Civil disobedience in Malawian context

At the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) conference held from 14 to 15 March 2012, where stakeholders from different sectors discussed the current political and economic problems facing Malawi, calls were made that the incumbent government should resign or call for a referendum failing which Malawians should engage in civil disobedience.

This stand is partly and subtly reflected in a PAC communiqué released on 21 March 2012 that concludes that if the incumbent government does not address the current political and economic crisis by immediately repealing bad laws and cooperating with development partners, “Malawians may exercise their right to withdraw the trust bestowed upon the current regime in accordance with (section 12(iii) of)…the Constitution of Republic of Malawi”.

This resolution comes hot on the heels of the dialogue between government and civil society that has gone for months with no solution in sight—a situation partly attributed to sheer Executive arrogance.

The withdrawal of public trust results in loss of government legitimacy and subsequent forced change of policies in favour of people’s demands or even removal of the incumbent government from office. In between election periods, this can be realised through such processes as public demonstrations, impeachment procedures or so many forms of civil disobedience.

Given that public demonstrations are suppressed, and that impeachment is a non-starter if we consider absolute Parliament majority of the ruling party that seem to toe the line of the failed policies and the unclear impeachment procedures, civil disobedience seem to be one remaining strategy at the disposal of the suffering citizens. This article is, therefore, aimed at introducing an open introductory discussion of “civil disobedience” and its relevance in Malawian context today.

What civil disobedience is

Civil disobedience is hinged on a very simple, but powerful principle. Recognising that authorities may use and abuse the law to silence citizens who are dissatisfied with poor governance, such prominent civil rights activists as Martin Luther King Junior reiterated that: just as it is our duty to obey the law, it is our moral obligation to disobey unjust and unfair law and administration.

This implies that citizens have the duty to (respectfully and peacefully) disagree and disobey laws and leadership that they deem unfair—a view popularised as satyagraha by Mahatma Gandhi.

It is imperative to point out in advance that any law, including the constitution of any administration, has moral basis. The bottom line is that a law or leadership must promote justice and fairness, and satisfy the needs of the people. If laws and leaders fail to do so, they become empty and can morally be disobeyed. This civil disobedience is necessary, especially when authorities are acting with impunity, coming up with policies that hardly serve the people but selfish interests, (ab)using laws to stifle people’s expression, or when they have literally failed to solve people’s problems but are refusing to acknowledge the failure and pave the way for meaningful solutions.

It is a fact that public demonstrations are a form of citizen expression, especially when they are dissatisfied with government policies and they are demanding change. This right is protected by the Constitution and the role of authorities is simply to make sure that this right is realised. However, in the context of deteriorating livelihoods of Malawians, a snap shot of public demonstrations that have been allowed and disallowed by authorities recently leaves a lot to be desired and paves the way for civil disobedience.

Just to give few examples; when the Malawi Vice President Joyce Banda was fired from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the party supporters held demonstrations in Zomba castigating the Vice-President and supporting the fact that she was fired from DPP. When the Malawi civil society called for a public demonstration on 20 July 2011, DPP supporters held their own public demonstration on 19 July 2011, driving all over town in DPP vehicles and brandishing knives and machetes to threaten the people against the civil society organised demonstration. In these two DPP demonstrations, despite the fact that procedures were not followed and there were criminal elements, authorities allowed them to proceed.

However, when the labour union wanted to demonstrate against some sections in the Pensions Bill, authorities were quick to declare the demonstration “illegal”. The July 20 demonstrations faced stiff government resistance to the extent that at the end of the day about 19 people were shot dead by the police.

A simple analysis of these cases would show that when a public demonstration is in favour of government, it becomes easy for it to be allowed by government authorities whereas when a demonstration is against some government policies that are impinging on people’s rights and livelihood, the authorities use any means possible to disallow it – from bureaucratic impediments to utter unreasonable ban including the infamous K2 million fee imposed by the President.

This constitutes abuse of laws and regulations to silence citizens who have legitimate grievances. This tendency effectively makes the relevant laws and regulations empty and unjust. The continuation of the poor living conditions that are at the heart of people’s grievances and the silencing of their protests effectively erodes the trust of the people in the incumbent government. This constitutes a moral ground for civil disobedience.

In this case, people are morally justified to flood the streets in demonstrations irrespective of whether authorities allow it or not. People in this case can literally make the country ungovernable until leaders realise that the real power rests neither with legal documents nor the President, but with the people, and that the leaders must obey people’s demands. We have seen such civil disobedience working in Tunisia and Egypt quite recently.

Civil disobedience can take many forms apart from defiant public demonstrations. These include civil servants sit-in, public refusal to pay taxes, and any creative public action that shows defiance to unjust laws and leaders. The only condition is that citizens must be convinced that the laws and leaders they are disobeying are unjust and insensitive to people’s plight; and that the citizens must be ready to face the immediate consequences such as imprisonment in the hope that morality will triumph over unjust legality.

It is interesting to note that Kamuzu Banda, Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika, and indeed all citizens of Malawi, are beneficiaries of civil disobedience. Without the “illegal” mass demonstrations of 1959, without the defiant mass demonstrations of 1992, chances of Banda, Muluzi or Mutharika being in power were minimal.

History shows that, in the face of leadership arrogance, morally just demonstrations though they can be branded “illegal”, are effective in bringing about the change that people want. The 1992 demonstrations in Malawi were “illegal”, but morally just, and they brought about the political freedom that Malawians lacked for close to 30 years.

The “unlawful” but just protests in Egypt that defied Mubarak’s curfews are responsible for one of the unprecedented positive change in the Arab world. These successes confirm the conviction of Nelson Mandela that our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate but that we as a people are powerful beyond measure.

It is therefore clear from the above introductory discussion that, much as those in power brand civil disobedience as illegal and anarchical, civil disobedience is a morally justifiable and politically legitimate course of action that citizens can take when they feel oppressed by unjust and unfair actions of the authorities. It is also clear that civil disobedience has been successfully used by citizens in different parts of the world including Malawi to bring about favourable political and economic change, and that even the incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika himself is a beneficiary of civil disobedience. —The author is a PhD candidate in Political Science, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

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