6 July tragedy: What’s next?

The Independence Day celebrations came, and like an alcohol hangover, the sad memories it brought will still live with us for centuries to come.

This is based on the fact that amid our celebrations, regrettably, eight people died alongside 62 injuries, some of whom were hospitalised.

The majority of the victims happen to be young souls and coincidentally residents of Mtandile, a stone’s throw away from Bingu National Stadium (BNS) where this incident happened.

Sadly, the majority of Malawians decided to announce the deaths through a social media marathon even before next of kins to the deceased were formally notified.

Now in reaction, what are the authorities saying? As expected, the police are denying responsibility despite being the last straw. The national police spokesperson [James Kadadzera] is quoted in the media blaming the stadium management for opening the gates late when football mad lovers queuing outside had run out of patience.

As a consolation to most of us, the stadium manager has, to some degree, shouldered the blame for planning and indeed opening the stadium late at 10am despite offering contrary advice during site and planning meetings.

I am of the opinion that the police are to blame for making our celebrations tragic and they need to account for the consequences. There were children at the stadium and yet a trained officer thought throwing a tear gas canister was appropriate.

It is therefore befitting that even the Commander-In-Chief of the Malawi Police Service (MPS) President Peter Mutharika, has condemned the poor crowd-control tactics employed by the police.

Let the police, for once, accept and shoulder the blame for utilising a wrong strategy on an inappropriate crowd. As demanded elsewhere, MPS would do justice to the nation and the victims by disclosing the name of the responsible officer(s).

This would allow a proper closure of the whole issue and not any amount of government compensation or coffins. This could be done (if not already done) through the police oversight mechanisms where there are internal investigatory mechanisms involving disciplinary procedures, according to the Police Act.

Alternatively, this could be done through the Police Service Commission, which is responsible for police appointment, discipline and dismissals.

Since the stadium tragedy borders on human rights,  the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) should  investigate violations by the police and litigate on behalf of the victims.

We also have the Office of the Ombudsman which is mandated to prosecute police officers who abuse their powers and compensate victims of police abuse.

Sadly, effectiveness of the MHRC or the Ombudsman is limited, given their wide mandate and backlog, to investigate human rights violations.

In order to put a stop to this blame game, it is high time the country considered creation of Office of the Police Ombudsman as a non-departmental body intended to provide an independent, impartial police complaints system.

The function of such an office would be to provide independent oversight of MPS and its members. It would not be part of the service and its staff would not be police officers.

With such legislation, it will allow the office to investigate matters involving police officers considered to be grave or exceptional. These would be cases in which police officers may have been responsible for deaths like at BNS or serious criminality.

In countries where this is practised, such as South Africa or Ireland, the office has four key functions being complaint handling, freedom of information, compliance auditing and prevention and education.

Overall, as a nation let us embrace a culture of consequences and not compensations, otherwise, we are doomed!

The author is a Mtandile resident


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