Murder cases have worsened in Malawi, with more than two people being killed every day this year against at least one daily in the previous two years, statistics show.
From 513 in 2018 to 660 in 2019, the year 2020 is set to be the most murderous, as 463 people have already been killed between January and July.
Given that the last half of 2018 and 2019 averaged 342 murder cases, total killings could rise to at least 745 this year when those already murdered are added, signaling that the situation is set to worsen if underlining causes remain.
High poverty levels, youth unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse and mob justice are the top causes of the rising murder cases, according to interviews with police, law officers, sociologists, psychologists and traditional leaders.
National police spokesperson James Kadadzera said analysis shows that economic factors—“someone killing the other person to steal from them”—tops the reasons.
Also supporting the theory of the killing for money to survive is Masauko Chamkakala, director of Legal Aid Bureau—a government agency offering legal representation to suspects who cannot afford a lawyer.
“Crimes of need are on the rise maybe due to poverty; people killing for money. With the high unemployment rate, the youth may have resorted to violent crimes such as murder for survival,” Chamkakala said.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) puts Malawi’s youth unemployment rate at 7.5 percent—meaning that at least 90 percent of those wanting to work have jobs.
But this rosy statistic buries the fact that the same ILO says most of these ‘jobs’ are in the informal sector where 70 percent of Malawians in the 15-29 age bracket ‘work’.
Examples of such work include petty vending of, say, plastic bags, minibus touting and similar odd jobs that do not earn enough to meet even the most basic of needs.
Those who have not been trapped in vending or petty jobs opt for dangerous livelihoods, including violent crime, said University of Malawi’s Chancellor College-based sociologist Dr. Jubilee Tizifa in an interview.
The second common cause, said Kadadzera, is alcohol and drug abuse that leads to deadly fights among those who partake.
Alcohol and drug abuse is also linked to poverty as those who cannot cope with the harsh reality of their poverty-stricken daily lives resort to cheap cane spirits and smoking chamba, which is also relatively affordable.
Tizifa said there has been so much frustration among Malawians, especially the youth that they find comfort in alcohol and drugs, which lead them to wrong decisions, including perpetrating murder, as judgement gets impaired.
The third common cause, according to Kadadzera, is mob justice, which sociologist Tizifa said points to a society that has lost trust in the law.
There is also a general breakdown in social values and discipline such that people no longer fear the act of committing murder. She said the erosion of discipline is a result of misinterpretation of democracy.
“During Kamuzu (Banda) era this never used to happen. Discipline was enforced and there was general fear to commit such an offence. In a way this fear helped to serve a good purpose, but nowadays, with demonstrations that have been violent, it (murder) seems to have become normal. So the murders we are seeing are a reflection of what has become of our society,” she argued.
Another Chancellor College-based sociologist Dr Charles Chilimampunga said the increasing cases of homicide, is also a reflection of the brutality of law enforcement agents.
Said Chilimampunga: “When law enforcement agents who are supposed to protect citizens, including crime suspects, brutalise and kill innocent crime suspects, we cannot expect the citizens to behave like angels towards crime suspects.”
“People are frustrated and angry. When people feel that the State and its institutions have failed to meet their needs, they vent their anger on one another. This happens when the State is seen by people, especially the poor, to be unresponsive to their demands and also when the State is too powerful to be challenged.
“So people feel hopeless, they cannot see a better future. They feel powerless to improve their lot. They also feel oppressed. All this breeds despair which in turn fuels bewilderment, frustration and uncontrolled anger.”
Clinical psychologist with College of Medicine in Blantyre Chiwoza Bandawe echoed Chilimampunga’s sentiments, saying when people are frustrated with a wide range of issues—whether social, political and economical factors—they end up venting their anger by engaging in violent acts.
Said Bandawe: “We need to encourage people to learn to manage their emotions or anger by becoming emotionally intelligent and to seek help and learn to talk and express their feelings rather than keeping those feelings in.”
But when crimes as serious as homicide are rising so sharply, it also suggests that preventive measures are failing, according to Chilimampunga. He also said people feel frustrated that many murder cases remain unresolved, with the process of prosecuting suspects painstakingly slow.
He said: “This creates mistrust of the police and the courts of law who are accused, rightly or wrongly, of being corrupt. This encourages people to take the law into their hands.”
Our search at the Judiciary indeed found that as of last year, there were 778 pending homicide cases in the courts country-wide and the figure rose to 1 007 during the first quarter of this year.
Lilongwe had 144 case files in 2019, which rose to 201 in the first quarter. Blantyre, which had 410, last year, had 444 cases by end of March.
Zomba City had 62 pending cases last year and the number remained the same at the end of the first quarter of 2020, while in Mzuzu there were 162 cases last year, but the number jumped to 300 by end of March this year.
Supreme Court of Appeal and High Court registrar Agnes Patemba in an interview attributed the outstanding cases to, among other factors, shortage of judicial officers and members of staff, increased caseload, cash flow challenges and unnecessary adjournments by lawyers and inaction by parties.
Said Patemba: “With the Covid -19 preventive measures that were put in place, we have been registering cases, but few are being disposed of as the registries are focusing on a limited number of cases deemed urgent matters such as bail applications.”
The office of Legal Aid Bureau is also grappling with homicide cases and is handling over 1 600 case files some dating back to three years ago. They have not been taken for trial due to limited staff and resources, according to the bureau’s director Chamkakala.
Currently, the office has a total of 23 lawyers. Three lawyers in Zomba, which has 125 homicide cases and 800 other cases; six lawyers in Mzuzu where there are 238 homicide cases and over 2 000 other cases.
Lilongwe main office has eight lawyers against 619 homicide cases plus other 2 000 new cases while the Blantyre Office has six lawyers with 676 homicide cases and at 1 700 other new cases as of last month.
In an interview, Chamkakala explained that the office is now overwhelmed with such cases because of “very limited resources and staff”.
Commenting on the issue Centre for Human Rights, Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) executive director Victor Mhango noted that too many suspects have been waiting for a court date in prisons for more than five years.