill which has not yet been passed since it was drafted in 2003, which could have helped journalists to easily access information.
On March 16, police without a warrant arrested John Kapito, chairperson of the government funded Malawi Human Rights Commission and a prominent critic of the government’s human rights record, accusing him of possessing guns and seditious materials. Police conducted an extensive search of Kapito’s home but found nothing, but nonetheless he was charged with possessing “material with seditious words,” and undocumented foreign exchange. He was released on bail on the same day.
On March 21, police in the capital Lilongwe arrested a prominent opposition leader and son of the former president, Atupele Muluzi, and charged him with inciting violence. The arrest came after angry United Democratic Front (UDF) supporters torched down a police station after police tear-gassed a party rally in Lilongwe which Muluzi was addressing.
Commenting on his son’s arrest former president Muluzi believes that charges against Atupele were politically motivated; meant as a scare campaign to intimidate the opposition and civil society.
On Thursday 29 March police in the commercial capital Blantyre arrested lawyer Shepher Mumba in connection with the signing of bail papers for Ralph Kasambara a prominent lawyer and critic of president Bingu wa Mutharika
Police claimed Kasambara's first release from Chichiri prison had procedural infringement after his arrest on assault charges.
Speaking in an interview his partner in legal firm Wapona Kita said the arrest is to do with the signing he did at Chichiri prison during Kasambara's first release on bail.
"Police have charged Mumba with Section. 362 of the penal Code which provides for the offence of procuring execution of documents by false pretence in respect of the Ralph Kasambara's bail. He is right now remanded at Blantyre Police station." said Kita.