Malawi is starting to look more like it did during the days of dictatorship-rule, say human rights activists in the country.
While recent international media interest has been limited to the country’s so called ‘farting law,’ aconfusing law about public flatulence, there is more serious news happening in this small African country.
A decade-long delay of local elections, an expansion of police powers, the government giving itself the power to ban newspapers and the refusal to legalize homosexuality are some of the issues drawing the ire of critics. Now a fuel shortage is leading human rights activists to say basic needs cannot be met.
A protest was to take place last week against the shortage of petrol in the country, but police temporarily detained organizers and placed heavily armed officers at meeting points.
Human rights activists say the fuel crisis means goods and services cannot move, grounding the economy to a halt and leaving citizens without the ability to support themselves.
“This is the worst crisis in this country,” says Malawi Watch Director Billy Banda. “There are so many Malawians . . . that have died because of this crisis,” explaining that emergency vehicles and medicinal drugs are facing serious challenges in getting around. Officials could not confirm the number of deaths.
Minister of Justice, George Chaponda, says the protesters have to follow the right procedures in order to demonstrate, suggesting the proper channels were not informed.
The suppression of the protest is the latest in the series of moves by government of President Bingu wa Mutharika causing widespread consternation.
“We may be taking Malawi ten, twenty years backwards,” says Mavuto Bamusi, one of the protest organizers who was detained. Bamusi is also executive director of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), an umbrella group of NGOs. “We may be taking our political systems into some sort of political absolutism, or indeed, some form of parliamentary dictatorship.”
These moves have prompted action from donors. The German government has suspended a disbursement of 2.5 million Euro, a 50 per cent cut in funding sighting “concerns over human rights and freedom of the press.” The United States has also announced that about $350 million USD allotted for Malawi will not be released. And the Norweigan government is now revoking a donation, saying funds were not spent on what they were supposed to be.
Representatives of Germany, the US and Norway have been joined by France, Iceland, Ireland, Japan and the UK in issuing a strongly worded joint release stating they are concerned about “good governance and respect for human rights” in the country.
The government is defending itself and standing up to foreign donors, saying Malawi is a sovereign state that will not change its laws under the pressure of foreign governments.
It also says its laws are misunderstood, sighting both the publication law and the law about “fowling the air.”
“Some people want to paint a bad picture of this country,” in order to hinder development, says Chaponda.
Bamusi says the government is making laws “contrary to the spirit of our constitution,” adding that parliament is becoming “a rubber stamp of the executive (which) is a blow to democracy.”
But Chaponda insists the government’s laws are healthy for the country. “In ten years,” he believes, Malawi will be “out of the poverty trap.”