Malawians risk sacrificing freedom of demonstration on bloody alters of history—and democracy is a major loser.
“The past is for us to learn from,” the late president Bingu wa Mutharika never tired of reminding the nation his predecessor Bakili Muluzi diagnosed of “kuyiwala nsanga”—forgetfulness.
Has President Joyce Banda and her strategists learnt anything from the mistakes the Mutharika regime made on the road to July 20 2011 demonstrations which cost 20 lives?
A critic of Mutharika’s ‘Executive arrogance’ and a supporter of the countrywide protests against his policies, Banda should have capitalised on the goodwill that greeted her brutal honesty: Malawians need up to 18 months of pains and austerity to recover from the country’s economic comma.
Instead, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) has been flooded with vendors, politicians, rastafarians and anyone else who is willing to discredit Consumer Association of Malawi (Cama) chief executive officer John Kapito over the pending protests against the rising cost of living. By denying the demo organisers a chance to reply, the State-owned radios and television are not being fair, says political science associate professor Blessings Chinsinga. Equally suspicious is anti-demonstration voices’ highly replayed catchphrase: The country cannot afford to lose more lives after the July 20 bloodshed.
“The reasoning reflects the inherent nature of our political culture and one cannot rule out opportunists wanting to be noticed and rewarded by government,” argues Chinsinga, adding: “Lessons must be learnt from July 20, but forfeiting our right to demonstrate will give politicians an opportunity to continue taking people for granted. The deaths should remind organisers and security agents to always put in place mechanisms to protect lives of participants and property on the streets.”
Political analyst Michael Jana reckons the anti-demonstration activists’ reasoning could be a signal that Malawians have been oppressed so much that the citizens fear the government instead of the vice versa.
“The police are supposed to protect us when we are demonstrating, and not fire tear gas and bullets at us. It is my right to demonstrate!” Jana wrote on Facebook on Saturday.
Like other pro-government commentators, Munawwarah Islamic Organisation’s Erick Jaffali Ali reckons “the country should not expect too much because JB has only spent eight months in power” and the economic crisis is a result of Mutharika’s political mess.
This is not new. Even the President has said it many times since Mutharika’s death ushered her to the presidential seat last April. So, rather than forcing people to demand less, government must find better ways of telling people what they are doing to avert the mess at their fingertips.
Save for reversing some bad laws, the President has not come clear on her internal policy. Instead of blaming Mutharika, she must draw a sound strategy to persuade Malawians to understand the side effects of the austerity dosage.
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) national secretary Chris Chisoni says the President needs to improve her communication this year.
“The President must clearly articulate a vision for the country. It’s important that we should not feed each other history to justify present economic challenges,” Chisoni told Weekend Nation recently.
Communication is not all about rallies and public lectures like the one Mutharika delivered on July 20. The President’s inner circle and her communication ensemble must stop addressing Malawians Mutharika-style; they must revisit what they believed in before they gained power.
Interestingly, Banda’s statements in support of the anti-Mutharika demonstrations mirror the realisation that “the absence of constructive and positive dialogue” can breed mass protests.
And the battle to curtail this week’s protests calls to mind Banda’s press statement five days before July 20, when she was vice-president: “In view of the planned demonstrations, I wish to appeal to government institutions to respect the people’s constitutional rights to associate, assemble and demonstrate.”
Now that she is in power, her leadership has not been forthcoming to reaffirm the call.
However, the police have the duty to ensure citizens march in peace. Any harm to the marchers is beyond their job description, prosecutable and hazardous to the gains the country has made to restore donor confidence.
As a matter of fact, rights bodies blame security forces for using lethal firearms against protesters in 2011. So did Amnesty International and its partners in a communiqué quoting the United Nation code of conduct which says security forces may only use force when necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.
“Intentional lethal use of firearms is only permissible when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life,” reads the code.
Worrisomely, former presidential spokesperson Dr Hetherwick Ntaba once hinted that police might have used live bullets because they did not have enough personnel and rubber bullets.
This week national police spokesperson Rhoda Manjolo dismissed enquiries into their preparedness and stocks of rubber bullets as “a security issue”.
But she said: “The police service is in consultation with district commissioners and organisers to ensure peaceful and crime-free demonstrations come January 17. But we request people to observe laws of the land because demonstrations are no excuse for committing crimes.”
While security issues remain a State secret, only time will tell whether Banda can swallow her own prescription: never to take Malawians for granted.
She uttered the appeal soon after her coronation when she swore in Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu with the task of ensuring MBC provides accurate information and diverse views on issues of public interest.