Malawian protesters wanted their say – and didn’t get it

A protester shows his solidarity by wearing red in downtown Blantyre, where peace reigned the streets in the morning. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Two weeks ago in Malawi, country-wide demonstrations deteriorated from peaceful celebrations to chaotic street battles. There were riots, the military opened fire, and people were killed –19 as of July 27.

That’s the story that has been broadcast around the world – and for many North Americans, it might be the first news to have ever reached their ears from the poor Sub-Saharan country.

But amid broken windows, gunshots, and thick plumes of teargas, important issues were lost.

Late in the afternoon of July 20, after a very long and hectic day covering the largest demonstrations to take place in Malawi since the fall of the long-ruling Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a group of reporters and I were asked, ‘What’s the story today? What can we say that the other newspapers will not?’

“We cannot go through this again,” one older journalist shouted. “We already saw people die for democracy once.”

“It has to be the violence, the police brutality,” another colleague offered.

And then a third suggestion gave the group reason to pause: “Today was supposed to be about civil society having its say,” the youngest reporter there said. “Now, all anybody will hear is the violence.”

The narrative that emerged from the discussion that followed goes something like this:

Malawi’s July 20 demonstrations were led by prominent civil society leaders who helped plan the protest more than two months in advance. In Blantyre, gatherings were highly-organized, with dozens of clearly-marked volunteers effectively keeping crowds within designated areas and separated from police and military personal.

For the majority of the day, the atmosphere was completely peaceful, with those citizens who showed up eagerly discussing exactly why they were in the streets, and what they wanted to see change to improve their country.

These demonstrations were called out of concern for an increasingly-autocratic leader’s mishandling of the economy and poor governance. In recent months, President Bingu wa Mutharika has seen laws passed that overly-regulate people’s freedom of assembly, give the government power to ban certain news publications, and restricted citizens’ powers to temper government action.

And while such draconian legislation repeatedly sailed through the DPP-majority parliament, Malawi’s economy crumbled. A lack of foreign currency has resulted in chronic fuel shortages that have sent commodity prices soaring. When fuel is available, queues that can last for hours quickly form around whichever filling stations are open for business. Power blackouts are a now a near-daily occurrence. And especially in rural areas, water is increasingly in short supply.

Those are the topics that thousands of Malawians across the country made clear they wanted to discuss. The people wished for a despondent government to hear their voices, feel their dissatisfaction, and act to improve the direction of the nation.

But the morning after July 20, the everyday challenges of life in Malawi were not what people were talking about. A last-minute injunction against civil society’s demonstrations left protestors waiting for word from the courts until their collective patience reached a breaking point. Masses of people who for hours had danced and sang for democracy were slowly infiltrated by a frustrated mob mentality. And when authorities saw an opportunity to deploy force in order to end the demonstrators’ day in the streets, they were quick to seize on it.

As everybody now knows, fires were set, windows were broken, and the police and military opened fire with live ammunition and stinging teargas. It was ensured that it would not be electricity and water shortages that people would continue talking about, but raucous youth and trigger-happy police.

In the newsroom, a conclusion emerged from the tired group of journalists:

President Bingu wa Mutharika never intended to listen to the thousands of people who danced in the streets on July 20, and with the police and military contributing to a situation that successfully shifted the conversation to the afternoon’s violence, the President placed himself in a position where he does not have to.

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