Malawi – Where there is smoke ….

    Little known to the outside world, civic life in Malawi is degrading by the day. Since the arrival of multiparty democracy, Malawi has experienced its share of ups and downs, with governments prone to corruption and autocratic temptations. Bingu wa Mutharika – the president of the day – is no different. He is dealing with the country as it were its own possession. Mutharika is aware that he would not be allowed to hold office for ever, so he has already earmarked the slot for his brother Peter, the now Foreign Minister in his government. In May, the President expelled British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet after a document where the diplomat referred to Mutharika as a dictator leaked out. In July, youth belonging to the ruling DPP roved around Blantyre with machetes threatening anyone who dared protests against the government. DPP has not categorically come forward to disassociate with this group nor have the youth been arrested.

Civil society and opposition parties are reacting to this despotic tendency. Protesters have taken to the streets of Lilongwe and Blantyre, Malawi’s major cities. In 2011, at least 18 people have been killed and 200 injured by the police during street protests. President Mutharika vowed publicly to stamp out any critic. “If they go back to the streets – he told a police graduation in Zomba last September – I will smoke them out”. And smoke them out he did.

In the early hours of the morning, on September 2, fire erupted at Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) offices in Blantyre destroying the building, computers and many other items. The fire was started by arsonists because of IPI involvement in the anti-government protests. IPI Executive Director, Rafiq Hajat has been at the forefront with other civil society leaders in organising demonstrations and continues to play a leading role in pressurising the government to observe good political and economic governance. There have also been arson attacks on the homes of other government critics, including opposition politician Salim Bagus and human rights activist Macdonald Sembereka.

On October 9 it was the turn of the Catholic Church. A fire swept through the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Lilongwe, destroying bishops’ offices and priests’ living quarters. No one doubted this to be part of an ongoing campaign of fire-bombing against government critics. Father George Buleya, the Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, said that the fire broke out in the apartment of one of the priests and spread to the offices.

      The Catholic Church has criticised the government on numerous occasions over the past. Last year the Episcopal Conference published a pastoral letter in which the government was accused of “not serving the welfare of the people.” Fr Bulaya said that since then “the Church’s radius of action has become more restricted.” In July, Joseph Zuza – Bishop of Mzuzu – condemned the violence by youths from the country’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Blantyre. On August 16, during the National Day of Prayers, the bishop accused the government of silencing civil society, the media and the faith community, who he said had a role to play in safeguarding democracy and the rule of law. He stated that the Presidency “must stop silencing civil society, the media, the judiciary system and democracy which the Country has paid a high price for”. The bishop was clearly aware of the consequences, since he made the remarks in the presence of the President. Other Church leaders have criticized Mutharika for his undemocratic behaviour and for his economic policy that has reduced the country to a collapse.

The answer did not wait long to reach its destination. Mutharika’s campaign of violence against has already hit the most important targets. At the same time, Mutharika has shown little respect for history. Malawi today resembles the final years of dictator Kamuzu Banda. Then, the killing of protesters and the clear opposition of the Church led to Banda’s demise. In Malawi, 80% of the population is Christian, and the Catholic Church has always had a leading role in political matters, even for the members of other Churches. The Muslim minority is also keen to participate in the democratic debate. Perhaps Bingu wa Mutharika should reflect on history.


Patrick O’Donnell




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