On May 31, three people in Dowa, including a 56-year-old chief, were murdered by a crowd accusing them of practising witchcraft.
Jenala Chidzele, from Kanyumbo Village in Traditional Authority Chiwere, had just returned from his crop field when he was attacked by the mob accusing him of co-bewitching his nephew who died in a car accident on May 18.
Just when the 67-year-old was about to bike off to see a friend of his, a roaring crowd from the neighbouring Kachiwaya Village surrounded his home.
Locals say that when he peeped through a window, he saw a huge crowd carrying machetes and sticks.
“Restless and helpless, he called his wife to go and see what was happening,” an eye witness says.
The mob beat Chidzele to death, burnt his body and pulled down his home. The mob also chased after Sintuma who has never been seen in the village since the fracas.
The attack occurred shortly after the horde from Kanyumbo Village burnt village head Master Kachiwaya’s house and belongings on suspicion of killing his nephew through witchcraft.
Kachiwaya, 56, escaped to Lilongwe but some villagers persuaded him to return to the village.
However, his assailants burnt him to death on arrival. The police and soldiers arrived too late to save the traditional leader. They only detained those who enticed him back and they will be tried for murder.
Such losses of lives and property are familiar in Malawi where elderly citizens suspected of witchcraft are ostracised even though penal laws ban such allegation and witch hunts.
Despite several campaigns to end these attacks continue, old people continue to be victimised.
In July, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) in conjunction with the Centre for the Development of People (Cedep) rolled out a human rights campaign to curb community attacks on the elderly accused of witchcraft.
CHRR acting executive director Michael Kaiyatsa calls for community dialogue and mass awareness campaigns to resolve witchcraft-related mob justice and rights violations.
“Recently, we have noted an increase in attacks on elderly citizens in various communities. We want people to know their rights and responsibilities,” he says.
Kaiyatsa says Malawi is not a lawless country and people should refrain from taking the law in their hands.
“People hold different beliefs and our culture affects how we see things. As such, more needs to be done to address these issues,” he states.
To the rights activists, the rising mob attacks could be symptomatic of lack of trust in security and justice systems.
“Since people seem to have lost their trust in the judicial system, we need to restore that trust and remind people to always take suspects to the police station instead of burning or beating them,” says Kaiyatsa.
He urges the government to speed up the review of the colonial witchcraft laws kick-started in 2011.
Malawi Law Commission spokesperson Wongani Mvula says the Special Commission on the Review of Witchcraft Laws has to meet various stakeholders before it winds up its work.
“Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the meeting has been shifted because we need all the stakeholders to be physically present. We hope that everything will happen soon enough,” he says.
Mvula also blames the sluggish law reform on financial constraints.
The attacks have also brought into question the police capacity to protect people and property.
When asked what the law officers are doing to protect the citizens at risk of being killed by mobs, national police spokesperson James Kadadzera says they are working closely with community policing committees to enforce existing laws and sensitise the masses to the ills of mob justice.
The community structures are taught how to handle cases in the zones, he says.
“We want people to know that there is no one above the law. If someone breaks the law, then the law has to take its course,” he says.
From last December to June this year, CHRR has recorded at least 10 killings attributable to witchcraft.
Karonga district tops the list with six cases.
In 2019, about 56 people were killed on witchcraft accusation.