Malawi’s embattled President Bingu wa Mutharika toured the riot-struck town of Zomba today, as government authorities ordered the army and police to quell riots and patrol the streets in a bid to restore peace.
Ministry of Health and police officials have confirmed 18 deaths, scores of severe injuries, and 250 arrests since protests began on July 20 against high fuel and food prices and against what many Malawians believe is bad governance by the Mutharika administration.
The location of the deaths suggests that protests were widespread – nine deaths in the northern city of Mzuzu, six dead in the capital of Lilongwe, one death in the northern town of Karonga along the Tanzanian border, and two deaths in the commercial hub of Blantyre.
President Mutharika has blamed civil society groups and opposition parties for the violence, saying the protestors were provoked to loot and create chaos. Civil society activists blame the police for provoking the violence, saying they have consistently urged demonstrators to remain peaceful.
At a state function in the southern city of Zomba, while presiding over the commissioning of police officers, President Mutharika warned that he had had enough of unfair criticism and sabotage perpetrated by the opposition and the civil society. Naming key opposition figures such as Vice President Joyce Banda as being behind the violence, Mutharika warned of a harsh government reaction.
“Even God knows that I have been the most patient president on the continent,” Mutharika said. “Enough is enough. You wanted to take government by force, which is against the laws of the land. This time I will follow you into your homes. I will smoke you out.”
His reactions stand in sharp contrast to the message he delivered to the nation yesterday, when he appealed to the opposition and the civil society to come to a round table to discuss the problems affecting Malawi.
Civil society leaders today say that they will focus on burying the dead before deciding whether to begin dialogue with Mutharika or to continue the protests.
The country’s powerful Roman Catholic Church today asked the government to initiate dialogue with the protestors to hear their concerns.
“We pray that the peace and calm that has been characteristic of Malawi as a nation willcontinue to prevail in our country and that we will all avail ourselves, wholeheartedly, as instruments of the same peace,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Zuza.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have been critical of the president’s handling of the crisis thus far, including the harassment and beating of journalists.
Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, issued a statement today, condemning “the use of force and live ammunition by Malawian authorities on 20 and 21 July and to prevent their own citizens from exercising their constitutional right to demonstrate peacefully, as well as the ban imposed on media reporting of the confrontations."
Ashton was also condemned the violence and looting perpetrated by a limited number of individuals during the protests, adding that the Malawian people are guaranteed the right to peaceful association and freedom of expression in their constitution.