If the number of anti-government demonstrations registered between January and July is anything to go by, demonstrations are slowly overtaking all other means of expressing discontent against government decisions. In the period, over six national anti-government demonstrations have been held. Another one is slated for July 20.
From the onset of the year, civil society organisations (CSOs) were on the neck of government forcing it to influence First Lady Gertrude Mutharika’s Beautify Malawi (Beam) Trust and Mulhako Wa Alhomwe to give back money they got from the National Aids Commission (NAC). They demonstrated and presented their petition to government on January 13.
Four months later, the CSOs led another demonstration to stop government from selling Malawi Savings Bank (MSB), which has since been sold off. Afterwards, there were demonstrations against the introduction of a 10 percent excise duty on text messages and all data transfers. There were also demonstrations against the xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
Last week, CSOs suspended demonstrations against government over delayed justice on the abuse of public funds popularly known as Cashgate. It will be held on July 20, a day when some Malawians were killed while demonstrating against the Bingu wa Mutharika regime in 2011.
While this might be portraying a different picture on governance, the main image is that anti-government demonstrations have turned to be the frequently used means of expressing displeasure against government decisions.
Billy Mayaya, human rights defender, says demonstrations are part of the constitutional order and as a right, they are non-negotiable. He argues that several demonstrations have served their purpose. He cites the MSB saga, saying after they presented issues surrounding the nature of the sale, President Peter Mutharika halted the sale.
“Demonstrations often require the political will and dedication of organisers to identify an issue that either goes against the grain of democratic values and principles. In Malawi, the Constitution is clear that demonstrations are a constitutional right, the Police Act, which is slightly draconian sets parameters in terms of route and gives powers to the district commissioner to authorise or refuse a demonstration to take place,” says Mayaya.
When asked how they make sure their decision to organise one has the support of the public, Mayaya said: “Demonstrations take place based on one’s convictions on an issue and it is not dependent on the blessing of anyone. Taking part is a voluntary process based on one’s values and convictions.”
But a snap survey The Nation conducted in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu over the weekend, indicated that some Malawians do not support demonstrations. The survey randomly sampled 30 people aged 18 and above.
Nine in Mzuzu, seven in Blantyre and six in Lilongwe described demonstrations as a waste of time, effort and resources saying they do not serve their purpose. Two were neutral. There were six proponents who said it is a strong weapon of expressing public displeasure on national issues.
Among others, the opponents justify their stand, saying demonstrations serve the interest of the organisers; lack of consultations; most petitions presented to government do not produce results and demonstrating on every issue has watered-down their relevance.
On the other hand, proponents rate demonstrations a watchdog of government and argue that leaders have reversed several decisions after such protests. They also say issues presented in petitions are those that affect Malawians and the organisers are their mouthpiece.
Moses Mkandawire, director of the Church and Society of the Livingstonia Synod who has also participated in several anti-government demonstrations concurs with the findings. He says demonstrations are necessary and serves the purpose if well organised, but stressed that they should be the last resort.
“Organising demonstrations is a process. Firstly, there should be issues that affect the citizenry. These should be raised before authorities. If nothing happens, then demonstrations can follow.
“For instance, before the July 20 demonstrations, as issues that affected the citizenry were identified, presented to the leadership, but government continued to be arrogant and not respect the pleas. Organisers made noise through the media. This is a process and it builds momentum,” says Mkandawire, stressing that this is why there was a huge turnout.
He, however, adds that there are times when demonstrations cannot be delayed with other steps. Mkandawire cites the plunder of public resources and revelation that huge sums of public money were not accounted as serious issues.
He defends organisers of demonstrations, saying they are better positioned to do the work responsibly. He says not everyone can lead a protest against the government, as that demands credibility, skill and capacity.
“Everyone now thinks they are negotiators and can organise demonstrations against the leadership to lobby for review of some decisions. Unfortunately, these people have vested interests. We need credible negotiators and mediators on national issues. This problem is also in government. You can see how we struggle to negotiate even with foreign countries,” says Mkandawire, while citing the Lake Malawi wrangle with Tanzania as an example.
Civil Rights Activist Rafik Hajat says in any democratic country demonstrations are inevitable because they create room for people who genuinely have relevant issues to express them to the authorities.
He, however, says demonstrations in Malawi are losing relevance. Hajat says this can be measured by patronages. He singled out July 20 2011 as one of the well organised that attracted a huge patronage because everyone felt there were enough reasons to demonstrate and all other means of negotiations were exhausted.
“People now feel used, organisers do not consult, do not prepare well, do not sensitise the public and finally the credibility of the organisers is also killing the meaning of demonstrations. Malawians are able to judge and if they know the organisers have vested interests, they shun them,” says Hajat, adding that any demonstration that comes after exhausting all other means becomes relevant and is well supported.
Kondwani Nankhumwa, Minister of Information, Tourism and Culture says he fears for the future on the relevance of demonstrations. He says demonstrations are a last resort, but in Malawi they have turned to be the first step in negotiating with government.
“What is happening now has devalued the demonstrations. People are using them to achieve their interests and people have lost trust and giving no support. You cannot organise a demonstration today and another tomorrow. No wonder, we see few people carrying placards demonstrating. There is a lot left to be desired,” says Nankhumwa.