Special report from Malawi – urgent action required

10 Aug

– by Aisha Bahadur

19 dead after violent disruption of civil protests in Malawi – urgently solidarity needed. Send a message to the Malawian government today.

MCTU General Secretary, Robert Mkwezalamba is harassed by security forces at the July 20th protests.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has launched a campaign to condemn the violent repression of civil protests in Malawi that left 19 dead, including a 13 year old boy, as a violation of human rights. ITUC has called upon President Bingu wa Mutharika to respect the right to protest and engage in meaningful dialogue with civil society. Several global union federations, national centres and trade unions have given their support to the ITUC campaign. You can add your voice to the online campaign hosted by Labour Start.

Nationwide demonstrations planned by civil society for July 20th turned into two days of riots after the Malawi government tried to prevent the demonstrations from taking place. According to a report from senior leader of the Malawi Confederation of Trade Unions (MCTU), radio announcements were made on the morning of 20 July that an injunction had been obtained by government to prevent the demonstrations but this injunction was vacated by the court by lunchtime the same day. People that had gathered for the demonstrations were being held back by police that used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse protestors in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu. Anger mounted from the brutal put down of the demonstrations erupting in two days of riots, which has left 19 people dead and scores more injured, including several children.

There has been growing dissatisfaction in Malawi with President Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime. Civil society has been critical of laws that have been passed to limit the freedom of the press, restrict lawsuits against government and limit civil liberties. Popular discontent has been mounting over worsening economic conditions with crippling shortages of fuel and foreign exchange.

The MCTU leader explains that workers have been hard hit by the economic crisis. Shortage of foreign exchange means that companies cannot bring in raw materials and parts which have resulted in job losses. With fuel shortages and high prices for fuel and foreign exchange on the black market, cost of transport has become prohibitively expensive and the basic goods have become unaffordable.

The situation in Malawi worsened after Malawi expelled the British high commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet in April 2011 after a British diplomatic cable was leaked which said President Mutharika was “becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism”. In response Britain expelled the Malawian high commissioner and suspended US$550 million in aid over the next 4 years.

Britain had already reduced its support to Malawi in protest of the government’s purchase of a luxury jet exclusively for the president. Prior to the protests, other donor countries also withheld aid with rising concerns on repressive laws and mismanagement of funds. This has worsened since the July repression actions, with the US suspending aid of US$330 million following the protests. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with more than 70% of the population living on less than a dollar a day and millions of people will suffer the consequences of worsening donor relations. Malawi is heavily dependent on foreign aid, with donor funding accounting for 40 percent of government’s budget, thus alienation of donors have added to the countries economic woes and intensified the foreign exchange crisis.

Organised labour came together with about 80 other civil society organisations, to arrange the 20 July protest marches in Malawi’s cities on 20 July, intended to be peaceful and within constitutional bounds. Despite the brutal police crackdown, protestors took their demands to local district commissioners and called on the President to address these demands by 16 August 2011 or they would return to the streets.

Protests which were intended to remind the President that he was elected by the people and was accountable to the people have shown Mutharika to be unwilling to heed their calls. The day after the protests, Mutharika recognised the need for dialogue with civil society but now seems unwilling and has since resorted to blaming civil society for the riots and deaths, increasing his dictatorial stance by threatening to put down any further protests against his rule saying “If you go back to the streets, I will smoke you out”.

“If you go back to the streets, I will smoke you out”.

It is rumoured that the ranks within the security forces are disgruntled with shuffling in top security posts in the country after the protests and riots. The army chief commander was replaced but has been retained in government as the national security advisor. Government has not linked these changes to the violent actions of security forces, instead it has openly supported these actions.

There is also discontent amongst civil servants, the majority of whom have not received their July salaries. Government, the largest employer in Malawi with about 162,000 workers, insists that this is due to network upgrading and not a result of dwindling cash flows that many suspect are a result of the donor pullout.

Whilst many of the local civil society leaders, including labour leaders, feared for their lives, having received threats, civil society organisations, including the MCTU, have kept up the pressure. The MCTU is one of eight organisations that has appealed to the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute Mutharika for the 19 deaths. They insist that plans for a follow up demonstration on August 17th are intact given the lack of commitment by government to address the demands.

Local church leaders have also been vocal about the unwarranted violence at the demonstrations. As one journalist points out, in Malawi the church is social media, should people be called on to protest again it is expected that they will come out in great numbers.

It seems that Mutharika may be bowing to pressure. On August 9th, when opening the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Africa region meeting being hosted in Malawi, Mutharika announced the formation of a Presidential Contact and Dialogue Committee. The proposed committee would allow for social dialogue on challenges facing the country. Mutharika also called on ruling parties in Africa to listen to constructive criticism from opposition.

Opposition leaders in Malawi are sceptical of these proposals, saying that talk is not enough, they need to see action. How civil society will reacts to Mutharika’s proposals remains to be seen. It may be too little, too late; in which case civil protests planned for August 17th may go ahead.

Aisha Bahadur provides communications support to the African regional office of the International Metalworkers Federation.

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