How democracy triumphed in 2011

It was a tough year, but it was also a good year for democracy. Somehow, the challenges of 2011 transferred democracy from the books and entrenched it in the people worldwide.

It all began in Tunisia by an ordinary street vendor whom no one cared about—26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi. He lived in the charmless Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, about 201 kilometres south of Tunis.

On a Friday morning about a year ago, he set out for work, selling produce from a cart.

Police had hassled Bouazizi routinely for years, his family told US Time magazine, making him jump through bureaucratic hoops.

On December 17 2010, a female cop started giving him grief yet again. She confiscated his scale and allegedly slapped him. Dazed, he walked straight to the provincial-capital building to complain but got no response.

At the gate, he drenched himself in paint thinner and lit a match. Even when they rushed him to the hospital, it was already too late. He died. That death was not just an ordinary one–it was different.

No one could have imagined that Bouazizi’s death would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Yet it did.

What is more eluding is the nature of the countries where Bouazizi’s spirit of dissent managed to disturb establishments.

The scale of dictatorship Muamar Gaddafi built in Libya; Hosni Mubarak entrenched in Egypt and Ben Ali did in Tunisia was too scary to dare to challenge. No one would imagine the three falling to the people they had, for years, ruled as pawns on a chessboard.

But everywhere, it seems, people had vowed that they had had enough of their leaders. They dissented, they demanded, they did not despair—even when the answers came back in a cloud of tear gas or a hail of bullets. They literally embodied the idea that Bouazizi’s individual action can bring collective and colossal change. And when it did, Bouazizi’s spirit of dissent spread in all capitals of the world.

In the spring, it was in Europe.

On May 15 2011, tens of thousands marched to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza, along with tens of thousands more in dozens of other cities, united by slogans like ‘We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.’

They were frustrated by rising unemployment levels, lack of opportunities and politics that seemed to be heading nowhere. They called themselves Los Indignados, The Outraged.

Ten days after the Madrid protests began, the virus spread to Greece, where protests continued for more than a month, until it flew to the US, in July, when people occupied Wall Street.

The grievance package, all over, was familiar: good jobs too scarce, cost of living too high, politicians corrupt, only the well-connected rich getting richer.

It was the same virus that injected the bloodline of the Warm Heart of Africa, too.

On July 20, Malawians rose against their government, on quite a similar package of grievance bordering on authorities’ indifference to their people. They were tired of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s government.

Here was a government that, buoying on its numbers in Parliament, thought it had become more powerful than those that had elected it. A government that had the audacity to change a national flag without the owner’s consent: the people. A government too arrogant in coming up with laws that, at worst, steal the very freedoms and rights that people fought and died for to acquire.

A government that did not think twice about destroying relations with neighbouring and donor countries that had been of indisputable importance to the country’s development.

And here was a government that infested university lecture rooms with spies, and when the lecturers complained, it had the divine authority of firing them.

But above all, these bold steps Mutharika’s government took to oppress the people was its belief that Malawians can easily sway to their tune.

They thought every Malawian reasons like a rural chief that can be paraded on MBC-TV and Radio 1 to speak on a position they do not understand. They thought Malawians are still under the Kamuzu Banda regime where speaking out was a grievous crime.

They might have had to think twice.

The pains Mutharika’s government inflicted on the people left them with one tool of fighting back: democracy.

Democracy is one powerful tool that, if well understood and entrenched, has a collective resolute stronger than vast armies. It can topple Africa’s strongest dictators that built the best army around.

The root of the word democracy is demos, ‘the people,’ and the meaning of democracy is ‘the people rule.’

Malawians, just like Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans, adopted that tool and made it their way of life in 2011. They adopted its teachings of citizen activism and started putting it to use.

In fact, there was an echo of Martin Luther King Jnr warning that: “Our lives begin to end the moment we become silent about things that matter.”

All across the country, Malawians—through social networks, radio talk shows, letter to the editors, and so on—began to speak out about things that mattered. They all wanted to have a say about how they were being governed.

That spirit of collective dissent began to grow sporadically until hearts united and exploded enmasse on July 20.

Of course, in the run up to the July 20 mass explosion, President Mutharika’s government had tried to mentally and physically dissuade people from exercising their right to demonstrate.

But even in the face of propaganda, threats and display of thugs with pangas on the streets, there was nothing to dilute the dose of democracy that had rooted in the people. It had been entrenched already.

Across the country, the situation showed, people had vowed that they have had enough of their leader. And they were ready to defy everything.

When July 20 came, they dissented; they demanded; they did not despair, even when the answers came back in clouds of tear gas or a hail of bullets that killed 20 innocent Malawians.

That spirit of vigilance, of standing up against a wrong and speaking out on things that matter, is what defines democracy.

The worst Mutharika’s government inflicted on the people in 2011 managed to awaken that spirit in the people. And when it awoke, Mutharika and his government felt its pinch. The people, armed with nothing but their democratic rights, proved to the President who was more powerful in the country.

They showed the President and his government that they had no power to fire lecturers who were doing their job and also, defending the democracy Malawi chose in 1993. They showed government that they had no power to destroy the country’s relations with neighbouring and donor countries that had been with Malawi for years.

They showed the President that Parliament, no matter which side of the House enjoyed the majority, had no power to come up with laws that steal people’s freedom and rights.

To cap it all, Malawians, in 2011, showed President Mutharika that no matter how he boasted that nobody was above him in the country, no leader is greater than his/her people.

The pains of 2011 sowed in the hearts of the nation seeds of democracy, at the same time, raising national consciousness of issues that matter the most.

Malawi is not the same today. So, too, is Africa. Those with power need to study 2011’s politics with caution and detail. Democracy is no longer confined to voting. It has become a value, a spirit, a means people use to define how they want to be governed.

The years of remaining silent to things that matter is gone. It’s gone, six feet underground with the body of that young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. May his democratic soul rest in peace.

On File this Week


“What we are going through is self-inflicted. We were told there would be dire consequences if we deported the British envoy and e went against advice. We must correct out past mistakes first, but the situation may take two or three years to normalise.”—Vice-President Joyce Banda, Weekend Nation, December 31 2011.

“I pleaded with Sata to forgive because I told him that it was the people of Malawi suffering. Sata said, ‘you have been my long-time friend and that you have raised this issue, I consider it closed. Let us forget the past and look forward to the future.”—Bakili Muluzi, former president, Weekend Nation, December 31 2011.

“We have common ground with PP. Our concerns like the abolition of the quota system are resonating. I have asked my friends in PDM to join PP. I have talked to Chitipa and Karonga committees and they will follow suit.”—Harry Mkandawire, Mzuzu-based business magnate, Nation on Sunday, January 1 2012.

“Why should government be given a timeframe? What if where we buy fuel there is no fuel? It is not fair to say that because there are other factors [responsible for the economic problems] that cannot be determined.”—Patricia Kaliati, Minister of Information and Civic Education, January 2 2012.

Share This Post