A nation courting disaster

By Joseph Kayira

In October, to be precise, on October 8, a police superintendent was brutally killed at Msundwe Trading Centre, on the outskirts of Lilongwe. Super-intendent Usumani Imedi of Police Mobile Service (PMS), was stoned to death by a mob that had barricaded the Lilongwe-Mchinji Road, apparently to block those travelling to Kamuzu Institute for Youth to attend President Peter Mutharika’s first rally in the Central Region.

Word reached the police that this important road, connecting Malawi and Zambia, had been blocked by some overzealous group that was not happy that the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was to hold a political rally right in their perceived stronghold. Judging by the circumstances they could have belonged to any opposition party. Or they could be sympathisers of the opposition. Or indeed they just could be a mob, protesting anything, anything from poverty, the cost of living, poor tobacco prices – the list could go on and on.

So, whoever they are, what they did on this day will go down in the annals of Malawi’s history as a tragedy. Their act was barbaric – something that Malawians have only seen in the movies. Here was a crowd, quite disorderly, barricaded this busy road burning tyres and threatening to deal with ‘uncooperating’ motorists – went on rampage for some hours making Msundwe ungovernable. In fact, for some time now, the area has been touted on social media as Msundwe Barracks or Msundwe Garrison. No one has investigated why this area is so synonymous with violence. 

Msundwe suspects

On that fateful day, Superintendent Usumani was team leader of PMS officers on this operation to deal with the disorderly mob. As the police were clearing the road of rocks and logs the mob regrouped and confronted the law enforcers. They were overpowered and fled the scene. In the course of the co-mmotion the mob surrounded Usumani. It did not end well.

Police arrested 40 suspects. Some are on bail; others are still on remand. At least four have been charged with murder. There could be more arrests. The Msundwe fracas offers more lessons. First of all, there is need to beef up internal security. Since the advent of the anti-Jane Ansah demonstrations four months ago, organized by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), the nation has been thrown into unprecedented levels of anarchy especially in Lilongwe and some towns up north. The police has been caught off guard on several occasions. The whole thing – protests – have by and large overwhelmed the Malawi Police Service. Even former Inspector General Rodney Jose alluded to this. 

The police should be well equipped when going for operations such as that at Msundwe and the demonstrations. Crowd control is not an area for fainthearted. 

But there are some who think the police could have done better in as far as the HRDC protests or any other protests are handled. They have been described as trigger happy and can throw teargas cani-sters even in situation when it is not nece-ssary to do so. They have provoked situ-ations especially during demonstrations by throwing teargas at protesters and the end result has been running ba-ttles.

Not so good stories from police

Still on the Msundwe fracas, disturbing reports are coming in that some police officers went there and raped women and girls. Below is an extract from a report published on Zodiak Online on 16 October 2019:

The NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGO-GCN) has called on President Peter Mutharika, the police and the Malawi Human Rights Commission to ensure thorough investigation into the following alleged rape, defilement and torture of innocent women and girls in and around Msundwe, M’bwatalika and Mpingu Trading Centres in Lilongwe on October 8, 2019:The first interviewee (name withheld), explained that five police officers invaded her house about 300 metres away from Mpingu Trading Centre. The officers kicked the door of the house open and threw teargas in the house where she was then hiding with her children. They ordered her to go and confine herself into her bedroom. While the family members choked, the officers forced her daughter (name withheld), to take off her clothes at the sitting room.

“I took off my clothes in front of the officer, leaving out an underwear only. He then started beating me for refusing to take off my underwear. I have been bedridden for five days nursing the pain and I don’t even know whether I am okay internally as I have not gone for medical check-up,” she stated.

  • From there, these officers invaded a neighbouring house, where three female self-boarders from Mpingu Community Day Secondary School stay, and had been noticed to have ran into the house to hide. Three of the officers went into the house while the fourth one walked around the door, warning all neighbours to stay in their houses. The fifth police officer, who was female, at this time retreated to a stationary police vehicle. The three officers who had entered the house ordered all the three girls to take off all their clothes, including underwear. The girls complied and two of the girls were told to leave the house upon noticing that they were having their menstruation period. The third girl, (name withheld) was ordered to follow the officers to the bedroom. One of the officers forced himself onto the girl. At this point, the 16-year-old was crying incessantly attracting the attention of the neighbors who were able to hear the girl say “mu-ndipweteka, mundipweteka chonde.” Upon their leaving, the girl run out of the house and went missing for two days. Her parents narrated that the girl has yet to return to her normal mind, since the incident
  •  Another team of police officers invaded Mvuu Village in Traditional Authority M’bwatalika where they stripped a newly-wedded woman, (name withheld) naked. They fondled her private parts. And from her submissions, it was evident that she was raped. Even her mood during the interview could tell a story of a traumatised woman. She struggled to finish her sentences during the interview. “Anandivula mwankhanza ndi kuchita zawozo. Ine ndinangoti basi nanga n’kutani poti ifeyo tilibe mphamvu,” she said.
  • The officers are alleged to have thrown teargas in every direction, including shops and residential compounds and houses. It is also alleged that they raided and looted shops (Farmers World is a classic example) and bottle stores.

In a statement, in reaction to the alleged Nsundwe rape and defilement, the NGO Gender Coordination Network (NGO-GCN) said: “NGO-GCN is dee-ply disheartedned by allegations of rape, defilement and torture of innocent women and girls in and around Msundwe, M’bwatalika and Mpingu trading centres. The network is disturbed with reports that some of the police officers dispatched to the areas on Wednesday, October 9 2019, raped women, defiled self-boarding girl students, tortured people, and looted private property.”

The NGO-GCN described the situation as heartbreaking and appealed to President Peter Mutharika, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and the Inspector General of Police to take action. MHRC executive secretary David Nungu says his organization is underfunded and is struggling to investigate abuses in the country.

Nungu said his officers would investigate the alleged human rights violations at Msundwe.

“The challenge is that apart from human rights violations, the allegations of rape are criminal in nature and require investigations with special skills. Rape is a police case, but because some of the allegations apparently point to some police officers, we cannot trust the police officers to investigate themselves. We wish we had an independent Police Commission with other oversight powers; however, we will handle this issue as quickly as possible,” Nungu is quoted in The Nation of Thursday, 17 October 2019.   

Furthermore, the 40 suspects that were arrested in connection with the killing of Usumani alleged that they were starved for three days while in holding cells. Their lawyers are seeking compensation from government for what they described as strange and inhuman treatment of their clients.

Currently I am working on building up a case on this. We need to seek co-mpensation. People were denied food for three good days as a way of punishing them,” the suspects’ lawyer Sylvester Ayuba James was quoted in The Nation of Wednesday, 16 October 2019. The lawyer said he has since reported the matter to HRDC and MHRC.

The police has set up a committee to investigate the rape and torture allegations at Msundwe.

Way forward

Malawi is a nation at a crossroads. The results of the elections – especially the presidential election – showed how divided the nation is. The South largely voted for President Mutharika and the DPP. The Centre voted for Dr Lazarus Chakwera and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). The North sympathized with Dr Saulos Chilima and his (UTM) party. This voting pattern has also influenced the way people look at the anti-Jane Ansah protests.

The North and the Centre have far highly patronized the HRDC demonstrations. In the South, the support for the protests has been somewhat lukewarm. The leadership – religious, political and traditional – should be seen to be talking peace. What is happening at the moment is not inspiring. Some leaders seem to be in the forefront fanning flames of violence. They will have to stop. Political parties should talk to its followers to tame violence and instances of tribalism and regionalism. At the end of it all, we are Malawians first and our tribes come second. Let us take a leaf from countries like Rwanda and Burundi where after butchering each other they embraced peace.

The Public Affairs Committee (PAC) which is already on an exercise of meeting leaders should not tire in its efforts to ensure that peace reigns in Malawi. The mediation efforts currently underway should bear the desired fruits. 

The police should clamp down on all the people who are behind the violence that has put Malawi on the map for shameful and wrong reasons. Let us build a Malawi that is safe and free for all. A Malawi that once used to be the warm heart of Africa – a land of milk and honey.