For posterity’s sake…“If the only tool you have is a hammer,” goes one African proverb, “you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
Well, perhaps, we should be grateful that President Peter Mutharika, after all, has remained quiet as the country burnt because each time he speaks he seems to make matters worse. At his inauguration, instead of uniting a deeply divided nation, he misread the script and delivered a speech devoid of any wisdom. “Force will be met with force,” he declared in his no statesman speech. And since then, the country has been at war and on fire, perhaps, both literally and metaphorically.
Shops have been looted. Homes destroyed. The economy ravaged. This country has entered a very dark phase in which our courts, military, politics, citizens are being tested like never before. The viability of our very democracy—rule of law—is on trial. Credibility of governance institutions is under trial. As some have rightly stated, this is a battle not only about leadership but for the country’s very soul.
So far, the only solution, on either side, has been to follow the President’s cue and everybody has used the proverbial hammer. As I wrote this piece, Timothy Mtambo, leader of the protest movement that has emerged as a strong force for good or destruction, dependent on which side of the political fence you sit, had a rude awakening, not so unexpected in this context, when thugs, allegedly agents of the ruling party, set out to torch his house. Thank heavens they only succeeded in setting ablaze his vehicles.
Mtambo’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), however, has threatened to press ahead with the next phase of what have been deadly protests—demanding the head of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Justice Jane Ansah, whom it accuses of mismanaging the May 21 disputed presidential elections.
Ansah, taking perhaps a cue from the season of confrontations, where reason has been scarce, has somehow clung to office when the writing is on the wall that whether she acted with impropriety or not—to borrow legal jargon from the ongoing court battles—she will never again be entrusted to run another election.
Like the biblical Pharaoh, when Egypt was plagued by calamity after calamity, Ansah has seen no other solution, but a solution that has bedeviled this country with more violence.
Posterity will judge Ansah harshly, I suspect. But history takes to deliver its verdict and as the election case is underway, it’s also bewildering that the civil society groups are still plotting even more impactful protests—Hong Kong-styled airport lockdown among them—as far as the already battered and fragile economy is concerned.
After proving again and again that they can send the masses to the streets, of course, with support of the major opposition parties, they have achieved their ultimate unstated goal, which was to exert pressure on the courts, international community and the general public not to permit the electoral case die a natural death as has been the case each time the opposition has cried wolf in previous elections.
Kudos for that achievement and, perhaps, awakening the sleeping lion that was the Malawi citizenry on the power of protests. But the question is, now with the case in court, can’t the HRDC now hold its hammer and allow the court to hear the case in peace? Can’t the HRDC also pursue contact and dialogue to press for the reforms in electoral management and how the country is governed in general while making it clear that any slight diversion from the expectation of case, would bring back the protests?
The protests are the only hammer HRDC has shown so far. And there is no denial that many have seen their stance so far as a patriotic act. But those who have suffered personal loss of the political impasse, would be quick to point out that “it was only when a mosquito lands on your balls that you realise that there is a way to solve problems without violence,” as the Japanese would have it.
And, again, history takes long to declare its verdict. And I would urge HRDC to try peace. Mutharika, too, must break his silence, which has made him look like a reluctant leader in all this mess, if not worse. But this time, instead of vowing to crush his rivals, he must talk peace, unity and a new start for the country.
As another African proverb reminds us: “Don’t correct with a strike that which can be taught with a kiss”. The courts have their work cut out to ensure justice prevails on what happened between the time we woke up at dawn to vote and when Ansah read a statement declaring the election winner.
But regardless of how the court’s decision will go, it might not be in everybody’s best interest, certainly not those who want the orgy of looting and violence to continue, but surely in the best interest of the economy and long-term viability of the country as investor-friendly, for us to bring down the simmering tensions in the country. Doing that, just like protesting an injustice, is an act of patriotism, too.