In a swift turn of events, Blantyre City Council (BCC) yesterday rescinded its decision to stop Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) from holding demonstrations on June 20 to force the resignation of Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah.
The U-turn came hours after civil society organisations (CSOs) under the banner of HRDC moved to get a court order to restrain the council from stopping them from exercising their constitutional right to demonstrate.
BCC public relations manager Anthony Kasunda confirmed the new development in a telephone interview, saying the council, which had initially barred HRDC purportedly because Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had earlier booked for its victory parades, arrived at the decision following a tripartite discussion.
He said: “We arrived at the decision following the complaint from the CSOs. We had a discussion with CSOs and the police. So, we arrived at the decision to consider them. We have given them three hours to demonstrate.”
Reacting to the development, HRDC chairperson Timothy Mtambo hailed the council for making what he described as “the right decision in the interest of the majority of Malawians who are pursuing electoral justice”.
But he warned the council against tendencies of barring concerned Malawians from expressing displeasure on irregularities concerning national issues.
He said: “The decision which the council has made is what we wanted. I would like to commend government if it intervened on this. People should not be denied their right to demonstrate. So demos are on.”
This is not the first time that BCC has given HRDC a tough time. On September 7 last year, the council also barred HRDC from holding a protest march on the basis that DPP had already obtained permission to conduct Blue Day activities along the city’s streets.
The development forced HRDC to shift the protests to September 21, where demonstrations were held across the country to, among others, protest worsening corruption in the country and nepotism in government appointments.
In April this year, the council also refused to grant permission to CSOs for demonstrations that were slated for April 27 against President Peter Mutharika’s purported maladministration, corruption and impunity.
Earlier yesterday, CSOs held a press briefing in Lilongwe where they told journalists they were proceeding with demonstrations in Blantyre despite the city council’s initial block.
One of the human rights defenders, Reverend McDonald Sembereka, said demonstrators were not going to fear a repeat of “excessive force” which police used to disperse Malawi Congress Party (MCP) supporters at the party’s headquarters in Lilongwe a week ago.
National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera made assurance in an interview with The Nation on Monday that police will provide maximum security for demonstrators as long as they operate within the law.
In an interview yesterday, MCP secretary general Eisenhower Mkaka confirmed what has been dubbed the March For Justice and that Chakwera, who alongside UTM Party president Saulos Chilima is challenging the presidential race results in the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections, will lead a peaceful march.
He said: “The court asks for two party representatives. So, during the scheduling, our president with another official will be [present] in the courtroom. There is nothing more he is going to do other than listen to what will be happening.”
A flyer notifying supporters about the march indicates that Chakwera will lead the marchers from Mbowe Service Station near Crossroads Complex Roundabout to the court in Area 3 clad in their party colours.
Malawi Police Service has since said it is ready to provide security to the marchers and has appealed for a peaceful march.
National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera said police do not give anyone a right to demonstrate in the city, but the council.
He said: “Let me assure you that we will provide total protection to them when they will be marching tomorrow [today]. They will have our full protection and we are appealing to them to march peacefully and unarmed, but they should be assured of our protection.”
On Friday, the court adjourned the scheduling conference to this morning when it will rule on preliminary objections by President Peter Mutharika, who is the first respondent in the case, for the court to dismiss the petitions of Chilima and Chakwera, first petitioner and second petitioner, respectively.
Chilima and Chakwera filed separate petitions disputing the May 27 Malawi Electoral Commission declaration of Mutharika as winner of the presidential race with 1 940 709 votes representing 38.57 percent followed by Chakwera with 1 781 740 votes representing 35.41 percent with Chilima finishing third and ahead of four other aspirants with 1 018 369 votes representing 20.24 percent.
The two cited irregularities, especially in the results management process, as some of the factors justifying nullification of the presidential election.