The civil society is well known for criticising government, pinpointing gaps in service delivery and their bad impact on the people. But the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace (CCJP) in Karonga Diocese recently sang songs of praise for government for oiling the wheels of justice in Nthalire, Chitipa.
What comes to mind when you hear about Nthalire in Chitipa, a far-flung rural area overshadowed by the picturesque plateau that is Nyika National Park.
For many, the locality being transformed into a rural growth centre could be a striking example of a hard-to-reach population with thin chances in life due to ragged roads that split the hills and valleys that roll into a vast bush.
Predictably, this is why the cut-off population in the area is usually burdened by lack of skilled service providers, including court officials, teachers and health workers.
On a cloudy Thursday afternoon, an exploration of rivers of justice mothered a 224km rough muddy ride from Karonga Boma to Nthalire, where a courtroom modernised by the European Union has been lying idle due to lack of a magistrate for over five years.
Over the years that magistrates were shunning the supposedly backward area where access to banks, markets, electricity and water always present a headache, the rural folk were crying for justice as glaring criminal cases, including gender-based violence, usually went unpunished.
But the people that have “cried for justice” have a reason to celebrate since government has answered their prayer by providing a magistrate, says women and girls group secretary Flora Munthali.
“It was always disturbing to perpetrators of gender-based violence and other crimes walking scot-free because there was nothing to hold them accountable for their offences. This is why the magistrate’s coming is a cause for celebration, but we hope it is the beginning of better things to come,” said Munthali.
Leading a group championing human rights and equality, she put the justice system on trial and found it guilty of perpetuating victimisation due to the delays and discontinuation of cases involving girls and women subjected to beatings and other gender-related torture when the magistrate was away.
Gender-based violence is the commonest crime recorded in the area and it accounts for two thirds of cases reported at Nthalire Police Station, says officer-in-charge Malani Moyo. According to Moyo, 10 cases are reported every week.
He believes the impact of the magistrate’s arrival is clear in the reduced number of suspects in their cells as offenders are being charged and tried in time, unlikely to spend days waiting for bail.
By contrast, Chitipa Police officer-in-charge, senior assistant commissioner James Munthali, gave a graphic glimpse of the era Nthalire had to endure.
Likening the police to one arm of the justice system and the court to another, the power-packed decider, Munthali said: “With the court paralysed by the absence of a magistrate, one limb was not functioning.
“Crimes were increasing, case were piling and some of them ended up being dropped and others took months to be heard because it was expensive to refer and transport both witnesses and suspects to Chitipa Magistrate’s Court.”
At worst, this became a scapegoat for suppressing suspects right to bail and keeping them locked for more than the 48 hours stipulated in the country’s laws.
But looking forward, even traditional leaders envisions more people respecting the rule of law and the rights of others as the magistrate hears every case to its final conclusion.
“The magistrate is already clearing a backlog of cases, but he needs a reliable means of transport as the target area spreads out beyond Wenya, over 30km away,” says T/A Nthalire.
The headway is a fruit of consistent lobbying by rights groups spearheaded by CCJP as part of securing the rights of women and girls.
The Reverend Father Denis Chitete deputises Bishop Martin Mtumbuka in Karonga Diocese.
In an interview, vicar general Chitete said: “As a church, we believe people will only be free if peace and justice is allowed to take their course. We are very thankful to government for answering the cry of the people of Nthalire and we are committed to continuing walking with the communities for the rest of the journey.”
The rest of the journey?
“The end of one mile marks the start of the other,” affirms acting T/A Nthalire, asking government to tar the unpaved road to Rumphi and Chitipa as well as declare Nthalire and Wenya, a standalone district with its headquarters at the rural growth centre.
This, they believe, will transform the emerging rural growth centre, becoming a white elephant due to delayed completion of construction works, into truly a window to sustainable development.
According to Chitipa judiciary officer Nicholas Ghambi, the justice system has been struggling to fill the vacancy at Nthalire due to shortage of magistrates. Highlighting why he calls this “a major challenge facing the district”, Wenya, Misuku and Kameme have none at present.
“It is expensive to train magistrates and most of the new graduates shun rural areas in preference for private practice or NGO jobs in urban areas. They say they cannot cope with areas like Chitipa where roads are bad, goods are very expensive and electricity unreliable,” Ghambi explained.
But Robert Botha seems to be a different breed all together. In his mid-30s, the third grade magistrate said he accepted to go where many fear to be posted because it is in such hard-to-reach areas where the need for justice tends to be real.
“During my career, I have lived in hard-to-reach places like Likoma Island and I don’t see a reason for declining to go where people live and need my services,” says Botha, admitting that he was overwhelmed when he was being transferred from Chintheche to Nthalire late last year.
No wonder, the people of Nthalire feel their quest for justice is in safe hands.