Two demonstrations, different causes. That was the situation in the capital city Lilongwe on Tuesday when civil society organisations (CSOs) presented petitions to authorities at the Lilongwe Civic Offices.
One group, under the banner of Concerned Citizens, was led by human rights defender Billy Mayaya, whose march was the most publicised through the social media after obtaining clearance from Lilongwe district commissioner Charles Makanga on Monday.
Former Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) president Luther Mambala led the other group called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Caravan whose banners and placards supported the adoption of the SDGs during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). President Peter Mutharika and other world leaders endorsed the SDGs, a set of targets to succeed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire this December.
From the banners, the SDGs Caravan was sympathetic to Mutharika’s government, justifying why the President had to attend the UNGA and it was not surprising that Minister of Information, Tourism and Civic Education Jappie Mhango led their welcome party at Lilongwe City Council (LCC) civic offices alongside several government officials, including the President’s special adviser on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) Mabvuto Bamusi.
Read one of the banners: “It was important for the President to participate in the adoption of SDGs at the UN”.
In contrast, Mayaya’s group, upon reaching the civic offices, had to wait for about 30 minutes before LCC director of administration Dyson Milanzi received their petition for onward presentation to the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC).
In their petition, Mayaya’s group has given the President 30 days to improve availability of medical supplies and drugs in public hospitals, increase the health sector budgetary allocation, improve on accountability and transparency in the public sector and expedite Cashgate cases in a non-partisan manner.
The group warns that failure on the part of the President and his administration to meet the demands will lead to a series of civil disobedience sit-ins, vigils and protests.
Recently, government has come under attack for drastic budget cuts in its ministries and departments, a development that has negatively affected delivery of social services, including health and education where key personnel such as nurses and trainee doctors as well as teachers have not been recruited. However, government later rescinded its decision and recruited newly graduated nurses from Christian Health Association of Malawi (Cham) colleges and put junior doctors on their mandatory 18-month internship.
Donors, who contribute about 40 percent to the country’s national budget, withdrew their support in October 2013 on concerns of poor public finance management following revelations of plunder of public funds at Capital Hill, widely known as Cashgate.
Then President Joyce Banda engaged British forensic auditors, Baker Tilly, who established that between April and September 2013, about K24 billion ($44.1 million) in public funds was siphoned out through inflated invoices, undelivered goods and services, among others.
Mayaya’s group was beset by patronage as ahandful concerned citizens took part. In some cases, Malawi Police Service (MPS) personnel hired to provide security outnumbered the marchers.
But Mayaya said what mattered was delivery of the message.
He said: “It has never been a game of numbers in protest [marches], but sending the message across. In fact, I wouldn’t mind marching alone next time so long as it is against injustices that government continues to commit.”
Mayaya’s fellow activist, Don Gowa Nyasulu of Citizen’s Initiative, attributed the low patronage to what he said was “government propaganda”.
Their march started from Parliament Building roundabout at City Centre two hours later than the scheduled 7.30am.
Nyasulu alleged the SDG Caravan was sponsored by government to divide CSOs and concerned citizens. He said Bamusi, a former critical CSO activist, was seen with K2 million cash in his vehicleto support the caravan.
But, in a telephone interview, Bamusi denied bankrolling the caravan, saying it was purely a civil society initiative. He could not comment further.
However, one of the organisers for the SDG Caravan, Mambala, who also read out the statement before submitting it to Mhango, said some of the funding came from the office of the presidential advisor on NGOs which Bamusi mans.
Said MambaIa: “I cannot categorically say that government funded this parade, but I see nothing wrong in government funding such an initiative as such SDGs seek to benefit us all.”
Mayaya’s group was confined to the City Centre while the SDG Caravan started off from Lilongwe’s Old Town through Paul Kagame Highway to Area 18 Roundabout where they took the Presidential Drive to City Centre passing through Parliament Building to the Civic Offices to deliver their statement.