The United States has withheld $350-million in funding to Malawi following the death of 19 people during two days of public protests last week over fuel and electricity shortages, rising prices and high unemployment in the country.
The US pledged aid as part of a Millennium Challenge Corporation pact signed on April 7. The US agency is concerned with issues of development, good governance and a commitment to a human rights culture. The pact was aimed at reducing the fuel and electricity crisis in Malawi.
The withdrawal sends a strong message against the brutality of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime. Last week’s protests were led by a coalition of 80 groups that claim Malawi is facing its worst shortages in 47 years of independence and is turning into an “autocratic kleptocracy”.
The fierce crackdown by Mutharika’s government has intensified calls for him to step down and the civil society coalition has given him until August 17 to address the country’s problems or they say they will start protesting again.
Mutharika responded: “If you go back to the streets, I will smoke you out. Enough is enough.”
He also urged the courts to bring the civil society groups to justice for abusing people. He singled out Undule Mwakasungula, the chairperson of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), Joyce Banda, its vice-president, Cassim Chilumpha, its former vice-president, acting national co-ordinator of the HRCC Reverend MacDonald Sembereka, Institute for Policy Interaction executive director Rafiq Hajat and John Tembo, the leader of the opposition, as those who orchestrated the demonstrations that led to the deaths.
The pressure has intensified this year since Britain, Malawi’s biggest donor, indefinitely suspended aid to the country.
This followed a diplomatic row over a leaked embassy cable referring to Mutharika as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”, which led to the expulsion of Britain’s ambassador to Lilongwe.
In response Britain expelled Malawi’s representative in London and suspended aid worth $550-million over the next four years.
During last Friday’s protests, as riot police confronted groups of young men in the capital Lilongwe, Mutharika took to the airwaves to appeal for calm, saying he was happy to hear the grievances of opponents who accuse him of ignoring civil liberties and ruining the economy.
Mutharika, who came to power in 2004 and was re-elected in 2009, vowed to “ensure peace using any measure I can think of”.
He demanded of the protesters: “If you break shops and banks, will you have fuel? You demonstrated yesterday and throughout the night until today, but is there fuel today because of the demonstrations? I think God will do something to help us, will bless us, because these people are not being led by God, they are being led by Satan.”
But his words had little effect as the offices and vehicles of the ruling party were set alight. Scores of shops owned by locals and foreigners were looted, including some owned by Chinese expatriates.
The police hit back hard, using live ammunition, killing four people.
Seven journalists were brutally beaten up in a Lilongwe church and were hounded into the main hospitals.
Two Malawian journalists, Vitima Ndovie and Collins Mtika, were arrested during the mass demonstrations on July 20 and accused of committing arson and insulting a police officer, respectively.
However, Mtika was granted bail without conditions and Ndovie was released without charges.
Journalist Kondwani Munthali said police had targeted the media during the demonstrations, saying they were responsible for the unrest.
Another journalist, Isaac Kambwiri, said last week: “I’ve been whacked on my head. I told them I’m a journalist. They said, ‘You guys from the media are the ones promoting the unrest by writing articles.’ The police hit me. I have a deep cut on my head. It has exposed my skull. I am in hospital bleeding.”
National police spokesperson Willie Mwaluka said: “A lot of things happened on that day, so I can’t tell if journalists were beaten by police after identifying themselves. But the inspector general of police has set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the allegations.”
He said: “They arrested Collins Mtika of the Journalists Union of Malawi and freelancer Vitima Ndovie. They also confiscated a camera of Blantyre Newspapers Limited’s Jacob Nankhonya at Kawale and did the same to Kingsley Jassi and another BNL journalist who was taking pictures of their brutality.”
Additional reporting by Godfrey Mapondera in Blantyre and David Smith, Africa correspondent for Guardian News and Media