Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
There is one very important fact to mention at the start of this column – President Bingu wa Mutharika is not going to leave office before 2014 whatever civil society is saying. And it’s saying quite a lot, including asking him to resign within 60 days.
The call came after the inter-farith group, the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), organised a national conference to discuss the worsening economic and political crisis in Malawi, during which it was suggested that the president should either resign or call for a referendum. And there are many reasons for the discontent – from prolonged fuel and forex shortages, intermittent electricity blackouts, rising cost of living and the shrinking of the economy which has led to numerous job losses, as well as a series of arbitrary arrests of the president’s critics.
Mutharika has already vowed not to resign until his term expires in two years’ time, when he plans to have secured his brother’s place in State House. Clearly the president has no time for critics. But perhaps part of the problem is that no one close to him is telling him the truth about the state Malawi is in. Every minister talks about the president’s achievements. State House issues statements saying that no one can possibly criticise his presidency or leadership. And he probably still feels popular because large numbers of people always attend his functions. But most of the people are ferried from different parts of the country.
It would be better for Malawi if the president listened to civil society. But that is also not going to happen. Indeed, the government did all it could to undermine the PAC meeting and even to prevent it from taking place. Prior to the meeting, the president publicly alleged that the conference sought to plan for regime change and mass demonstrations against his administration.
Meanwhile, at the eleventh hour, the owners of the venue for the meeting – the Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre – told PAC that the booking was cancelled because of logistical reasons. It is rumoured that the hotel was instructed by government (almost certainly the hotel’s biggest client) to cancel the booking.
As if that was not enough, during and after the two-day meeting, government stepped up security in all the country’s major cities, with armed anti-riot police officers seen patrolling all over, day and night. The message from the authorities was very clear – civil society can talk but we are the ones with the power.
And they continue to use – and abuse – this power. In recent weeks, the government has stepped up its persecution of critics – arresting both Atupele Muluzi, son of former President Bakili Muluzi, and the Chair of the state-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission, John Kapito.
Atupele, who is an opposition MP, has expressed interest in contesting the presidential elections in 2014 – and could therefore be a threat to the plans of the Mutharika family to keep their hold on power through the succession of Bingu’s brother, Peter. Kapito is a well-known critic and was arrested as he was preparing to fly to Geneva to meet with fellow human rights commissioners from across the world. Both were arrested to try and silence them. It is unlikely to be successful.
And there have been many other cases of the government violating human rights through arbitrary arrests – such as the detention of prominent lawyer Ralph Kasambara and the separate arrest of civil society activists Habiba Osman, Billy Mayaya, Brian Nyasulu, Ben Chiza Mkandawire, and Comfort Chiseko for ‘holding an illegal demonstration’ – and the firebombing of properties belonging to critics – such as the Executive Director of Institute for Policy Interaction Rafiq Hajat, Acting Executive Director of Human Rights Consultative Committee, Mcdonald Sembereka, and an opposition politician, Salim Bagus.
And Mutharika has also lost his touch with the international community. Until the killing of 19 demonstrators last July, Mutharika was largely immune to international pressure. But that has all changed – and some of his actions have not helped.
Last year, he expelled the British High Commissioner. And this March, he snubbed a meeting with World Bank officials who had come to discuss a bail-out plan because – he said – the officials were too junior to meet him. His much-vaunted Zero Deficit Budget is also hurting Malawians – and could continue to haunt the country for years to come. An MP from the opposition told the National Assembly that the Malawi Revenue Authority had borrowed money from the Commercial Banks to paint a picture for Mutharika that the Zero Deficit Budget was working wonders. The allegations were not disputed by the government.
Malawi’s chances of growth and development have also been dealt a big blow following the suspension of American aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which could have revitalised the energy sector. This vindicates what civil society organisations and other commentators have been saying that Malawi has failed to demonstrate a commitment to democratic rights, accountable government, freedom of assembly and expression, sound economic management and good governance.
Despite all these signs, Mutharika is still living in denial about the crisis and about his ability to solve it – and his popularity. He will not resign but – the way things are going – he and his family should enjoy State House while they can because if Malawians are allowed to freely exercise their democratic right to vote in 2014, then the Mutharikas will probably not be very welcome there after the next elections.ShareThis