Representatives of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) on Wednesday made a last-minute withdrawal from their planned dialogue with a government team, accusing authorities of attempting to derail Friday’s nationwide protests.
The Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) has since described the CSOs’ action as unfortunate but said government will leave its door open for dialogue with the CSO leaders on outstanding issues from its July 2018 response to an earlier petition presented on April 27 2018.
Chairperson of the government negotiating team who is also OPC Principal Secretary (Administration) Cliff Chiunda said they would leave the door open for dialogue with the civil society members to resolve any misunderstandings.
Briefing journalists in Lilongwe on Wednesday after pulling out of the dialogue one hour before the scheduled 1pm starting time, HRDC leaders said they made the decision because government ignored their proposed terms of engagement, including having President Peter Mutharika or relevant Cabinet ministers in attendance.
And in an official response addressed to the Chief Secretary to the Government Lloyd Muhara, HRDC said they believe government had a hidden agenda to sabotage and derail their planned demonstrations against corruption and impunity set for September 21 across the four cities of Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba.
HRDC chairperson Timothy Mtambo said their demand for the presence of the President, ministers of Finance and Information, the Chief Secretary and the Attorney General, among others, was meant to ensure prompt and adequate feedback on outstanding concerns.
He said: “We requested the senior government officials to be part of the dialogue for a purpose. Surprisingly, the government has opted to make vague reference to an unspecified ensemble of the so-called senior government officials. This is questionable.”
But government said on Wednesday ’s planned meeting was meant to be a technical preparatory meeting to set the tone for dialogue between the two sides.
During a news conference later on Wednesday, Chiunda said government was disappointed that HRDC did not turn up.
He said: “We have planned to engage them on the dialogue on important issues. It is a very bad moment for Malawi that the civil society organisation could not heed the request for dialogue. We waited for them on Tuesday at 10 am then 2pm and even today [Wednesday], they haven’t come.”
Presidential adviser on Non-Governmental Organisations Mavuto Bamusi, who alongside director of information Gedion Munthali accompanied Chiunda to the briefing, said the demand that the President be present was asking too much because the President could not be summoned by the CSOs.
He said: “We just think some of the conditions they raised to summon the President is uncalled for and that is going too far. Some of their conditions were deliberate to frustrate the process of the dialogue, but government is still open for dialogue.”
Political and governance analyst Henry Chingaipe has described CSOs’ withdrawal as not surprising. He said in the circumstances, the pulling out is welcome because it shows that they mean serious business.
He said: “They did well to pull out because they want results not a series of meetings.”
The CSOs, among other issues, want government to address worsening corruption in the country and theft of fuel worth K 1.9 billion at Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom).
The HRDC postponed the protests from September 7 2018 to September 21 to avoid clashes with governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) youth cadets who were expected to hold what they called a Blue March in Blantyre on the same day, but did not.