Is Malawi playing dangerous game?

H

on. Folks, by its noble order of August 27, 2019 the Supreme Court has in one breath asserted that the right to hold demos cannot just be arbitrarily denied and that government is a key stakeholder in ensuring that violence and crime aren’t part of such demos.

Not only that. It’s Tuesday evening ruling  suspending HRDC’s demos to allow for two weeks of  discussions between demo organisers and the Attorney General as legal counsel for government on how to rid the demos of violence has helped avert a possible clash between citizens and the armed agents of the State.

After the High Court judge Jack N’riva on Friday barred HRDC from holding demos in the country’s airports and borders, the civil society organisation in turn decided to organise nationwide #JaneAnsahMustFall demos Wednesday through Friday this week.

Although the catchword for the demos was “peaceful”, APM, apparently extremely irked by HRDC’s defiance, was ready for a showdown. Both the police and the Army were ordered to stop the demos at all costs, using force if necessary.

The last time the Police used excessive force against unarmed demonstrators was on July 20, 2011 when 20 people were needlessly gunned down by the Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime. So much to show for the legacy of a leader who claimed to regard human life as being so sacrosanct that no single death warrant was signed for convicted criminals on death row during his tenure!

Judging from the show of power displayed by armed police patrolling the routes the demos were supposed to take in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu on Wednesday morning, it’s clear they were ready for the mission.

But which mission: to thwart the demos as APM had ordered or to deal with the rogue element which gives the peaceful demos a bad name?

From the statements made earlier by Internal Affairs Minister Nicholas Dausi, Information Minister Mark Botomani, former Police Inspector General Rodney Jose and even APM himself, it is clear that the view in government is that the burden of policing demos is 100 percent in the hands of demo organisers.

Government detests demos and sees itself more as a victim. Its expectation, probably rooted in the   warped concept of “serving the government of the day,” is that agents of the State, including the Police, hold back when it comes to provision of services to participants in demos

Not only in Malawi but also in countries around us—Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa—people have noted with so much praise, the role the Malawi Army has played so far to ensure that demos are conducted with as little damage as possible to peace, life and property. Indeed, I shudder to imagine what would’ve become of the situation by now had the Army not offered its services in times of demos.

So far the Police have largely echoed the views of politicians in government, blaming demo organisers for the looting and destruction of property. They see the complicity of the demo organisers in such criminal acts by their failure to prevent rogue elements with criminal intent from infiltrating their declared peaceful demos.

On their part, HRDC, as organisers of the demos, have hit back, blaming the police for not doing their part to prevent crime that mars their otherwise peaceful demos. In their view, it’s as much the legitimate expectation of the participants in demos to get Police protection as it is the expectation of the fat-cats in government against whom the demos are held.

I get an impression that by ordering the Attorney General as legal counsel for government and HRDC as organisers of the demos to meet and thrash out a shared strategy for ridding demos of criminal acts, the Supreme Courts sees that both parties—the State and its agents on the one hand and HRDC and all those who take part in their demos—have roles to play in the management of peaceful demos, which are a constitutional right.

My hope is that the two sides will enter the negotiations in good faith and produce win-win scenario   in tandem with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land.

A word of caution to government: only in Syria has government managed to bomb the hell out of the legitimate demands of its people with the help of Russia and Iran. Elsewhere, including in Sudan recently, bullets, teargas and handcuffs haven’t been sufficient in suppressing people’s demand for greater democratic space and the enjoyment of their rights, including the right to hold peaceful demos.

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