Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Southern Africa: Malawi: Analysing the repression of the Malawian protests

Special guests John Kapito, chair of the Malawi Human Rights Council and Michael Jana, former lecturer at the University of Malawi and PhD candidate at Wits introduced the discussions.

The brutal crackdown and repression of the 20-21 July protests in Malawi has left an estimated 18 people dead. These protests occur within a context in which, over the past months, discontent had build up over President Bingu wa Mutharika's increasingly authoritarian tendencies, the lack of consultation in decision-making processes and limited parliamentary debate on decision or input.

The population continues to stagger under the debilitating weight of an energy crisis, as fuel and electricity shortages having plagued the country since September 2010. There is also widespread discontent over the apparent move by the President to pass, and even force through, increasingly undemocratic bills, notably the media bill in February, the amendment to section 46 of the penal code and, most recently, the Civil Procedures Bill Number 27, better known as the "Injunctions Bill" (See ACPP Daily Briefing, 18 July 2011). The Bill amends the Civil Procedures Act to prevent the courts from granting ex parte injunctions against the government or public officials. If signed into law, this controversial bill would severely undermine government accountability.

The Malawian government appears to have become increasingly intolerant of dissenting views; the President is reported to have warned civil society organisations not to demonstrate against his government at a meeting earlier this year (See Africa Confidential Vol. 52 No. 8).

The President sought to manage the current crisis by scheduling a public lecture on the same day as the demonstrations, ostensibly to provide an arena for discussion. Moreover, ruling party cadres and supporters have intimidated and abused gathering protestors. The government complicated the matter further by applying for an injunction to prevent protests the night before they were scheduled, leaving organisers with the impossible task of conveying the message to all participants. This was used a pretext to declare the strikes illegal and thus legitimise the government's heavy-handed response.

Concern around the issue of succession is perhaps one of the key underlying causes of the current tensions. The President appears to be grooming his younger brother Peter Mutharika to succeed him as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)'s presidential candidate in the 2014 elections, a move that has fuelled discontent within the party and throughout the country.

Turning to the opposition, it appears that opposition parties have not been able to garner significant national support to effectively challenge the government. While they may be able to boost their positions relative to the ruling party by forming coalitions, many opposition leaders are unwilling to accept an inferior position in an opposition. Furthermore, there is an overall sense of disenchantment with the all parties in the political arena, who are increasingly perceived as being distant and unresponsive to the concerns of voters; beset by a lack of accountability and transparency; and lacking democratic credentials between and within parties' internal structures and practices.

The governance challenges faced in Malawi are also partly attributable to the 'politics of the belly' prevalent in many African states, whereby access to state power provides access to resources and economic power (See Bayart, J-F (1993) The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly, London: Longman)

While there have been calls for the President to resign, it is arguable that people are also seeking change in the President himself. In both instances, there is a common desire for a change in the approach and practice of leadership. However, given the current state of affairs, it appears increasingly unlikely that the government will become more responsive and supportive of the demands and needs raised by protestors.

Source: Compiled by Timothy Walker, ACPP Pretoria Office Intern