Adialogue meeting yesterday between representatives of Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) and the Attorney General (AG)’s office resolved that anti-Jane Ansah demonstrations should continue on condition that the law is observed.
However, what started as a peaceful dialogue between the two parties almost turned volatile following disagreements on whether to place the name ‘cadet’ on a list of resolutions the two parties had made.
It all started when the two parties tried to discuss one of HRDC’s proposals—that police must stop looking the other way when governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cadets harass demonstrators during protests.
The meeting yesterday followed a Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal order for the two sides to meet to discuss the way forward on ensuring future demonstrations are violence-free.
The dialogue, which took place at UNDP offices in Lilongwe and not Kamuzu Barracks as earlier scheduled, was intense as it started at 11.45, with 10-minute and five-minute breaks in between, before winding up at 17.30.
About 12 people represented the government side, including two lawyers from the AG’s office Loness Michongwe and Neverson Chisiza; some senior members of the Malawi Police Service (MPS) and Brigadier General Chikunkha Soko from the Malawi Defence Force (MDF).
The HRDC side had six delegates, including two lawyers Geoffrey Taumbe and Khwima Mchizi, and HRDC members Billy Mayaya, Macdonald Sembereka, Alie Mwachande and Solomon Phiri led by chairperson Timothy Mtambo.
During the discussions, which were open to the media, government first suggested that the proposal should read: “Police will endeavour to protect demonstrators and arrest whoever causes harm regardless of their political affiliation.”
But this did not go down well with HRDC delegates, who said the name of ‘cadet’ should be expressly included in the statement, arguing the governing party supporters are responsible for disturbing peace during demonstrations.
It took almost 75 minutes—including some consultations and a recess—before the government side agreed to rephrase the statement to include ‘cadets’ in the statement.
At some point, Sembereka walked out in anger.
He said: “We cannot sit here and listen to this nonsense. What is special with the name cadet that you are afraid to put it down on the paper so we can move on? This is total rubbish.”
Mtambo said he was so disappointed that the discussions were going well but government side changed at the mention of the name of ‘cadet’, describing them as “too protective”.
Said the HRDC chairperson: “I am disappointed that we have taken over an hour to discuss the issue of DPP cadets. We mentioned about other parties here, but we didn’t take that long. Why is this so? Are cadets above the law?”
After consultations, one of AG’s lawyers Chisiza announced that they had agreed to change the wording and Michongwe, who was the secretary, would read again the revised version, to which HRDC agreed.
The revised version of the resolution read: “The police will endeavour to protect demonstrators and arrest DPP cadets who harass, beat up demonstrators and any other grouping who act in a similar manner.”
HRDC presented about 11 proposals to government on how they would avoid violent protests and what they believed fuels the violence.
Reading the proposals, HRDC’s Mchizi said there was need for police to work on regaining the lost public trust, and also asked the AG to advise President Peter Mutharika to avoid making statements that incite anger.
He said: “We ask the AG to advise the President and the rest of the Executive against deliberate attempts to trample on the rights of demonstrators. Government must desist from blocking HRDC’s planned demonstrations through injunctions and issuance of threats.”
On its part, the government side, through MPS director of legal services Barbara Tsiga, also presented about 11 points, including the requirement for HRDC to organise transport for demonstrators at the end of any protests, arguing it is when protestors are returning home after demonstrations that looting and vandalism takes place.
She said: “It has been observed that most looting takes place as demonstrators are dispersing from the demonstration destination. There is, therefore, need for conveners to hire lorries or buses to ferry people back to the place of commencement of demonstrations.”
But HRDC shot down the proposal, arguing it was unrealistic.
The two parties, however, agreed that the demonstrations should be peaceful in line with Section 38 of the Republican Constitution; there should be adequate marshals and police officers during protests; marshals should work with demonstrators; there should be dialogue and planning meetings between the two parties before any protests; and that government should not stop or take injunction to stop demonstrations when the protest organisers have followed all procedures.
However, they did not agree on the following; that MDF should disarm cadets, which Brigadier General Soko said was beyond the MDF mandate.
Other areas that HRDC did not agree with included the government proposals for MPS to train marshals and that political party leaders should not be given a platform during demonstrations.
At the end, Chisiza reiterated that it was sad that the meeting that started well ended with tempers just because of the term cadet.
“I never expected this. But all in all, the deliberations went well and we will present the resolutions to the Supreme Court,” he said.
The AG’s office began proceedings in the High Court of Malawi, challenging the legality of the demonstrations. Alongside summons, they filed an application for an interlocutory injunction to restrain the demonstrators from convening demonstrations, citing violence and looting during the protests.
But in his August 27 ruling, Justice Lovemore Chikopa of the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal issued a 14-day moratorium on the demonstrations until the two sides met to resolve the issue of violence.
Since May 27 this year when the MEC chairperson Ansah declared Mutharika of the governing Democratic Progressive Party winner of the May 21 presidential race, HRDC has been holding regular demonstrations which in some cases have been marred by looting and violence.
The HRDC want Ansah to resign for allegedly presiding over flawed elections.