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Protests Erupt in Malawi

MALAWI HAS long sought sustainable effective leadership. Last year the electorate thought it finally had achieved that goal, overwhelmingly re-electing President Bingu wa Mutharika to a second term in 2009. But being popular and powerful soon went to Bingu’s head, and confrontations with civil society cumulated in riots last month.

After a period of attacking the media and foreign embassies, and attempting to impose draconian clamp downs on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, Bingu’s suddenly erratic and heavy-handed rule irritated close associates, members of his Democratic People’s Party, the political opposition, and civil society. He tried to curb criticism from Vice-President Joyce Banda, even attempted to oust her from her elected office, and sought to install his brother in her stead. That brother, Professor Peter Mutharika, subsequently was nominated by the DPP to replace Banda as the party’s national presidential candidate in 2014.

Bingu’s Extravagance

Earlier, Malawi had effectively subsidised maize growers and other agricultural small producers. That and unanticipated high prices for Malawi’s tobacco, its main export, had contributed to temporary prosperity and Bingu’s re-election. But in 2010-2011, tobacco prices slumped, the maize subsidies were less effective, consumer costs rose, Bingu purchased an expensive presidential jet, foreign exchange shortages grew acute, and petrol and diesel became very scarce. Bingu’s government was increasingly accused of doing nothing to alleviate such economic distress, of being arrogant and out of touch, and of mismanaging the country’s finances.

All of these concerns, but mostly Bingu’s costly loss of public legitimacy, led to a burst of civil disobedience in several of Malawi’s major population centres, even in Mzuzu in the north, in July. Sleepy Malawi suddenly grew angry at its ruling regime, especially at Bingu. In return, Bingu ordered soldiers to shoot to kill. “Even if you hide in holes, I’ll smoke you out,” Bingu declared in July. About 19 protesters were killed, and 500 arrested, in the country’s first significant repression of civilians since the long dictatorship of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda which lasted in 1993.

Undule Mwakasungula, a local human-rights leader, was attacked in July inside a church compound. “The police came charging at us with sticks and guns, it was terrible,” he said.”The police were just brutal. They were animals, really”. “If they had taken me,” he continued from a safe house, “I would probably never have got out of there alive.”

Those repressive days were supposed to be a thing of the past. But a defiant Bingu has promised to deter any renewed civil protests and to jail opponents. He has now alienated members of parliament, emboldened the political opposition, and caused Joyce Banda to establish the new People’s Party from a section of the ruling DPP. The Executive Director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, a coalition of 100 non-governmental organisations, accused Bingu of refusing to respond to the concerns of the protesting public.

Malawi expells High Commissioner

Malawi depends on foreign assistance for nearly all of its developmental funds and up to half of its regular budget. But the British High Commissioner criticised Bingu’s arbitrary, anti-democratic wielding of power in March, accusing Bingu’s government of presiding over a new era of deteriorating governance, free speech erosion, and attacks on minority rights, and calling the leader “ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism.” The High Commissioner was subsequently expelled and Britain, Malawi’s largest donor, withdrew its sizable funding, as did the Germans. In July, the United States, another major funder, suspended $350 million of Millennium Challenge Grant monies because of the harsh and ruthless ways in which Bingu handled the protests.

Bingu has vowed to serve out his full presidential term until 2014 despite widespread calls inside and outside Malawi, especially from the Malawi Diaspora Forum, for his resignation. Whether he can do so depends on further protests, the decisions of his rattled political party, and the ability of Joyce Banda and her husband, well-respected former chief justice Richard Banda, to mobilize a national effort. Donor concerns may once again determine the ultimate result.

Published in Think Africa Press on August 4th, 2011



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