CROSSING INTO KARONGA’S BENGHAZI

There is more to Karonga Central which was recently termed Benghazi, a jungle of saves and haven of lawlessness. Experts:

Until last month, Maines Mwachali was a happy mother of six.

According to the 55-year-old, her face was battered the night she dared rowdy young men, chanting: Mwalwanda ikele ikele pampando—meaning Deputy Finance Minister, Dr Cornelius Mwalwanda, will retain Karonga Central’s parliamentary seat this month.

“It was around 8am,” says Mwachali of Mwanyesha Village. “I was in the bathroom when I heard the young men singing loudly. I asked why they were making noise while the village was sleeping and one of them bashed my face with a brick.”

The woman now has stitches on her forehead—one of the numerous scarred faces of the simmering dispute involving People’s Party (PP) candidate Mwalwanda and the ruling party’s former deputy secretary general Frank Tumpale Mwenefumbo who is running as an independent after losing preliminary polls in December.

The press reduces the spat, spanning from 2009 when the two were contesting to represent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to running battles, fistfights, and mudslinging between the two camps that date back to the day Mwenefumbo triumphed over Mwalwanda. As is the case in point, the loss compelled Mwalwanda to stand as an independent candidate in 2009 parliamentary polls.

On the ground, there are no-go zones, the land the politicians and their supporters fear to tread.

Venturing in this cattle-rearing shoreline area, the people, here, largely speak one language, Ngonde, and fish together in Lake Malawi. Their constituency sprawls from Gumi to Mlare, Choskowolo and Lupembe. The people call it home, although one faction is always afraid to cross to the other’s stronghold. Lupembe River flows between the constituency, with Mwenefumbo’s followers calling Mwenelondo their monopoly and Mwalwanda’s Mlare.

Unless the two political bulls heed calls for peace, the area will continue being termed Benghazi in reference to Libya’s battlefield.

Mwanyesha belongs to Mwalwanda’s side, the southern half where supporting Mwenefumbo seems to be a crime. Similarly, following Mwalwanda is a nonstarter on the south.

At the height of the campaign period when the electorate needs to hear all voices to make an informed choice in this month’s polls, one of the warring candidates cannot step into the other’s stronghold. One’s powerhouse is another’s no-go zone and crossing the lines is suicidal.

“To be honest, Karonga has become a jungle of savages who are ready to kill in the name of politics,” says Mwenefumbo, urging the press and democracy consolidation organisations to carry out a thorough and impartial investigation into the root of the wrangle.

According to Mwenefumbo, the main tragedy of the constituency is that his competitor does not understand democracy, that he is hard pressed to account for broken promises to develop the area and he punishes any questions with a violent fist.

Similarly, Mwalwanda accuses his arch-rival of practicing thuggish politics, sponsoring jobless young men to unleash violence on Mlare dwellers.

“My friend uses his riches to buy people to beat people and tarnish the image of Mwalwanda in the press. We don’t want money. For me, politics is about promoting our constituents’ welfare—not how strong you are and how much money you have,” said Mwalwanda in an interview.

However, tolerance is one of the pillars of pluralistic politics. Being a good democrat entails accepting different views. This remains easier said than done in Karonga Central.

At present, Karonga Police is investigating a matter in which Mwenefumbo is accusing his competitor of beating him up and tearing his jacket when the two were awaiting President Joyce Banda at Mlare on April 14. Mwenefumbo feels the delay to take those who unleashed violence on him to court is “justice denied” and Karonga Police in-charge Foster Mangani says they have already arrested four suspects and two are still at large.

However, Mwalwanda denies the allegations, saying he actually saved Mwenefumbo from being beaten after parking his car in the middle of the road.

“The business of me slapping Mwenefumbo is nonsense, utter nonsense. Look at me, is that what I can do,” he ranted.

The two want an independent inquiry into the conflict, but Mwalwanda thinks the row is a media creation.

But is it?

The locals differ candidly. One section accuses Mwenefumbo of using handouts to cause mayhem, saying Mwalwanda is developing the area by investing in schools, health centres and other facilities that benefit all. Another section feels Mwalwanda is neither a peacemaker nor a victim in the scuffle.

However, either side remembers the country reverted to democracy in 1993 and wonder why the spates of violence only emerged in 2009.

When asked, Mwalwanda responded: “You know the cause and don’t ask me. There was violence in 2004 when Du Mhango was beaten at Mwenelondo. That is not my area, is it?”

Regardless of their differences the two agree with each other that Karonga Central is crying for peace and a civilised campaign—an end to the clashes which are yet to be investigated.

It is easy to take sides when it comes to the face-off, but the police in-charge agrees with Paramount Chief Kyungu that the politicians have a big job to pacify their supporters.

On Thursday, Mtemi wa Batemi Kyungu took a peacemaking trip to both Mlare and Mwenelondo—imploring all parliamentary candidates and village to avoid creating no-go zones and start coexisting peacefully so as to give the electorate the issue-based campaign they need to vote wisely on May 20.

Both Mwenefumbo and Mwalwanda commended Kyungu for playing a leading role in bringing peace to Karonga Central, saying it is unfortunate it is coming late—just days to polls.

In his highlights, the traditional leader acknowledged late coming, saying: “It’s better late than never.

“We are talking about peace, respect and reconciliation in Karonga because we can no longer stand one person making people violent. Whether they continue fighting and insulting each other, we will have one candidate.”

He wants this to sink in the politicians dividing the people: “All of them are citizens of Karonga and there shall be only be one winner who will represent them for the next five years. We need peace, unity, respect and love in Karonga.”

The Ngonde king of kings also admonished village heads to stop taking sides and creating no-go zones. Reports show some of them, especially at Mlare and surrounding areas, resolved to ban Mwenefumbo from holding rallies in their midst.

He rightly termed both Mwenefumbo and Mwalwanda “sons of PP”, saying it is shameful they keep fighting and insulting each other.

There PP link was clear in that both candidates were wearing badge bearing the face of Joyce Banda, the ruling party’s presidential candidate.

When asked why he was wearing PP icon when he was kicked out of the party, Mwenefumbo said: “It is not my own wish that I am standing as an independent candidate. My heart is still in PP. I am a registered voter. ComeMay 20, I will vote for myself first and President Joyce Banda second.”

Some commentators have condemned the tendency, arguing it confuses people. However, PP regional governor Christopher Mzomera Ngwira says the party has no problem with the independent contender wearing its badges because he is campaigning for President Banda.

But the badges on contentious jackets mirror an age-old problem which resurfaced with highly disputed primary polls in December. On the polling day, Mwenefumbo conceded defeat to Mwalwanda. A few weeks later, he turned around, saying the in-house elections were not free and fair since his supporters suffered intimidation and Mwalwanda engaged some pastors as presiding officers and voters.

After weeks of discussions at executive level, provincial chairperson Mzomera visited Karonga to announce that President Banda had settled for Mwalwanda as a PP candidate although Mwenefumbo’s complaints were genuine.

“It was gratifying to see that a lot of people in Karonga support PP passionately and it is our hope that the two candidates will bury their disagreements and work together to campaign for the party and Her Excellency Dr Joyce Banda so as to avoid dividing the votes,” said Ngwira after the “successful tour”.

But the only success is that he displayed rare courage by going to both sides where those who take sides fear to tread.

Clearly, what was meant to be a party-building exercise also exposed how deep the rift runs. At Mlare and Chiskowolo, the youth supporting Mwalwanda booed and insulted Mwenefumbo, then provincial chair and deputy secretary general, and poked his nose as their master looked on. When they crossed to the other side, Mwenefumbo’s supporters at Lupembe retaliated by chasing Mwalwanda and Ngwira—and the meeting ended before it began. At Mwenelondo, they called Mwalwanda a thief, prevented him from offering a speech and he left the spot under police escort as stones and tear-gas flew in the air.

“Mwenefumbo and Mwalwanda have a big job to bring peaceful polls to Karonga Central. The police can press hard, but nothing will change if the two they do nothing,” says Mangani.

When asked why the law enforcers hardly take those arrested in the middle of breaching law and order to courts of law, Mangani answered: “Mwenefumbo and Mwalwanda have the power to bring peaceful polls to Karonga Central by calming their supporters. If the police press very hard and the two do nothing, things will never change.”

Make no mistake, the giants at war are no ordinary politicians. Both are former lawmakers with some experience as Cabinet ministers. It is shocking why they seem to see nothing wrong with having their supporters above the law.

To him, the Karonga wrangle is also a question of succession.

“Looking at transition of power, MacMillan Kishombe was the area’s first MP following the end of one-party rule. He ruled from 1994 to 1999 and peacefully handed over to Mwenefumbo who represented the area until 2009. Trouble started brewing because Mwenefumbo seemed unwilling to relinquish power to Mwalwanda five years ago,” he says.

For years, the police have been working together with the National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust, Multiparty Liaison Committees, Karonga Diocese’s Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice and other actors to bring peace to the troubled area.

Mangani initiative has failed because the “horses are not willing to drink” from the well of peace.

Just like that, the constituency has become a focal point for violent reasons, with both Northern Region police commissioner Paul Kanyama and Nice regional officer Enoch Chinkuntha putting it under their watch.

As the conflict continues, other contenders are dying for a ceasefire because many people have been injured as the two politicians throw bad eggs in each other’s faces while campaigning for votes.

MCP parliamentary candidate Goven Mwalughali pledged to support the winning candidate if he loses the race

“Why do we continue fighting? We need to reconcile in this constituency. Enough is enough. We want peace, to consolidate efforts that Kyungu and other chiefs are taking. In MCP, we believe that where there is no peace, there is no prosperity.” weighed in Mwalughali.

Equally emphatic was UDF’s Winston Mkwala, saying the incident could be a result of ignorance and poverty which has seen locals being “instigated and bribed by politicians”.

“We totally condemn such acts and distance ourselves from violence,” he said.

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