Days when rights were privileges

Hon. Folks, Police Inspector General Rodney Jose can’t be faulted for condemning the looting, destruction and violence that come in the wake of demonstrations to force MEC chair Jane Ansah out of office.

He’s only echoing what civil society organisations (CSOs) organising the demonstration, politicians, the clergy and human rights champions from various walks of life have been saying all along.

They’ve all been saying, and correctly so, that looting, destroying property and violence are illegal acts which shouldn’t be associated with demos which are not only legal but also a constitutional right.

Where the IG raises eyebrows is when he issues a directive to CSOs to stop organising demos on the pretext that the demos aren’t peaceful. Interestingly Jose uses the same looting and violence the organisers are condemning as the basis for his draconian action which takes us back to the days of Kamuzu when we had duties and privileges but no rights.

As IG, Jose is at the helm of law enforcement and, in as far as crime busting is concerned, the buck stops at him.  Put differently, peaceful demonstrations aren’t a crime but a constitutional right. The police’s role there is to ensure that life and property, that of the participants included, are protected. 

Yet the press conference he held on Monday was less about law enforcement and more about stopping demos. He said virtually nothing about measures to ensure law breakers are brought to book.  

Some of those wreaking havoc in Blantyre, beating up innocent people simply for gathering at the Chichiri Upper Stadium, were apprehended by the Army.  Who are these folks who give demos a bad name? Who are the people who break shops, sometimes way after the demos are over and still manage to get away with it?

It’s not as if CSOs cannot be stopped from organising demos. We know demos aren’t an absolute right.  In fact, they’re only a constitutional right if they are peaceful. All I’m saying is the particular demos organised by CSOs cannot be declared not peaceful simply because they coincided with the looting and violence that worries all peace loving Malawians.

There’s need to establish who was involved in the looting and how was their mission related to the cause for which the demos were organised. 

Have the police ever been obstructed by the CSOs in the course of apprehending anarchists who go on rampage, damaging property, looting and threatening lives of other Malawians?

If not, then banning demonstration on grounds that thugs take advantage of them is as good as criminalising the demos, period.  Which good law would make a person exercising their right responsible for the criminal act of another grown up? And why push the burden of law enforcement on the citizenry when the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, stipulates clearly that it’s the police who are responsible for law enforcement? 

Demonstrations aren’t a game which can be stopped and resumed by the command of a referee. The fact many people turn out in various places to demonstrate attests to the fact that many people are aggrieved. If it were not so, no amount of cajoling by Timothy Mtambo and Gift Trapence would’ve brought people to the streets.

We all have witnessed much-touted demos being a flop, patronised by less than a dozen people.  If the cause isn’t big enough, people simply bite the lower lip and suffer in silence. They don’t go to the street. This time around, we’re safer to assume the mammoth crowd that turns out for demos attests to the fact that many people feel aggrieved.

The best the police can do in such a situation is to work with civil society leaders who are the organisers in the management of such crowds. I dare say, good working relations with organisers of peaceful demos can also help in arresting those who try to take advantage of demos to commit crimes.

But, stopping CSOs from organising demos may backfire and put the police in an awkward situation of policing demos sprouting sporadically without leaders as was the case in 1992. Alternatively, demos can be minimised by addressing the issues that cause them in the first place. Can the IG achieve that? n

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