Scores of heavily-armed police officers yesterday fired teargas at hundreds of villagers in Thyolo who invaded privately-owned Conforzi Estate in the tea growing district to share part of the estate land among themselves.
Tension started simmering as early as 9am when police officers drawn from Southern Region Police Headquarters in Blantyre, Bvumbwe Police Sub-station and Thyolo Police Station assembled at the targeted area, about six kilometres deep into the estate, to stop the villagers from undertaking their intended action.
The villagers, men and women, some with babies at their back, warned they were not going to disperse as police wanted, claiming they could not be denied the land the estate owners were not using.
After failed negotiations, police invited 16 leaders of People’s Land Organisation (PLO), a grouping of indigenous natives from Thyolo advocating land reparation, to Thyolo Boma for further discussions.
But police diverted the leaders to Blantyre and proceeded to Chilomoni Police Sub-station where they were put under arrest, according to some of the leaders.
News of the arrest of the 16 sparked anxiety back in Thyolo, and after police realised the situation was getting tense, it warned the villagers to disperse or they would start firing teargas.
In no time, late in the afternoon, the police started firing teargas at hundreds of the villagers, forcing them to run for their safety in different directions.
Some villagers started stoning back at the officers while others started putting the bushy estate on fire.
In April this year, Vincent Wandale, leader of PLO, declared Thyolo and Mulanje as independent states, calling it the ‘United States of Mulanje and Thyolo’ purportedly on behalf of the group.
He gave government up to September 1, which was yesterday, to resolve the land issue by giving them back their forefather’s land or they would start the distribution exercise themselves.
The PLO leaders taken to Chilomoni Police excluded Wandale, who was not at the scene, but constantly gave The Nation interviews over the phone.
The 16 comprised 10 women and six men, among them the group’s vice-chairperson Chrispin Nkhoma and secretary Precious Lester.
The villagers, who came from the areas of Senior Chiefs Ngolongoliwa, Chimaliro, Inkosi Bvumbwe and Traditional Authority Nchiramwela in Thyolo, among others, vowed to continue with the exercise in all estates of the districts.
“All we want is our ancestral land to be given back to us. We are suffering from hunger because we do not have land to cultivate. We are ready to die for this,” said Beatrice Munanala, one of the villagers.
The villagers, who carried with them essentials such as food, kitchen utensils, blankets and farming tools, dispersed from the estate, but went back when police left.
Southern Region Police deputy spokesperson Beatrice Mikuwa confirmed the arrest of the 16, saying they have not yet been charged because investigations were still underway.
Wandale, in a telephone interview, said all the members were waiting for the outcome from the police.
“This issue started long time ago, we engaged all relevant authorities, including the President, we gave them a notice but they did not act, if they have issues let them take us to court, our lawyer Jai Banda is ready for them. It is not like we are just doing things out of ignorance, we know our rights, why are they treating us like criminals?” he wondered.
Banda confirmed last evening that he was engaged by the group to represent them, adding he had been informed his clients were being kept at Chilomoni Police, but he was yet to get there.
Asked where he is getting the mandate to do all this, Wandale said he is getting the mandate from the people.
Charles Mchacha, a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator for Thyolo West, who is in a committee chaired by Lands, Housing and Urban Development minister Bright Msaka to resolve land dispute issues, regretted yesterday’s incident at Conforzi Farm.
Mchacha accused Wandale of mobilising villagers to invade Conforzi because he swindled them money “after he lied to them he would give them land”.
He said: “That’s theft. He has been collecting K3 000s from these poor villagers, telling them he would give them land. He has seen it won’t work, he has decided to use force.”
Wandale, reacting to Mchacha’s allegation that he stole money from villagers, admitted collecting the money, but said it is the group’s membership fee.
Aniz Suleman, whose family owns Conforzi Estate, declined to comment when asked over the phone about their take on the invasion, referring The Nation to one of the managers at the farm who could not be reached over the phone.n