Like a stranger, 86-year-old Eliza Kanjete was the first to be cornered— according to one of the Neno police officers who rushed to the scene of four murdered elderly citizens on Monday.Branded a ‘witch’ on account of her striking old age, she was not the only one earmarked to die, though.
One by one, 76-year-old Elenafa Kanjete, 73-year-old Byson Kanjete and 69-year-old Idesi Kanjete— not necessarily in that order, but all from one family— were chased around their houses by a bloodthirsty mob in a remote corner of Neno.
Too old to run, they were always going to get exhausted earlier than usual, their energy running out, and their legs failing them. Terrified, they must have slumped in the dust, whimpered and pleaded for mercy, before being overrun by the anger, and physical force of Group Village Head Chimbalanga’s subjects in Traditional Authority Dambe, Neno.
“The four died due to severe beatings, according to post-mortem results. We, as police, are sure that we will have a clear picture of what happened, and decide on the next course of action,” said Neno Police spokesperson, Raphael Kaliati, on Thursday.
Granted, death happens. It is an act of nature.
However, when death is forced— like in the Neno case— nobody understands it; not even Cabinet ministers under whose armpit such issues fall.
“Of course, each and every person will die. The Neno elderly people were also going to die some day. But not in this manner. Not on Monday, as it were. The manner of their death is shocking. It shows that the villagers who have done this do not have respect for human life,” said Gender, Children, Women and Social Welfare Minister, Patricia Kaliati, on Thursday.
Everyone is shocked, GVH Chimbalanga inclusive.
“As a leader, I am really shocked with the death of these people because it has never happened in the history of this village. Not even once have we ever had a man killed in this village,” The Daily Times of January 27 quotes Chimbalanga as saying during the funeral ceremony.
Maybe Neno Shelter for the Aged executive director, Reen Kachere, may understand the issue better than others— having served as Neno legislator and Minister responsible for the Elderly and People with Disabilities as recently as three years ago.
“I, too, cannot understand this. In fact, I am ashamed. This is yet another sad chapter in the history of Neno and we need to understand why what has happened has happened, and what we must do to arrest the problem. In fact, we visited the village where the deceased came from on Friday and we have agreed with the community members to establish village committees in order to address such issues before they turn into brutal anger,” Kachere said in an interview.
Even the Malawi Law Society (MLS), whose members are known to save a life from the gallows through the technical movement of the tongue in court, is shocked.
So shocked is MLS with the Neno events that, within days, the Kanjetes— hitherto unknown— have become known as the Neno 4.
MLS describes the heinous murder of the Kanjetes as a ‘barbaric’ act.
“The senseless and heinous murders of the Neno 4 is a despicable outrage that the Society condemns without any reservation whatsoever. Such kind of barbaric acts stain our collective conscience and have got absolutely no place in a civilised society.
“They should accordingly be fervently opposed and denounced by all right-thinking Malawians. It is even more saddening to note that it would appear that the Neno 4 were principally targeted because of their old age. It reflects extremely poorly on those who were involved in these murders that instead of protecting these vulnerable people, they turned on them and murdered them,” MLS, in a scathing January 27 statement issued by president John Suzi Banda and Honorary Secretary Khumbo Bonzoe Soko, said.
However, as the nation grapples with shock, MLS also found some time to pick threads of sanity in the confusion. It does so by appealing to reason.
“The Society would like to remind all Malawians that our country is a nation of laws. It is the duty of each and every citizen to observe and uphold these laws. We implore our fellow citizens to report all instances of suspected law breaking to the Malawi Police Service and other government law enforcement agencies for appropriate action to be taken. No severity of our indignation at the sight of illegal behaviour will ever justify the taking of the law into our own hands,” it added.
Embarrassingly, though, leaders of some Civil Society Organisations who never took time off their “busy schedules” to see the four Kanjetes on their last journey have joined the train of condemners.
The Kanjetes went in simple coffins draped in zitenje [pieces of cloth] in what could remotely be described as a ‘decent’ burial.
Still, failure to attend their funerals and show solidarity did not stop media-hungry CSOs from issuing condemnatory statements, apparently to get credit out of all the darkness that has befallen Neno and the country.
Leaders of nine CSOs, one human rights lawyer and human rights activist, condemned the Neno incident in a statement released on Wednesday, calling on the government to invest in mass sensitisation exercises in a bid to enlighten the country’s citizens.
The statement, titled ‘Civil Society Statement on the Brutal Killings of Four Elderly People and Escaping Prisoner', was signed by Timothy Mtambo of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Masauko Thawe of Young Advocates, George Thindwa of Association for Secular Humanism, Gift Trapence of Centre for the Development of People, Robert Mkwezalamba of the Human Rights Consultative Committee.
Others were Victor Mhango of Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance, Mtende Msindama of Lawyers for Human Rights, Charles Kajoloweka of Youth and Society, Darlingtion Harawa of Passion for Women and Children, human rights activist Billy Mayaya and human rights lawyer Chrispine Sibande.
Said the signatories in the statement: “We categorically and unequivocally condemn these barbaric killings and call upon the law enforcers to accord the utmost urgency [sic] the issue deserves so that those responsible whoever they are and wherever they are should be hunted down, arrested and be held accountable for this crime that gravely violate [sic] human dignity and human rights,” reads part of the statement.
The CSOs argue that the Malawi Witchcraft Act forbids any trial by ordeal.
Added the CSOs: “In fact, both the Constitution of Malawi and the Penal Code criminalises it. In reference to witchcraft accusations and mob justice against the accused, the Malawi Witchcraft Act – which is part of codified criminal law with prosecutions brought under the Witchcraft Act falling under the jurisdiction of the Magistrate Court— forbids any trial by ordeal that involves “poison, fire, boiling water, or any ordeal which is likely to directly or indirectly result in death or bodily injury to any person”. The Act further forbids accusing anyone of being a witch or practicing witchcraft.”
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women recognises witchcraft accusations and brutal killings of the accused as a form of violence against women and has urged many states including Malawi to take action against witchcraft accusations by challenging the “traditional view” about elderly women being witches through investigating torture and killing of suspected witches and prosecute the perpetrators.
In addition, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial or arbitrary executions, in a 2009 report, called upon states to ensure that all killings of alleged witches are treated as murder, and should be investigated, prosecuted and punished accordingly.
“It is, therefore, clear from this that immunity from prosecution of mob violence against anyone including those accused of witchcraft has no place under both domestic and international legal jurisdiction hence our candid reminder to law enforcers to move with urgency on the matter,” reads the statement in part.
While both MLS and the nine CSOs are quick to point at instruments, both local and international, anthropologists observe that the law does not always hold its course.
For example, the 2010 issue of ‘Anthropologist’ Journal [Volume 12 issue Number 4] observes that: “Public opinion dictates public ideas of causation. The logic of quasi-traditional reactions to distress and anxiety are little affected by the narrow limits of Western scientific pragmatism.”
In anything, a recent spike in the killing of elderly people— as the Neno case testifies— is a good point in point.
When anger spills over, it finally recedes and it is time the nation looked forward to stemming witchcraft-based violence cases.
MLS suggests that those culpable of the Neno murders should face the long arm of the law. It is payback time and nothing less.
“The Society hopes that the Malawi Police Service will relentlessly pursue those who were responsible for the murder of the Neno 4 so that they can account for their actions in a competent court of law. Should these cases be successfully investigated and the wrongdoers apprehended, the Society offers to the government of Malawi the services of its members for their prosecution, on a pro bono basis,” says MLS in its statement.
The nine CSO leaders and two human rights activists agree, but add another dimension to nipping such acts in the bud.
Reads a part of their statement: “We also implore government through the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Ministry of Information, and Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare in partnership with Malawi Human Rights Commission to come out and strongly condemn this barbaric act. Besides, its high time government through these Ministries seriously considered embarking on a robust sensitization campaign of the ills of mob violence as it is apparent that there is also limited or lack of understanding of the rights of the accused persons and also the criminality of the act.
“We further call on Malawi Police Service and Ministry of Local Government and internal security to intensify and invest resources on Community policing and awareness raising on the role of the Police and the need for people to coexist but more importantly treat the Police as their first call on any issue of this nature. As CSOs we believe if our police is taken to the people directly or through Community policing structures, such incidents can be avoided as there will always be tips and grapevines of serious actions to take place in a community which If dealt with in time can prevent such incidents. We strongly believe that this will go a long way in eliminating the incidences of mob justice in the country.”
For Kachere, however, the establishment of committees in each district is the way to go.
“These committees should accommodate the elderly and those who accuse the elderly of being witches. That way, we will tackle these cases and stop people from committing these heinous crimes,” says Kachere.
For Kaliati, however, social cash transfers to the elderly and other vulnerable people may help empower the elderly economically, and stop them from relying too much on relatives who may wish to get rid of the social burden by accusing the elderly of practicing witchcraft. Fortunately, the government, under the dynamic leadership of Prof Peter Mutharika, is already doing that,” says Kaliati.
As the bodies of Eliza Kanjete, Elenafa Kanjete, Byson Kanjete and Idesi Kanjete lie peacefully, but dead anyway, it is clear that the dust will take long to settle down.