On Thursday, I was awakened by a rude phone call from my cousin in Lilongwe. It immediately dawned on me that a call from Adsam Chisiza as early as 5 am signaled bad news.
His shop had just been broken into and all its contents, including cash from sales of the previous day, emptied.
My cousin Chisiza’s ordeal is not different from that of many businesses, big and small in Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre where in the name of seeking electoral justice, hoodlums are holding the Malawi economy to ransom.
They are burning everything in their wake, and stealing in broad day light, cheered on by fellow thugs who record videos and send to social media.
I have been compelled not to bury my head in the sand when everything around me burns.
Since the May 21 2019 election results management debacle, the country’s major cities, especially Lilongwe and Mzuzu, have been a hot bed of violent clashes between law enforcers and the supposed demonstrators.
The demonstrators, mainly members of the opposition MCP and UTM Party and galvanised by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) have engaged in running battles with Police, and sometimes the Malawi Defence Forces.
Whenever the demos come to Blantyre, the country’s commercial capital, the city seems to be relatively calm, but this does not take away the spooky eerily atmosphere that lingers as one sneaks into town or the office.
For Lilongwe and Mzuzu, these have become something akin to an inferno, and have been considered as “no-go” zones by others.
In the wake of the violent demonstrations, a lot of property both for government and private business has either been vandalised, burnt, looted or turned upside down. Individuals have suffered varying degrees of losses from having one’s car windscreens smashed, to having your side business premises looted.
This week was the worst, especially in Lilongwe where many businesses did not open.
Despite the Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale arguing on the side of wholesome treatment of rights, Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda on August 6 2019 over-ruled him, siding with the violent demonstrators.
The AG had submitted that while the Malawi Constitution gives people the right to demonstrate, those enjoying such constitutional privileges must also respect the rights of others to economic activity, and retention of property, among others.
He argued that it was high time the courts re-examined the precedent, considering the trail of anarchy left by the so-called “peaceful” demonstrators.
But in his ruling of Civil Cause No.556 of 2019, Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda failed to find escape, concluding that; “…The courts have held with an almost crusading zeal, in favour of protecting the right to demonstrate.”
This has dealt a hammer blow to equal rights, as Malawi now seems to treat some rights with kid gloves and others with clenched fists, if not reckless abandon.
Such selective application of the law and the rights it seeks to protect lacks moral consciousness.
The right to demonstrate is not absolute. It needs to be reviewed on the merits and context of the unfolding circumstances. The law should apply equitably, and must respond to practical events, not bias.
The Malawi economy is too feeble to absorb these disruptions. This state of lawlessness where hoodlums are allowed to masquerade as peaceful demonstrators stealing and destroying what they can’t build, is taking its toll on an already shaky economy that is barely recovering.
So far, the loss of business is becoming unbearable. Images of vandalised banking halls and ATMs are disheartening.
Think about the guy who took a loan to open a shop in town, and after years of struggling to build that business, thugs come and ransack it in the name of seeking electoral justice.
This year, economic growth was forecast to grow from four to five percent, buoyed by agricultural productivity.
Given the current fiasco, the current target now looks untenable.
Malawi’s economy is propelled by smallholder farmers who will now be scared to venture out in the fields to till the land for fear of losing lives and property to demonstrators.
We are like a people who burn their own blankets and go back home to sleep without cover.
It is a shame, really.
It is a shape to see so much property looted, buildings vandalised and people harmed yet again.
It is a shame to see ugly scenes worsening and matters getting out of hand with each day of demonstrations with dire consequences on social and economic activities. It is a shame to see public offices that are critical in facilitating delivery of social services being disrupted on a weekly basis or have been completely shut down because offices have been vandalised, equipment stolen and personnel traumatised.
Economic activity is in a state of despair too. It is a shame to see commercial institutions closed for security reasons, while those that are not so lucky get broken into and wares for sale taken away. Small scale traders have been affected badly. Each protest is using the streets where they mount their hawkers. Street vendors cannot sale. They can’t find customers. Those that buy will have been scared away to remain home.
On evidence so far peace is a word that is used as a decoy for obtaining permission to march because what happens thereafter are harm, plunder and mayhem.
The official demand by the protesters remains the resignation of Justice Ansah allegedly for leading the Electoral Commission to mismanage the presidential elections of 2019.
However, the looting and halfhearted condemnations of the same by the organisers and advocates of these demonstrations suggest that there is more to the motive of the protests than what is being publicly declared.
The danger of celebrating anarchy is that it gets normalised and, one day, will haunt everyone, including those that are enjoying it now.
The clear radicalisation of the youths into weapons of destruction being witnessed needs to be caged and ruthlessly tamed. We should not celebrate the training of terrorists under our watch.
However the more the mayhem takes place in the name of peaceful demonstrations the more the publicly declared objective is not being achieved. Ansah is still in office. She is there, unmoved.
The other day, when she spoke in public, she said she will not resign. It seems there is merit in her arguments. Justice Ansah has the right to be heard.
Presently, she can only be heard through a court process which some of the advocates of the demonstrations commenced.
The basis for demanding Justice Ansah to resign can only be a finding by the court that indeed, as prayed in the petitions, the elections were messed up under her leadership.
The petitioners cannot have their cake and eat it. They can’t be in court seeking for a finding that the elections were mismanaged and, meanwhile, implement their own speculative finding that the elections administration was flawed and therefore the leader of the electoral referee should resign.
Why go to court then, spend a lot of money hiring lawyers and waste the time of the court if they already found that the elections were flawed?
Which gives sense to allegations by those who make them that holding demonstrations on a matter that is the crux of the judicial petition is in the neighbourhood of holding the courts in contempt. And this cannot be the conduct of those that claim to worship at the altar of defending rights and rule of law.
Promotion of rights should not be selective. The rights of those who are protesting on account of suspecting that their right of choice for a leader was subverted deserve to be defended.
The rights of Justice Ansah to be deemed innocent until proven guilty need to be upheld also. Her rights to be heard too need to be safeguarded. The rights of safety and security of those being harmed should not be ignored. Just as the right to earn a living through work or trade should not be belittled—or destroyed.
By the way, is the right to protest an instant right? I have always thought that it is a right that is exercised as a last resort. Meaning that it has to be exercised after all remedial options have failed.
To me the court process is a preliminary course of action that needs to be given a chance by those staging these demonstrations.
Government too has an important responsibility in all this. Issuance of careless and thoughtless public statements and press releases is not one of them. These statements and press releases suggest that government has no clue and strategy.
By the way, who reads those press releases in this fluid and volatile situation? Government should learn the science of strategy. Clearly there is none.
Inherent in these protests are so many issues that Government should use as opportunities to prove its mettle.
There are political issues that require political solutions. There are social issues that need social solutions. There are economic issues that need economic solutions. There are perception issues that require perception management. The solutions may not be instant for all these.
But a demonstration by Government that it understands that these issues exist and has the demonstrable zeal to attend to them will help to remedy the current situation.
Government should come down to earth and begin to engage different stakeholders in this upheaval.
It is a shame, really, that the Peter Mutharika administration has not yet taken this route. n
…continued on Opinion