Despite threats, Malawi protesters rally against high prices, corruption

Like those in North Africa, nationwide protests in Malawi have been sparked by discontent over higher food and fuel prices, as well as concerns that the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
A Malawi man carries goods past a gas station that has cars waiting for fuel in Lilongwe on July 14. Malawians gathered on Wednesday to protest high food and fuel prices, as well as government corruption.

Nationwide protests began today under tight security, with hundreds of demonstrators in Malawi’s two main cities gathering to rally against high fuel and food prices and increasing crackdowns by the government of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika.

In the capital city of Lilongwe, and in the commercial city of Blantyre, hundreds of young men and women gathered at rally points, dressed in red, and began to march in small groups through the cities chanting “Bingu leave, Bingu leave.” The protests began in the early morning hours, after a day of intimidation by young pro-government thugs prowling the city with machetes on Tuesday, and after a pro-government citizens group successfully lobbied for an injunction against civil society and opposition groups participating in the demonstrations.

In Lilongwe, High Court Judge Chifundo Kachali granted the group an injunction yesterday evening in response to a plea by self-described “concerned citizen” Chiza Mbekeani. Police in Blantyre tried to disperse crowds under this court injunction, but when the police weren’t able to produce the actual printed order, demonstrators continued to gather.

At press time, lawyers representing the opposition and civil society are at the high court attempting to get another hearing in order for the demonstrations to go ahead. And at the gathering points, civic activists and news reporters were sending out the word over Twitter that police had begun firing tear gas to disperse crowds.

Opposition leader John Tembo, president of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), said the protests were to express concern over “the eroding economic situation and abuse of human rights in the country.”

“The demonstrations stem from the civil society’s failed attempts for an audience with the president as well as [the] government’s rejection of a request by opposition parties for Mutharika to appear before parliament to respond to our concerns,” Mr. Tembo told reporters.

As with protests in Northern Africa, the demonstrations brewing here have been simmering for some time, and touch on growing public anger over rising prices and bad governance. The target of much anger is President Mutharika, who came to office in 2004 promising to fight corruption, revitalize the agriculture sector, and to rebuild the sluggish economy – and largely delivering. In his second term, President Mutharika has been perceived to have taken an autocratic turn, compelling some of Malawi’s bilateral donors to withhold aid that pays much of the national budget.

Methods of persuasion

Mutharika will be holding a public lecture at the New State House in Lilongwe today, where he will attempt to address some of the social concerns raised by the opposition and the civil society.

In the streets of Blantyre, yesterday, other methods of persuasion were more evident. Pro-government youths drove around the city yesterday, brandishing machetes, and threatening anyone "insulting the president."

Opposition members say that such tactics reflect a growing level of repression by Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which controls the 193 member National Assembly and which has passed laws in the past year that rein in public dissent.

Retrogressive laws

Among the bills is the "Civil Procedure (Suits by or against the Government or Public Officers) (Amendment) Bill of 2010," widely known as the Injunctions Bill. It would forbid courts from imposing grant injunctions by citizens or civic groups against government or public officers. Petitioners against the Injunctions Bill argue that the law is unconstitutional, as it could deny citizens their right to instant relief when their rights are trampled on.

Other retrogressive laws that have been passed in parliament include the search without warrant by police and the gagging of media through section 46 of the penal code. Section 46 empowers the minister of information to shut down media houses or publications deemed to be misleading the people. One bill still under consideration would forbid courts to impose injunctions against government or public officers.

While the government has stopped similar demonstrations in the past, the Malawi Law Society (MLS) said it fully supports the exercise of the “constitutionally enshrined” right for citizens to assemble and demonstrate peacefully for a common cause, and would provide legal representation to demonstrators after the protests, to ensure “that any person who suffers any abuse or reprisals as a result of his or her exercise of the constitutional right to assemble and demonstrate on the appointed day is accorded proper legal redress.”

Britain's involvement

Britain, whose high commissioner was expelled from Malawi a few months back after a leaked memo quoted him describing Mutharika as intolerant of criticism, last week announced that it would indefinitely suspend its annual allotment of 22 million pounds for support of Malawi’s budget. Britain will continue to provide program support, however, for basic services such as health and education.

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) said Britain’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has decided to stop budgetary support to Malawi after this country of 13 million failed to address concerns the British government raised over economic management and governance.

“On governance, demonstrations have been suppressed, civil society organizations intimidated and an injunctions bill passed that would make it easier for government to place restrictions on opponents without legal challenge,” Mr. Mitchell wrote in a DFID statement.

The DFID also expressed concern over Malawi’s “overvalued” exchange rate of 150 Malawi Kwacha to $1, which has “a serious impact on the private sector’s ability to drive future growth.” High exchange rates make it difficult for the government to import fuel; car owners and truck drivers often have to wait for days in lines at fuel pumps in order to receive fuel.

Mutharika has three more years to rule Malawi. The ruling DPP has already launched a campaign for the president’s brother, Peter, who is minister of education, to be the country’s next president. Vice President Joyce Banda was expelled from the party allegedly for establishing parallel structures and nurturing ambitions to replace Mutharika.

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