Beneath the demonstrations… By Joseph Kayira

The only argument you get to hear – all the time – justifying the anti-Jane Ansah protests is that these demonstrations are a constitutional provision and that no one is above the law to stop them. In fact, some have even gone an extra mile in their argument to say that the courts have done well not to set a precedence that would in future have a negative impact on demonstrations – once that need arises. What is worrying is the indifference or lack of sympathy for those that have fallen victims to thugs who go about – in the name of demos looting and burning property.

A businesswoman in Lilongwe wept when looters descended on her shop taking away her fortune. The demonstrators literally cleaned her shop shouting Jane Ansah – the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) – must fall. The Civil Society, under the banner, Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) accuse Mrs Ansah of mismanaging the May 21 presidential election. They want her to resign but she has fought back stressing she would only do so once the court finds her actions wanting.

Government, through its ministries, departments and agencies, is counting the cost of the aftermath of the demos. Businesses too are counting the cost of these protests. Early estimates indicate that it is more than K100 million. By the time these protests come to a stop Malawi will have lost well over a billion kwachas. What is particularly a matter of concern is that most of so-called demonstrators seem not to know why they are taking part in these demonstrations. Some are even hearing the name of Mrs Ansah for the first time.

Simply put, here is a country that has too many disgruntled young men and women who by any means want Mrs Ansah to go. But perhaps their anger goes beyond Mrs Ansah. Their anger seems to be directed at the system. A system that has let them down. This anger is a time bomb that started ticking in 1994. The lure of voting into power a democratic government brought with it the promise for jobs and a better life for all. It was never meant to be.

So, while Mrs Ansah and the commissioners at MEC may be suspected of doing something sinister as regards the controversial presidential poll results, this whole thing about the protests needs an in-depth analysis. It smacks of economic hardships most Malawians are going through at the moment. These protests dubbed #JaneAnsahMustFall offer an opportunity to send a message to the leadership – ‘turn things around or Malawi will burn’.

Going beyond egos
The election case is in court. Both the petitioners and respondents are praying for a speedy hearing of the case. First it was announced that it would take 24 days to finalize everything. But the pace at which the case is going 24 days may not be enough. It could go up to December, according to a court official. As long as the case is heard within reasonable time it would help eliminate the political tension.

While the HRDC is taking the protests to another level to force President Mutharika to fire Mrs Ansah, the country is literally under siege. The last time the protests were diverted to State House the situation in Lilongwe turned chaotic. An armoured vehicle belonging to the Malawi Police Service went up in flames. Some houses and vehicles belonging to police officers close to the Community Ground were torched too.

Some overzealous police officers, so they say, threw some teargas canisters at peaceful demonstrators – even before they had started off to State House. It was a big and costly mistake. Someone shouted “let’s go to their houses”. And the smoke billowing from burning houses and vehicles only drove home the fact that no one is safe including the people who were employed to ensure that there is law and order in this country.

Eventually, the military has been drafted in to help provide adequate security during the demos. The demonstrators seem to be happy with the fact that the soldiers have been roped in to boost security. It will take some doing to mend the sour relationship between the Malawi Police Service and the citizenry, especially in cities and towns where the demos turned violent. The mandate of the police is, among others, internal security. The disregard for the police during the demos must be discouraged. The people need the police and for the police to perform their duties diligently they also badly need the people. In short, the role of the police in any society or community cannot be overemphasized.

The organisers of the demos have to think beyond the call for Mrs Ansah to resign. Here is a country burning and they are shifting gears to take the demos to another level. As the Malawi Law Society (MLS) put it, they need to deeply reflect on whether or not their zeal to continue protesting while the case is still in court would help matters.

The burning of the party offices of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the Democratic Progressive (DPP) and the house of HRDC chairperson Timothy Mtambo all point to the fact that the country is on fire. It means there is a tit for tat kind of battle going on. And there will be no winner in this battle.

The CSOs are not giving up on their demos though. They have vowed to conduct vigils at airports and the country’s borders to paralyse government operations. According to reports, the government could lose billions of Kwachas once the shutdown comes into effect.

President Mutharika ordered the Army and the Police to crush the demonstrations but analysts say he has no mandate to do so. A human rights lawyer told a daily paper that Mutharika “would be in contempt of court since the High Court already made a ruling on the matter and there is an appeal on the matter.”

“The order by the President directing the police and the army to prevent demonstrations is illegal. This is an issue which was ably dealt with by the court. In this country there is a Constitution which guarantees the freedom of expression which includes the right to demonstrate. Not the President, not the Army nor the Police have the power to override the Constitution,” human rights lawyer Justin Dzonzi told The Nation of Thursday, 22 August 2019.

Mutharika also attacked opposition parties, mainly the MCP and UTM, accusing their leaders of hiding behind the HRDC demos to overthrow a constitutionally elected government. Both the MCP and UTM denied the allegations that they had a hand in the violence emanating from the protests.

Meanwhile, the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a quasi-religious body that for years has mediated whenever things have gone wrong, is also struggling to bring the concerned parties to a negotiations table. Former President Bakili Muluzi managed to invite leaders of the HRDC to his BCA Hill residence for discussions on the future of the country in view of violent protests and the looting and burning of property that followed. It ended in deadlock. He promised to meet President Mutharika on the demands of the HRDC. When he returned from State House there was silence. The HRDC got suspicious. So, when the former president invited them again, this time to discourage them from the borders and airport shutdown they turned down the offer.

In a response to Muluzi the HRDC leaders said “Firstly, Your Excellency, on behalf of HRDC to put on record that the HRDC is a non-political grouping and therefore has no political interest whatsoever regarding the current situation in Malawi. The object of the HRDC is to uphold human rights of Malawians as well as spearheading a social accountability wave over matters of democratic governance concern which includes all those relating to mismanagement of elections. HRDC cannot and will not keep quiet in the face of systematic violations of the people’s right to a free, fair and credible elections, and as such shall remain a credible mouth piece of the voiceless in holding duty bearers to account over matters of “tippex-ed” elections.

“Secondly, allow us to take this opportunity to express our deepest regrets that, Your Excellency, has not kept to the spirit of our previous dialogue, which was to the effect that we will be appraised on progress made with other parties to the dialogue, His Excellency Professor Peter Munthalika and Justice Dr. Jane Ansah SC. Your Excellency, the spirit of our dialogue had it that you would appraise us within 7 days from the date our discussions took place. To our dismay, you have not come back to us on the same but instead venturing into proposing another meeting with us whose agenda is different from our earlier agreed resolutions.

“It is in such a context that we, HRDC, are apprehensive and suspicious over your fresh call for dialogue as only a ploy to detract us from our preparations of the forth coming vigils at borders and airports. As we had earlier indicated to the public on the eve of our previous meeting, HRDC finds dialogue a very useful tool to peace and national building but is against any form of manipulative dialogue whose ultimate objective is to achieve narrow selfish political interests rather than public interest.”

It is obvious that minus dialogue and in view of the election case which is still in court, it will not be easy for the sides to reconcile. So, beneath these demonstrations, there is a volatile situation which, if not handled properly can easily culminate into a disaster – a disaster that can put the two sides on a collision course. And the aftermaths of such collisions have never been a fascinating site.