It is not all the time that the voiceless are mute. They speak out. Save for the fact that when they do you better listen to them. It saves time and money. And shame. Like is the case now with government. After feeling the heat from the demonstrations it has been forced to reduce tollgate fees. The voiceless have spoken through protests. The anger and frustrations from the unabated rising cost of living have been building up to a point it only needed someone to explode into flames. Bon Kalindo did the rest.
It is embarrassing, to say the least, that government has had to be bulldozed to slash the tollgate fees. Coming as they did at the height of rising prices of many basic necessities such as cooking oil, fuel, water tariffs, and the value added tax on non-banking services, the high tollgate fees were like rubbing salt on a festering wound.
The gazetted fees: K1 700 for small vehicles; K3 400 for minibuses; K5 100 for buses carrying 17 to 31 people and trucks which weigh 2 to 5-tonne; K7 000 for 5 to 10 tonne vehicles and K50 000 for others, are, by all standards on the higher side for people in an economy that is bleeding and whose incomes have dwindled. Government should have been more sensitive and soulful to the plight of the ordinary Malawians and avoid hurting them further by charging high fees through its latest money-minting machine.
What’s more hurting is that government already collects billions of kwacha through the fuel levy now at K97.68 for petrol and K97.99 for diesel per litre from motorists. The fuel levy accounts for 80 percent of the Roads Fund Administration’s annual income of K31 billion (2017/18 national budget) meant for road maintenance and rehabilitation. But the tollgate fees would only be adding K4.8 billion annually to the road maintenance funds. Against the unfavourable prevailing economic climate Malawians are going through, there was, therefore, no need to hurriedly introduce the fees.
Government should not have laughed off Minibus Owners Association of Malawi lifetime secretary general Coaxley Kamange who was the first to complain publicly to authorities that the fees are exorbitant. The association threatened to stage a nationwide stay away if government went ahead to start collecting the fees. But the stubborn government as it always does, looked away, probably counting on similar previous threats by the association which did not materialize.
For reasons I am yet to understand, Kalindo is Jonny-cum-lately in the art of demonstrations. It is the other guy in town—Sylvester Namiwa of the rights group, Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (CDEDI)—who would have been widely expected to have led the demonstrations against the rising cost of living. But Namiwa took a back seat preferring Kalindo to take the lead in the protests. I hope this is not the beginning of his end in rights advocacy. We have seen how others before him started as strong human rights campaigners before being recognised with fulltime political appointments in the public sector. It is how Timothy Mtambo and before him Voice Mhone a couple of years earlier started.
But as time—the great teacher—has taught us, there is never a shortage of takers for leadership in any undertaking if it is for the public good. Kalindo is the guy that stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum left by Namiwa.
On the eve of the demos in Blantyre, a group of some dirty boys threatened to counter the protests in what looked like a desperate bid by an invisible hand to foil the demos the following day in Blantyre. And true to the threats, come the day of the demos, two opposing groups propped up. The development prompted the police to fire tear gas to disperse the crowds. In the process, a few people were hacked and rushed to hospital. A police unit which operated in a container at the Blantyre Flea market was gutted by fire. But the much-maligned demonstrations still took place. A week later the demonstrations moved to Lilongwe where a bigger crowd patronized the event. At the time or writing this article, Kalindo and team were reported to be arranging to hold the demonstrations in Mzuzu.
Shamefully, it is only now that we see government authorities bidding to peacefully end the protests through contact and dialogue. Too late! The demonstrations have succeeded in painting government in all colours, sheds and images fashioned by the organisers. The ugly scenes resulting from the running battles between police and the demonstrators would have been avoided had authorities only stopped for a second to think about the plight of the ordinary Malawian.