What were said to be peaceful demonstrations to force Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah to resign turned ugly yesterday as some protesters engaged in arson, especially in Mzuzu and Karonga.
In Lilongwe, where prominent politicians, notably Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera and his UTM Party counterpart Saulos Chilima, joined the demonstrations organised by Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), the march ended peacefully. However, a group of youths suspected to have been among the protesters looted a Spar supermarket and an electronics shop at City Centre after the marchers had dispersed.
Protesters in Mzuzu City braved a downpour and took to the streets from around midday. The demonstration delayed to start as the protesters waited in vain for the rains to subside.
En route to Mzuzu City Council Civic Offices to deliver their petition, some protesters turned violent and were seen chasing both armed and unarmed police officers off the streets.
The outnumbered and visibly helpless police officers had to run for their lives.
The subsequent security lapse saw some of the protesters breaking offices, including those of Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom). Commercial banks located along Mzuzu’s dual-carriageway Orton Chirwa Highway were not spared as NBS Bank, Standard Bank, Nedbank and First Capital Bank branches were affected.
The demonstrators also demolished perimeter fences for some buildings, smashed vehicles and shops, including Airtel Malawi and TNM plc kiosks.
But the protesters’ apparent attempts to attack Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) offices were futile as the premises were heavily guarded by anti-riot police.
The volatile situation turned from bad to worse after police regrouped and fired tear gas at the protesters seen throwing stones at police officers.
In the ensuing confusion, representatives of the organisers in Mzuzu failed to deliver their petition.
The scene worsened after the protesters raided offices of some government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) which they looted and set on fire. Those affected included Treasury Cashier’s office and Department of Parks and Wildlife which were set ablaze.
Premises of Mzuzu Agriculture Development Division (ADD) were also looted and about 200 bicycles were stolen in the process.
In an interview, Mzuzu ADD programme manager Wellington Phewa said the bicycles were meant to be distributed to agricultural extension workers in Mzimba South and North.
But he said his office was yet to assess the damage as officers were advised by security personnel to stay away from the premises until calm returned.
Some protesters also set up roadblocks across the city’s roads and demanded money from motorists before Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers from Moyale Barracks intervened and quelled the situation.
The MDF soldiers also barricaded the road to Mzuzu Prison where some protesters were heading to ostensibly free prisoners.
With calm back, the armed soldiers herded the protesters back to Katoto Secondary School ground. The gesture visibly thrilled the protesters who cheered on the soldiers and some of the marchers asked the MDF team to “deal” with the police officers.
Reacting to the turn of events, HRDC chairperson for the North, Happy Mhango, and Northern Region Police spokesperson Peter Kalaya pushed the blame on each other.
On his part, Mhango faulted police for abandoning their duties while the protesters marched to deliver the petition. He said the police failed to protect people and property.
He said: “If they had acted professionally, the damage would have been avoided.”
But Kalaya accused the organisers of failing to guide their participants. He said people started looting and damaging property right from the start of the march.
In Karonga, protesters also ransacked offices of MDAs, including Northern Region Water Board, district council, Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Forestry and a service station shop.