Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tension at Blantyre Old Town, Malawi's Failure to Chose One Road

The atmosphere in Blantyre Central Business District (CBD) is pregnant with tension.
At Blantyre Old Town (also known as Victoria Hall), right within the Blantyre CBD, some four Police Land Cruisers are lined up overlooking Henderson Street, with Police officers on high alert.
The news is that Polytechnic students are on their way to Blantyre District Commissioner (DC) offices. These offices are located within the Southern Region Government offices, which also houses the Immigration Department, Fiscal Police, Meteorological Department, Department of Tourism, Ministry of Information Departments (including the Malawi News Agency), Administrator General, Legal Aid, Blantyre Electoral Commission offices, among others.
The aim of the students is to present a petition to the DC. The issue is about the on-going stand-off between University of Malawi (UNIMA) lecturers and Inspector General of Police, Peter Mukhito.
So far, it has not been all-unity within UNIMA, as lecturers from some constituent colleges of UNIMA- notably, Bunda College of Agriculture, Polytechnic- have decided to end their sit-in and resume classes.
The decision has riled the students, who refused to attend classes on Tuesday at the Polytechnic. They viewed their lecturers' decision as a betrayal of their colleagues at Chancellor College, the biggest constituent college of UNIMA.
Today (Thursday) morning, Zachimalawi saw a horde of students leave Polytechnic campus and head towards Blantyre DC offices in Blantyre CBD.
They have not yet arrived, though the heavy police presence at Blantyre Magistrates' Court- which stands between Victoria Hotel (Blantyre Old Town) and the entry to Southern region Goverment offices- indicates that the law enforcers are on high alert.
The Mlawi Police Service may even be ready to throw teargas cansters willy-nilly, as they did at the Polytechnic campus yesterday (Wednesday).
Such has been the case during the past one month, or so, of tension and stand-offs over academic freedom.
During this period, President Bingu wa Mutharika has made three 'dangerous' statements: that Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito will not apologise, thus compromising on his role as both Commander-in-Chief of the Malawi Police Service, and Chancellor of UNIMA; that demonstrators deposit a collateral damage deposit of K3 million before any such demonstrations, peaceful or not, which such human rights activists as Undule Mwakasungula have described as 'unconstitutional and dictatorial'; that civil society organisations' leaders are unemployable individuals with no good track record, prompting others to interpret that, by saying 'unemployable', Mutharika means that the civil society leaders cannot be bought by government agents. In Malawi, individuals who have suddenly changed their ati-government tune are said to have been 'sconed' in the mouth.
Adding on to this is the Malawi Government's decision this week to ban (or its plans to do so) the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) purpotedly because it is 'illegal' and 'not registered'. HRCC is made up of 97 human rights NGOs in Malawi.
This has been revealed by Presidential spokesperson, Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba. Ntaba also acts as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) spokesman.
Government's decision has buffled many political analysts and human rights activists.
On one hand, they say it is HRCC that organised a virgil at Parliament's main gate when Mutharika's DPP government was in minority, and opposition legislators led by Leader of Opposition, and Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president, John Zenus Ungapake Tembo ganged up to topedo the National Budget.
Such was Mutharika's vulnerability that he resorted to the 'People-Power' strategy, appealing to citizens reasoning and sympathy when things did not go his way. CSOs and NGOs also played a crucial role in making sure government got its way, either by organising virgils or demonstrations.
Now that Mutharika's DPP is in majority, though not absolute majority, things have all of a sudden changed, and Mutharika is biting more than he soothes.
At several fora, including during the opening of the 2010 International Trade Fair in Blantyre, Mutharika challenged development partners who, he felt, were interfering in Malawi's internal affairs to 'pack up and go, I don't care'.
He also took time to accuse private newspapers of being 'bought', and advancing donors' agenda, and threatened to close down newspapers that were acting contrary to government's development agenda.
This sentiment has, coincidentally, become linked to government's recent attempts tp muzzle press freedom, as evidenced by its recent decision to ammend Section 46 of the Penal Code and empower the Minister of Information (and Civic Education) to ban publications deemed, in his or her view, to be against national interests.
Currently, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), government's human rights arm established under an Act of Parliament, has joined hands with the Media Council of Malawi (MCM) and dragged government to court over the controversial provision.
Government lawyers argued this week the two bodies had no 'sufficient' interest in the matter, and urged the High Court of Malawi to throw out the appplication.
Their argument is that nobody (including the two bodies) has been affected yet by the new legislation.
Information and Civic Education Minister, Symon Vuwa Kaunda, has also joined government lawyers in this argument. He told Zachimalawi on Wednesday government does not intend to envoke Section 46 'anytime in the fore-seable future', adding that the Section is just there to guard against 'press freedom excesses" in future.
Evidently, the past seven months have not been easy for human rights advocates. Presidential advisor on NGOs, Bessie Chirambo, has spoken against NGOs a record 15 times- all the time repeating sentiments that government will not hesitate 'to close down' NGOs that rally against the government of President Mutharika, and never take the time to appreciate the 'many good things'.
All these developments lead up to one conclusion: Malawi, the Warm Heart of Africa, is at a cross-roads.

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