Clashes between suspected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) youths and protesters on Wednesday thwarted a protest march Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) organised in Blantyre to demand resignation of Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah.
HRDC leaders had barely waved on the march from Kamuzu Stadium upper ground through Masauko Chipembere Highway when they were waylaid metres away outside the Chichiri Trade Fair Ground.
The protesters and DPP youths pelted each other with stones in full view of Malawi Police Service (MPS) officers, rendering the dual-carriageway impassable to traffic.
The DPP youth emerged from the trade fair grounds where Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Kondwani Nankhumwa, who is also DPP vice-president for the Southern Region, was presiding over the opening of the National Agriculture Fair.
In the course of the fracas, five people, including HRDC executive member Billy Mayaya, sustained injuries and were treated at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (Qech).
Police, who were following the protesters, later engaged in running battles with the protesters some of whom sought refuge inside Qech perimeter fence. Police fired teargas in the hospital premises, causing panic among patients and guardians alike.
Ironically after the nearly three-hour standoff between DPP supporters who held their ground and the protesters, the DPP group marched into Blantyre central business district (CBD) unimpeded albeit under police escort.
But DPP regional governor (South) Charles Mchacha, in a telephone interview yesterday, denied his party’s involvement in the altercation. Nevertheless, he said those who blocked the protesters were “protecting their territory”.
He said: “I do not think DPP has anything to do with what happened in Blantyre. We are a peaceful party and those people who stopped the demonstration did that on their own accord as citizens.
“Blantyre has always been peaceful and they thought it was proper to protect their territory. The people had to stop what they believe is an infringement of their right to live freely.”
In an interview later, one of the organisers of the demonstrations, McDonald Sembereka, said they had given up on proceeding with the march.
“We have failed to get security assurances to proceed with the march and I cannot say we may have any confidence that we will proceed.
“It is sad that ruling party cadres had the audacity to disrupt a legal citizens’ protest this way. Unfortunately, the police have equally acted in a barbaric way by even throwing teargas in a hospital,” he said.
Sembereka, who sought refuge at the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) camp in the course of the chaos, accused the police of retreating when the demonstrators were under attack.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP) executive member Moses Kunkuyu, who was among the protesters and took Mayaya to hospital, said the police were to blame for failing to act to avoid the fracas.
“What happened today is an embarrassment of the highest order which some of us do not want to be associated with. The conduct of DPP supporters who came out to disturb a peaceful march is not only retrogressive but also unacceptable. As a country we are taking hundreds of steps backwards in our quest to achieve democratic rule,” he said.
At Qech, a police armoured vehicle entered the precincts of the referral hospital to flush out demonstrators who had earlier blocked roads around Ginnery Corner.
A pregnant woman was seen carried into the hospital by some well-wishers after she fainted apparently from being choked by the teargas smoke.
In a telephone interview last evening, Southern Region Police Headquarters spokesperson Ramsey Mushani confirmed that five people were injured during the fracas, but said the police were yet to make any arrests regarding the violence.
He could not even give details of any casualties as police were still on the ground assessing.
Said Mushani: “What we know at the moment is that five people were injured in the course of the violence that erupted. However, we are not able to pinpoint from which side they were.
“As the police, we should not be blamed for abandoning our role as we were not there as organisers. We did what we could under the circumstances as some of the injured were even picked by the police.”
Sembereka said the petition they intended to deliver is addressed to Electoral Commissions Forum in Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) Member States executive committee chairperson Notemba Tjipueja to hold MEC accountable for presiding over an alleged fraudulent electoral process in the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections. They are also calling for the stripping Ansah of the grouping’s presidency.