I arrived in Malawi three weeks ago – just in time to see ‘the warm heart of Africa’ break into chaos.
Violent protests swept across the small southeastern African nation last week, leaving 19 people dead and at least 98 injured after the police and army dispersed protesters by firing live bullets and teargas. Over 250 people were arrested, including three journalists. The protesters dressed in red demanded the registration of President Bingu wa Mutharika, due to the high cost of living and fuel and forex shortages.
Despite the government issuing a ban on the protests, demonstrations began peacefully in the morning of July 20th , the same day as the President’s national lecture. However, tensions grew after the President failed to address the protesters’ grievances. By the afternoon, looters were targeting the businesses and properties of political allies of the President. Demonstrations were only planned for July 20th but protests and violence carried over to the next day.
Yet, while Malawians reach their breaking point, it seems that the country is, in fact, reverting back to its dictatorial roots. As Malawi faces a growing list of problems, it appears that the President – a once praised economist and leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – has become a power-hungry autocrat.
This was evident in his government’s violent response to the nationwide protests. On the eve of the demonstration, machete-wielding pro-DPP supporters drove around Blantyre in the ruling party’s trucks trying to intimidate those who planned to protest. Groups of men scraped their knives against the pavement sending a menacing message to onlookers.
Nevertheless, thousands of Malawians took to the streets in most major urban centres across the country. Mutharika responded by calling protesters, “Thugs and sons of Satan.” He warned protesters that if they went out into the streets again that, “This time I’ll go after you […] I’ll smoke you out.”
Despite these warnings, another anti-government protest is planned for August 17. Even before July 20th protests, freedom of speech and of the press seemed to be the first under Mutharika’s attack.
Chancellor College in Zomba was closed after lecturer Blessings Chinsinga, told students that Malawi’s government could encounter similar uprisings to the ones in Egypt and Tunisia due to fuel shortages in the country. Chinsinga was interrogated by police and later fired. The college remained closed for several months and was only partially reopened to teachers who wanted to return in July, but most classes remain cancelled.
The press also has to deal with growing restrictions, including a law that allowed the Minister of Information to shut down newspapers.
According to Amnesty International, eight journalists were beaten by the police during the protests. The same day, private radio stations suspiciously went off-air and various online publication offline. However, government-run stations remained on-air.
Sharp criticism of the President and the DDP isn’t rare, but has often been met with a strong fist.
The British high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, said he was promptly asked to leave after calling Mutharika “autocratic and intolerant of criticism” in a leaked cable – a costly dismissal for Malawi, as Britain recently canceled almost $40 million in aid to the country.
The United States also suspended a $350 million grant for Malawi’s energy sector after the government’s violent crackdown on protesters.
Malawi’s budget relies heavily on foreign donors. The landlocked country gets 40% of its annual national budget from donor countries. To make up the difference the DPP raised taxes, which was a huge hit to the nation’s population as 75% of Malawians live on less than $2 a day.
To make matters worse, the cost of living in Malawi has been rising steadily due to fuel and foreign exchange shortages.
Malawians have plenty of reasons to fight: censorship of academics and the press, poor international relations and the high cost of living are just a few.
But most importantly they are fighting to defend the hard-fought democratic gains made since the country’s first democratic election in 1994, which removed dictator Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda from power. Now, it seems, another egocentric and intolerant leader is stomping on those gains.