The battle for the soul of Malawi’s constitutionalism and rule of law yesterday took lawyers and other groups to the streets in solidarity with a Judiciary they say is under Executive siege.
The organisers hoped that the demonstrations would send strong signals to President Peter Mutharika and his administration that the critical mass Malawi has become cannot stand a political elite they charge is disdainful of checks and balances.
The protests in the country’s four cities of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu were also symbolic by the sheer force of some of the imagery: the sight of highly regarded 70-year-old Senior Counsel Modecai Msisha and other prominent figures marching side by side with younger and more agile people for justice.
It was the image of the young and the old coming together to fight for the preservation of the sacred principles on which the country’s young, but fast-maturing democracy was mid-wifed and built.
But the gatherings also brought one sobering reminder: in the nearly 30 decades of Malawi’s multiparty democracy, the Judiciary has been the country’s stabilizing force amid governance chaos and dysfunction presided over by the Executive and a hapless Legislature that has largely played the role of spectator and, occasionally, cheerleader.
In questioning the integrity of the Judiciary without evidence and in trying to humiliate its leader Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda by sending him on forced leave pending a retirement date that is 18 months away, Mutharika might just be toying with an institution that is central to the functioning of Malawi’s democracy.
Actually, Mutharika owes his taste of the presidency to the very Judiciary he now believes is incompetent after it took away the cookie jar containing his second term.
It was the same institution’s High Court that he now says staged a coup in annulling his re-election, which stopped then incumbent president Joyce Banda’s unconstitutional bid to invalidate the results that handed Mutharika victory in 2014 after another controversial presidential election.
The law saved him then.
And so officers of the law and other interest groups turned up yesterday to remind Mutharika that justice has a flip side that benefits others too based on law and evidence.
Clad in their court gowns, some complete with wigs and others in business suits, the lawyers started their marches around midday in the four cities. They peacefully marched through the streets amid the lunch hour traffic to respective registries of the High Court of Malawi.
Their action added on to the growing pressure on President Peter Mutharika and his administration accused of attempting to stifle judicial independence and the rule of law by pushing Chief Justice Nyirenda and Justice of Appeal Edward Twea to go on leave pending retirement next year.
The move, contained in a letter from Chief Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet Lloyd Muhara, himself a High Court Judge on secondment to the Executive, has sparked a barrage of criticism from far and wide, including the Commonwealth—a grouping of former British colonies.
During their respective marches—which were generally peaceful save for Mzuzu where police fired tear gas at some of the people who joined the march and pelted stones at buildings—the lawyers carried placards proclaiming judicial independence and constitutionalism in the country.
They said impunity won’t be entertained.
Both veteran and new brooms in the profession, mostly from private practice, took part in the marches spiced up with chants, dance and merry.
Renowned lawyers such as Allan Chinula, Msisha, Mandala Mambulasa, Bright Theu, Bernard Ndau, John-Gift Mwakhwawa, John Suzi-Banda, Khumbo Bonzoe Soko, Grace Malera, Chikondi Chijozi and Chikosa Silungwe took part in the Lilongwe and Blantyre marches.
In Zomba, revered legal scholars from the Faculty of Law at Chancellor College—a constituent college of the University of Malawi, including Professor Garton Kamchedzera, associate professors Edge Kanyongolo and Ngeyi Kanyongolo as well as Sunduzwayo Madise were conspicuous.
Making the concerned lawyers’ statement in Lilongwe, Soko—immediate-past president of Malawi Law Society (MLS)—and Khwima Mchizi vowed to defend the Constitution and that “the Judiciary will not be intimidated”.
The lawyers proclaimed that they will support the Judiciary to ensure sustainability of the rule of law.
Some of the placards in Lilongwe carried messages faulting the Executive arm of government while others were directed at Muhara, urging him to stop exercising his duties with impunity.
In his address at the Lilongwe Courthouse, Silungwe said: “If you exercise your constitutional obligation as a public officer in the Republic of Malawi, the reference book is the Constitution of this country.”
In Blantyre, Suzi-Banda, Mwakhwawa and Msisha were given the honours to speak on behalf of the estimated 80 lawyers who hoisted placards inscribed messages such as ‘We will be the checks and balances on this out- of-control government’, ‘Leave what is for Judiciary to the Judiciary’, ‘Ma Lawyer timadana ndi zopusa’ and ‘Muhara wambula Mahara’.
In his address, Suzi-Banda, a former president of MLS, urged public officers who abuse power to sober up and realise that one day they will find themselves powerless and venerable and will seek redress through the Judiciary.
Mwakhwawa, another former MLS president who led the march, advised the Executive to accept and respect that the Constitution vests the Judiciary the responsibility and mandate to interpret and apply the law.
He said: “We will combat agents of impunity and mediocrity who abuse, ignore or twist the law. Our country needs to have trust in the Judiciary that administers justice according to the law without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. We strongly reject dictatorship.”
Msisha also urged leaders to consult the Constitution before making decisions.
In Mzuzu, participants—lawyers, civil society leaders and members of the public—danced and sang along to music blaring from the public address system while carrying placards thanking the Judiciary for the nullification of the May 21 2019 presidential election over irregularities.
Messages on some placards highlighted Section 119 of the Constitution, which tackles the tenure of judges.
Speaking at Mzuzu Courthouse, private practice lawyer Victor Gondwe said they will do anything to ensure that the Judiciary remains independent and that Nyirenda remains in office.
During the march in Zomba, Kamchedzera stressed that the Judiciary will not keep quiet and watch in the face of abuse from the Executive while Professor Blessings Chinsinga emphasised that the demonstrations were a seed that the Judiciary is planting to ensure that the Constitution is protected from the grass roots level to be enjoyed by future generations.
On his part, Edge Kanyongolo said since 1964, the country has had three constitutions. He said the 1964 Constitution focused on independence while the 1966 Constitution centered on voting for the Republic of Malawi and the 1994 Constitution is built on democracy.
He said: “Some people shed blood in the fight for this Constitution to come to pass, therefore, we shall defend this Constitution in all the days of our lives against anyone who wants to violate it.”
Citizens for Transformation leader Timothy Mtambo briefly participated in the Mzuzu leg alongside Moses Mkandawire, executive director of the Church and Society of the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia. They joined the crowd in dancing and calling for judicial independence.
In Lilongwe, Human Rights Defenders Coalition also mobilised some demonstrators who joined lawyers from their starting point near Mbowe Service Station.
Additional reporting by HOLYCE KHOLOWA, Correspondent