Over 80 supporters of the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) staged a vigil at the gate of Kanengo Police Station in Lilongwe Monday night, as the party officials branded President Peter Mutharika’s regime as undemocratic and hypocritical by allowing police officers to arrest Salima North-West parliamentarian Jessie Kabwila while Parliament is in session.
By around 7pm on Monday, the vigil crowd—and the vehicles they rode in—kept swelling and snapping up space at the outpost police station in Area 25 Township in Lilongwe, where Kabwila was to spend the night.
National police publicist Nicholas Gondwa confirmed the arrest and said Kabwila is likely to be charged later today. But rumour was rife that the charge could be treason or sedition.
“Zonse zimene, nza Kamuzu Banda,” sang some women MCP supporters, as they whipped up emotions and support for Kabwila by chanting the name of MCP’s and Malawi founding president.
Kabwila, an outspoken critic of the Mutharika government over what she sees as many governance blunders, had been arrested just before 5pm on Monday when the police dramatically nabbed her when she was a few metres from being untouchable—as she headed towards the German Embassy, which is barely 500 metres away.
In an interview, at the locked police station gate manned by dozens of armed police officers who were also all ears, the MCP officials took turns to bash Mutharika and his regime for having been unnecessarily heavy-handed and hypocritical in arresting Kabwila.
MCP secretary general Gustave Kaliwo, who is also the party’s legal adviser, lamented the arrest, saying such action flies in the face of democracy.
He said earlier on Monday, when there was a rumour that the police had issued a warrant of arrest for both Kabwila and fellow parliamentarian Peter Chakwantha (MCP—Lilongwe South West), he had met a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officer-in-charge, to assure him that the two were not in hiding.
He added that he offered to present the two to the police headquarters before Parliament opened yesterday afternoon, if they wanted.
“And they told me ‘no, bring them after Parliament has adjourned’. I had a witness with me, in his office. He said, ‘Ayi, pitanawoni, bwana. Tikawafuna tikuyimbilani,’ [let them free, if we will want them, we will telephone you],” Kaliwo recounted.
He expressed shock that the police went on to arrest Kabwila after she attended Parliament. When he followed up with the CID chief later, Kaliwo said the police official promised to answer his questions at 6:30pm.
“I have been ringing him several times, after 6:30pm now, and he is not picking up,” he complained, saying the police dramatised things by erecting roadblocks when the two people they sought could have easily walked into the office of the CID chief earlier in the day.
On Mutharika, he said the President has been telling the nation that he and five other political colleagues had been slapped with a politically-motivated trumped-up treason charge after his elder brother Bingu wa Mutharika, had died suddenly in the presidency.
He noted that, to date, the President dismisses that charge and wondered how a whole government may now use reported—and highly questionable— WhatsApp chats as evidence of a serious charge of either treason or sedition.
“It says a lot about whether the police know the rights or privileges of parliamentarians during a sitting session. Mind you, this is [the Legislature], the third arm of government and they may not care much about Kabwila but, please, she is an Honourable member of Parliament and they have got to respect her institution, at least” he added.
In her comments, Dedza East parliamentarian Juliana Lunguzi (MCP) chimed in, saying during the ordaining of the new Roman Catholic Bishop George Tambala in Zomba recently, Mutharika asked the clergy to pray against the spirit of character-assassination and rumour-mongering among Malawians that could destroy unity and national development.
“Now what is this, his whole government is resorting to? Isn’t this hypocrisy of the highest order?” she wondered.
A South Africa-based law expert on Monday said the arrests of MCP party officials and members of Parliament are indicative of a party in disarray and that is at war with itself.
Law scholar at university of Cape Town Danwood Chirwa also suggested that the party has no means of regaining public confidence except by resorting to violence and abuse of the coercive powers of the State.
He said as long as Parliament is in session, Kabwira and all other MPs cannot be arrested because they have parliamentary immunity, whether they happen to leave Parliament temporarily or not
“They could be arrested after this session ends and when they leave parliamentary premises. There is no basis for their arrest,” said Chirwa.
According to Chirwa to suggest that talk of toppling the government constitutes sedition or treason is to engage in abuse of both political power and powers of arrest.
He said political parties exist precisely to topple the ruling party as long as that overthrow is by political and peaceful means
Chirwa explains that Malawi has a Constitution that protects freedom of expression and political rights, both of which are there to promote robust political engagement and competition. n