Four months ago, Alesi Jonas was a buoyant mother of one living happily in her marital home with a hygienic toilet and bathroom. When it rained, the residents of Ngomano Village tilled their garden and planted in anticipation for a better harvest this year. But her world crumbled one day.
On Christmas Eve, residents of her neighbouring village, Wilson, destroyed her home, crop and livestock. The aftermath of an endless chieftaincy dispute Group Village Head Ngomano calls a “battle of grudges” forced 94 Ngomano villagers to flee and seek refuge at Bvumbwe Trading Centre in Thyolo, where one small room houses up to nine people.
“Like refugees, we have spent nearly four months in a rest house where 17 families share 15 rooms. All of us share one toilet and one bathroom which smell horrible,” lamented the woman in an interview, calling for a swift and lasting solution to the dispute.
Like her colleagues, the woman—who says the congestion and poor worsening hygiene a threat to their health, privacy and comfort—now works in farms around their temporary home in exchange for foodstuffs, money and other necessities.
“We cannot enrol the pupils in neighbouring schools because for the past months, officials have been assuring us that we will go back soon,” says Modesta Malanga.
During her stay at the temporary shelter, the mother of eight saw her daughter Fenia give birth to a baby who died a week-old due to pneumonia.
As the uncertainty continues, the people want government to come in and help solve the situation.
“Our conflict with Wilson Village started as a village headship dispute about 15 years ago. We reported it to the Ministry of Local Government, but we do not know why government did not intervene before it got out of hand,” says Ngomano.
On the other hand, Wilson residents say in the past eight years, their expelled neighbours were using their political links to victimise them.
It is not easy to tell who is right or wrong.
However, government must stamp its authority not only to restore order in T/A Thomas, but also to deter like-minded communities that conduct themselves as if they were above the law, says Eye of the Child executive director Maxwell Matewere.
“It is surprising and shocking that government has chosen to go slow. Even the police must intervene to bring law and order. These are two villages that have been fighting for over 10 years. What will happen if we had such incidents across the country?” explains Matewere.
The activist thinks prolonged appeasement by government and its agencies was like “declaring we have failed—allowing overzealous citizens to take the law into their hands.”
In 2011, Wilson villagers injured Constable Vincent Jeremiah when the police arrested 32 people.
Failure to settle the leadership dispute and resulting impunity in time might have allowed the problem to escalate to the horrendous proportions that occurred last December, but concerned parties are happy that mediation efforts are underway at last.
“The recent conflicts are just a chapter in a long story, but we are part of the reconciliation efforts by the district commissioner [DC] and human rights organisations,” said Thyolo police spokesperson Edith Likaka.
She said the law enforcers have made some arrests and suffered mob attacks over the years. She explained that they mounted a camp and daily patrols soon after the December unrest, but they withdrew because the peacekeeping mission became too costly.
“So, we are not failing our job, but we have inadequate resources and we realise that confrontational approaches could result in more injuries and conflicts,” said Likaka, confirming the mediators have pledged to set aside a special fund for security issues.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) representative Peter Chisi is part of the mediation team. He said the collective effort hopes to get to the root of the deepening dispute, saying using legal due processes may only end at answering the lingering question: Who is wronging who?
“Rather than judging who is right or wrong, we want to find sustainable means of bringing the people together. Relevant authorities were supposed to initiate dialogue a long time ago. As such, the Thyolo episode should serve as a lesson of how we handle chieftaincy issues,” said Chisi.
Presidents and local government ministers usually urge authorities to refrain from messing chieftaincy to reduce quarrels, lawsuits and injunctions. They must start acting with speed to avert humanitarian crises.
According to DC Lawford Palilani, the Thyolo communities have been foes since Village Head Wilson was asked to relinquish power to Ngomano about 15 years ago.
“Last year, we negotiated with both villages to reinstate Wilson and revisit the succession plan, but the process was disrupted by the recent fighting,” said the DC, who heads mediation team.
Highlighting the need for clear succession, the official said efforts to broker a peace deal has hit a new low following the rise of Kapanga, a self-crowned Village Head Ngomano, who does not want the exiled incumbent to return home.
In a country where no village is above the law, the impunity and suffering of the Thyolo communities should teach relevant government agencies that a stitch in time serves nine.