Demonstrations in Malawi on 20 July resulted in the death of 19 people, the injury of dozens more, and the arrest of over 250 including journalists and civil society leaders.
Following the clashes, civil society groups including religious, political, social activists gave the government a deadline: by 16 August the government must address a list of 20 petitions, otherwise the Council for Non-Govermental Organizations (Congoma) will take measures ‘stronger than demonstrations’.
The failed march would have been the largest demonstration Malawi had seen since Bingu wa Mutharika came into power in 2004. Protesters across the country want government to address a fuel crisis that has gotten progressively worse. But behind the urgent need for fuel there is a growing resentment towards the government that has prompted people to take to the streets. Malawians are unhappy about donors withdrawing funds, about the government’s failure to reach an agreement with the IMF, about their university being shut down, and their media industry being restricted and threatened. Perhaps most of all, Malawians are doubtful about their leader’s capacity and intentions.
It’s not clear when Mutharika began to lose the support of his people. Some say it started late 2009, when he announced he was going to change the national flag. The President’s defiant nature, which up until that point had annoyed only a few international donors, suddenly turned against Malawians. A new flag, a new presidential jet, ending diplomatic relations with Britain, and then, of course, the chronic lack of fuel. It was a sporadic absence at first; more reliable than electricity, less than donor funds – today day-long queues at petrol stations are as common as power cuts.
Now Malawians are fighting back. Unlike the protest that was stopped three months ago, when police arrested civil society leaders even before the march began, this time the demonstrators fervently argued their right to protest and were met with tear gas and beatings by the police. Journalists were targeted and taken to prison. Some remain under detention without charge. At 11 p.m. on the night before the schedule protest, a judge granted an injunction to legally stop the march. Before dawn, police were confiscating PA systems on the back of vehicles and telling people to go home. By the end of the day, 19 people had been shot, a number of them innocent bystanders, some of them children.
President Mutharika made a television appearance on day of the schedule protests; he announced the government would take over importation of petrol to ease the current acute shortage. He called for dialogue and peaceful agreement, yet the next day, when the reporters who escaped the violence told stories of police brutality, the 77 year-old Mutharika took to the microphone again with a different message: those who dare protest again will face the ‘wrath of government’.
Once applauded by the international community for taking Malawi out of food insecurity, Mutharika is short of admirers these days. About a week before the protests, Britain announced it will stop giving funds for general budget support, and since the events of 20 July, the United States froze an electricity project worth US$350 million signed a few months ago between the government and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. At the signing of the agreement, Mutharika assured US representatives he would allow public protests to be carried out peacefully.
Tension in Malawi is rising. Perhaps the pinnacle of this growing discomfort is yet to come, as 16 August approaches and the list of petitions that Congoma has put forward goes unanswered. The demands include President Mutharika declaring his assets and explain the source of funds for recent acquisitions, the First Lady refunding her government earnings, and the issuance of a law that would nullify the requirement to deposit $13,150 before a mass demonstration. For now, silence from the government signals a calm before the storm.