Tear gas and smoke from sporadic fires engulfed the atmosphere in Lilongwe City yesterday during post-May 21 Tripartite Elections demonstrations that turned ugly and inconvenienced innocent bystanders, including newborn babies evacuated to safety at Bwaila Hospital.
During demonstrations organised by Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) to force Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah to resign for allegedly presiding over a flawed electoral process, chaos was the prevalent emotion.
For the majority of the premature babies affected by the tear gas in the Kangaroo Ward at Bwaila Hospital Maternity Wing, they were not born when the country went to the polls on May 21. Besides, they will only attain the right to vote when they turn 18.
However, the infants were not spared the effects of a political crisis rocking their country of their birth as they became collateral damage for the trigger-happy Malawi Police Service (MPS) officers who fired tear gas at protesters close to the hospital in Lilongwe’s Old Town. Fortunately, the babies were evacuated.
During a spot-check at Bwaila Hospital, The Nation found patients and guardians in tears from the effects of the tear gas.
There were more tears in town as people, mostly women and men engaged in small and medium-scale businesses, loudly wailed as they saw their lifetime savings and investments go up in smoke. Many of them had their shops broken into and swept clean by unruly youths among the protesters.
The rowdy youths spared no one. Their casualty list included big corporations, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), service stations and police officers, some of whom had their residential houses burnt down.
Corporates such as Airtel Malawi, CFAO Malawi, Old Mutual, First Capital Bank, Simso Oil as well as several motorists fell victim to the disorder.
One shop owner, a woman in her 40s, could not help but weep loudly after her shop close to Bwaila Hospital was ransacked: “I have lost everything! Everything!”
Inside Bwaila Hospital, nurses narrated how patients and workers were affected by the tear gas.
The demonstrations in Lilongwe started late, but with fire.
Tension mounted from the start at the Lilongwe Community Centre ground before the organisers arrived. From the look of things, there was mistrust between the police and the protesters with the demonstrators suspecting police of plotting to disperse them.
In the ensuing tension, an armoured police anti-riot vehicle sped into the gathering crowd. This left protesters scampering to safety. However, some responded by pelting stones at the vehicle to which the police officers retaliated by firing tear gas.
However, the vehicle, widely known as Black Maria, had driven its last mile as it was soon up in flames.
On the other side of town, specifically Area 2, looting was the order of the day. Police fired more tear gas from near their compound at C Company in an apparent attempt to protect their property. But the protesters set ablaze some police houses.
When it seemed the protests would not start in the thick of the chaos, Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers intervened and provided an escort to the human sea that could potentially be the biggest gathering of protesters.
The group marched over a stretch of 15 kilometres to Capital Hill for an overnight vigil.
MDF, in fewer numbers than the police, watched the protesters closely, but did little to stop the damage that the demonstration left in its trail. At more than one point, the few MDF soldiers were seen protecting police officers deployed to man some properties.
Few commuter minibuses operated. No single shop was open to business. Most offices were closed too. Lilongwe was basically a ghost city.
HRDC leadership’s pleas to protesters to stop the looting and vandalism fell on deaf ears as the vice continued.
In an interview, HRDC vice-chairperson Gift Trapence accused police of deliberately setting out to provoke violent response from the protesters by attacking them.
He reiterated that the protests would continue until Ansah steps down.
“Jane Ansah must resign. There is no single election which Jane Ansah will ever be allowed to manage again. Not even a by-election. She must resign, otherwise, we are not stopping,” he said. National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera yesterday said police were still assessing the damage to property and preparing a report.