Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Malawi is slowly returning to normality after the nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations on July 20th were marred by violence, looting, the arrest of activists and around 18 deaths. As many people feared, the authorities in Malawi did not let the protests go ahead without hassle. An injunction was granted by the High Court the night before to prevent the demonstrations, while a number of activists were arrested by police ahead of the marches, which went ahead in Mzuzu, Zomba, Salima, Lilongwe and Blantyre. Violence and looting broke out in many places - but it is unclear who was responsible. It is also unclear which side has gained the most from the violent demonstrations - although they certainly focussed attention on the situation in Malawi, highlighting the growing authoritarianism of President Bingu wa Mutharika and increasing anti-government feelings across the country.
The demonstrations were co-ordinated by civil society organisations and also involve opposition political parties, trade unions, faith-based groups and concerned citizens to try and arrest the alarming slide towards authoritarianism and a return to the bad old days of Banda and a one-party state. Just a few years ago, Malawi and its first-term president, Bingu wa Mutharika, were the darlings of the international community and held up as beacons of democracy and good governance in southern Africa. Praised for their commitment to economic reform and the fight against corruption, they could also point to a huge improvement in food security and soaring economic growth.
Although this economic success had not begun to trickle down to the majority of Malawians who still live below the poverty line, the country seemed to be on the right track. However, hopes that the president’s landslide victory in the 2009 elections would be a springboard for further progress have been dashed. Instead, the polls marked the point when Malawi began plunging rapidly back towards the bad old days of one-party dictatorship. Over the past two years, the President has systematically concentrated almost all power in his own hands and has launched a concerted – and often chilling – campaign to silence any potential critics and to close Malawi’s once-vibrant democratic space in a blatantly anti-constitutional fashion. Almost every constitutionally-guaranteed freedom is under attack – from free speech to free association to academic freedom. Court rulings are regularly ignored, while critical constitutional bodies are deliberately sabotaged. Local elections have been postponed until 2014.
Corruption is soaring, while an ethnic clique around the president consolidates its grip on key organs of state. Meanwhile, the authorities desperately blame all and sundry – rather than their own poor performance – for the fuel and forex crises that have taken the shine off the country’s economic ‘miracle’. After 15 years of piecemeal progress, Malawi’s hard fought democratic gains are being reversed at a rapid rate. Civil society and foreign embassies have spoken out but recent events - from amending the law that criminalises homosexual sex to include the criminalisation of sex between lesbians, to changing the national flag despite opposition from all corners of society, from the public stigmatisation and intimidation of human rights defenders to the passage of the anti-injunctions bill - indicate that the situation is continuing to deteriorate. Clearly, Malawi is heading in the wrong direction – towards another authoritarian era, when the will of the people is subordinated to the dictatorial whims of one man. The aim of the marches is to halt this slide - and return Malawi to the path of democracy, good economic governance and progress. But it seems as if the government is not ready to let the people of Malawi voice their opinions or exercise their constitutional rights to free association and free expression.