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Malawi in turmoil as judgment day looms

Lilongwe — As Malawi anxiously awaits the results of a Constitutional Court case that could nullify last year’s presidential election, popular resistance to President Peter Mutharika is growing more strident, precipitating the country’s worst political crisis since the return to democracy in 1994.

The scars of the unrest are all too visible in Msundwe, a trading centre on the outskirts of the capital Lilongwe that has become a hotbed of protest action against the government. The police station, close to the main marketplace, is in ruins: ransacked, vandalised and burnt by a community that has effectively revolted against the current government. Prisoners inside were released when the building was torched several months ago, and the town and the villages which surround it have become no-go areas for police.

Just a few kilometres from the birthplace of main opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera, Msundwe is now an opposition stronghold. Long-standing local grievances against this government were crystallised after the presidential election in May last year, which was won by Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with 38.57% of the vote. Chakwera and the Malawi Congress Party came second with 35.41%.

But the results were marred by serious allegations of electoral fraud, and rejected by opposition parties, who launched a legal challenge. This is now before the Constitutional Court: arguments have been heard, and the country nervously awaits judgment which is expected in early February at the latest.

In the meantime, protests against the government have been growing louder and bolder. The protests began with calls for the resignation of Justice Jane Ansah, the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission, but have evolved into a wider expression of dissatisfaction with the government. 

Msundwe, which has never before played a significant role in Malawian politics, has taken centre stage. Whenever the opposition are holding anti-government protests in Lilongwe, scores of lorries and pick-up trucks arrive from Msundwe. These vehicles are bussing in the most notorious of the opposition supporters — christened the Msundwe Garrison — who have surprised many watchers by maintaining regular street protests for close to seven months.

A president under siege

Mutharika has reacted to the popular unrest by going to ground. After being sworn in for his second term, he stayed for months in Blantyre, despite the presidency being based in Lilongwe.

He has dramatically cut down on public appearances and avoided travelling in opposition-friendly areas, especially in the central regions. The size of his security detail has been greatly increased, and he now travels with an escort of armoured military vehicles. But in interviews he has remained defiant and attacked the opposition as bad losers.

In early October, matters came to a head when Mutharika emerged from his shell and attempted to host a public event in Lilongwe. Opposition supporters in Msundwe attempted to block all traffic heading in the direction of the event (in an earlier incident, Mutharika’s convoy was forced to take a different route into the capital to avoid a similar blockade). Angry youths barricaded the roads and fought running battles with police. One police officer was brutally stoned to death.

Later, the police returned to the area, firing teargas into houses, beating residents and making hundreds of arbitrary arrests in reprisal.

A report by the Malawi Human Rights Commission, a constitutionally mandated institution, later revealed that police officers had sexually violated 17 women in the Msundwe area, including four minors and one pregnant woman. “Some of the survivors were raped right in the presence of their children, some of whom are able to recount the incident and describe the police officer’s penis in great details,” reads part of the horrifying findings. The government has questioned the validity of the report.

James Mwale, a businessman at the Msundwe trading centre, sais although the protesters have attracted notoriety for the violent protests, it has also suffered severely for its actions. “Police too have been a nightmare, when they want to retaliate against the area, they don’t spare anyone, people have had to sleep at graveyards in fear of violent police reprisals,” he said. He noted, however, that the extended absence of police has also led to a general security breakdown in the area.

Nationwide turmoil

The unrest in Malawi is not limited to Msundwe, however. With Mutharika faring poorly in both the centre and northern parts of the country, sustained protests have left his government under siege and the economy in a tailspin.

Inflation, currently at 10.4%, is on the rise, and undercollection by the Malawi Revenue Authority means the treasury is running at a deficit of 59-billion kwacha (R1.2-billion, $80.3-million). The tourism sector has attributed a poor season to the political crisis.

The military has been called in to maintain law and order during the protests. This, however, has led to some tensions between soldiers and police officers.

Divisions have emerged even within Mutharika’s ruling party, with some senior officials hoping to succeed him if a fresh election is called.

It is still far too early to write off Mutharika, however. Although a late entrant to the public sphere — he spent decades in the US as a law professor — he has proven to be a remarkably resilient politician. Many observers thought his political career was over when he failed to prevent Joyce Banda from succeeding his brother Bingu wa Mutharika as president, on Bingu’s unexpected death in 2012, but he went on to beat Banda in the next election.

His spokesperson, Mgeme Kalilani, said that the opposition is to blame for the widespread unrest in the country: “They chose to unleash violence as a reaction to their loss. The president tried his best to help the opposition and the HRDC [Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a civil society umbrella group] leadership understand that political violence was not welcome in a democracy.

“He keeps reminding the opposition leadership and their supporters about this fact. The expectation of the president is that the opposition and the HRDC leadership will see the need to stop the violence and the terror their supporters have been perpetrating against members of other political parties and other innocent citizens,” Kalilani told the Mail & Guardian.

Political limbo

Nothing is likely to be resolved before the Constitutional Court delivers its verdict on the legitimacy of Mutharika’s election, however.

“There are three possible outcomes of the impending court judgment,” explained Billy Mayaya, a political analyst.

“Firstly, a ruling in favour of the incumbent will result in major political upheaval. Secondly, a ruling in favour of the opposition will lead to major resistance on the part of the governing party.

“The third option of fresh elections may provide the solution but without major reforms in the law and to the Constitution, nothing will temper the situation.”

Concerns over political interference in the judiciary remain high — not least within the judiciary itself. In an unprecedented development, the five judges presiding over the case lodged an official complaint with the Anti-Corruption Bureau complaining that a prominent businessperson and a Supreme Court judge had attempted to bribe them. While confirming the complaint, the bureau has refused be drawn on whose interests the two men were representing. 

Until the judgment is delivered, Malawi remains in political limbo. “A lot of people are expecting the courts to nullify the elections, if we judge by the numbers that have been attending the protests and the anger expressed. Should the courts express a different view, the likelihood of chaos would be so, so high. It’s going to be a deadly aftermath,” said Euginio Njoloma, a security analyst and lecturer at Mzuzu University.

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Golden Matonga
Golden Matonga is an award-winning journalist, columnist and blogger based in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe.

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