President Peter Mutharika has picked an unnecessary fight with human rights defenders and he does not sound brave, our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Last week, the President jetted back from New York looking much fitter than he was on a similar touchdown last year when he could not lift his right hand.
Nine days ago, he popped out of a plane in style—throwing both hands in the air to the excitement of waiting crowds at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe.
That wave might have been a rehearsed stunt to erase memories of his October 2017 low when he came waving and greeting with a frail left hand, a shocker to the nation where adults salute each other with the right hand. The 79-year-old later stated that he was rheumatic, but claimed he was as fit as a boxer the size of light heavyweight export Isaac Chilemba whom he “challenged” to a 12-round non-title bout.
If Mutharika was fit for the ring at a time Malawians feared he had overstayed in the US to seek specialist medical treatment, he needed a tougher opponent on his bullish return from this year’s United Nations General Assembly (Unga).
And it appears he already had a familiar foe in mind—the civil society organisations who staged anti-government protests in Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba the day he jetted off on September 21.
Without any prompting, a Mutharika scoffed at the NGOs behind the demonstrations.
“Let me take this advantage to say I sincerely missed the massive demonstrations of 90 people in Blantyre and 220 people in Zomba. This is a sign that these misguided people should know that Malawians want dialogue, not demonstration or confrontation. I hope this is the last time…” he told the crowd.
His take summed up a tone of arrogance that typified the trip from the start, when Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Emmanuel Fabiano told off the press that “the President will leave and come back as he wishes”.
Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) chairperson Timothy Mtambo reckons it is time Mutharika and “DPP stooges” stopped demonising demonstrations which are key to the democratic process.
“Demonstrations are not a game of numbers, but a form of engagement between rights holders and duty bears. This right is protected by our Constitution and international human rights statutes to which Malawi is party,” he argues.
Mtambo urges the President to uphold Section 38 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstrations.
He asserts: “It is very, very saddening that the highly acclaimed constitutional lawyer, who has reminded us over a thousand times that he actively participated in the drafting of our Constitution, would stoop so low.
This trivial thinking brings into question the credentials of the Head of State as someone who spent many years in a progressive democracy like the US where demonstrations happen every day.”
Just when Malawians want governors to be transparent and accountable, Muthaika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) appear reluctant to open up and intolerant towards critics.
This could be the undoing of the party which regained the presidency with just 36.6 percent of the votes counted in 2014—and it needed a midnight High Court ruling to compel Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to announce contentious results some electoral commissioners wanted verified.
However, the DPP administration is not doing much to endear itself with the majority who might have rejected it in protest to a culture of impunity which Salima North West legislator Jessie Kabwila christened “executive arrogance”.
Mutharika was Minister of Education, Science and Technology when his brother Bingu’s regime waged a war of words with Kabwila after deploying police interrogators to gag tutors at Chancellor College from using critical examples in lecture rooms.
That intolerance to dissenting view continues.
And the President has joined those who judge demonstrations by the numbers that go marching.
This thinking is faulty and hazardous to democracy, says political scientist Michael Jana. He terms it somewhat cowardly.
“Even one person can demonstrate if the cause is in line with what he or she needs to fight for or to portray. It is the right of every person. Whether individually or collectively, one can demonstrate,” says the analyst based at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.
To him, the President’s sermon at KIA shows government is “actually scared” of demonstrations.
“For some reason, it is scared to the point that when few people join the demonstrations, it feels relieved,” he said.
But what is in the numbers that unsettled the President whose advisor on non-governmental organisation affairs, Mavuto Bamusi, considers too lofty to meet the human rights defenders?
“The big issue is that when many people join the demonstrations, people can see that a lot of people are disgruntled. That’s a visible sign of loss of legitimacy. The more people demonstrating, it can make government ungovernable. So, they want one person to demonstrate because that cannot make Malawi ungovernable,” says Jana.
He warns that judging mass protests by the numbers may constrict the right to demonstrate.
Jana stated the impact of the President’s recent outbursts: “It means that if you have a grievance, you really need many people behind you for you to demonstrate, which is not true. If I have grievances, I have the right to express my dissatisfaction with the situation. It does not matter whether I am alone or we are three or four or five. I have the right to demonstrate.”
To the political scholar, the citizenry will be the main loser if the highly repeated misperception is tolerated and entrenched.
“In that scenario, one cannot demonstrate until one mobilises a large number, hundreds and thousands of people. Obviously, the major winner is the ruling class. By constraining demonstrations, they would have removed dissenting views,” he explains.
DPP is growing militant towards critical voices. Recently, Mutharika publicly threatened that he would fall on his critics “like a tonne of bricks”. He is also on record to have said: “I don’t take ultimatums from anyone.”
Last week, presidential press secretary Mgeme Kalilani repeated the tagline when HRDC demanded Mutharika’s response to the petition marchers presented on September 21.
The activists were protesting against continued impunity and indifference to citizens’ concerns when they rebuffed invitations to an 11th hour dialogue meeting and took to the streets on September 21.
They expected Mutharika’s administration to commence contact and dialogue within 90 days after the April 27 mass protests, but government looked away, a mark of the President’s well-chronicled unresponsiveness, while his propaganda machinery was using quacks, seasonal activists and briefcase non-governmental organisations to castigate HRDC members instead of responding to burning issues raised in their petitions.
Bamusi, once a vocal member of the civil society, said the activists were asking too much when they demanded to meet the President. Just like that, Mutharika who fitted on a ballot paper for all to tick the box finds himself bigger than those who want him to fulfill his campaign promises—ending corruption, impunity, nepotism, power blackouts and ruling party monopoly of Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MCP).
It is in this fragile bubble of false supremacy that the President and his minions fanned the mass protests he disdains and he continues to pick unnecessary fights and sound bitter about it.
Unfortunately, he does not sound smarter by ignoring aspirations articulated by the marchers simply because the majority of Malawians did not come out.