Events of July 17 in Malawi cannot be allowed to slip quietly into the annals of history without further comment.
As I have always stated before, it is legitimate to debate the cogency of the demonstrators’ arguments; to argue about whether the demonstrations will produce real change; and to speculate on whether the organisers had ulterior political motives.
What we cannot do, however, is to imagine that all Malawians can be cajoled, threatened, bullied or scared into forfeiting their rights.
Human rights only get practical meaning and substance if people claim them, even (or indeed “especially”) in the face of resistance and opposition.
This was demonstrated first with respect to academic freedom which was no more than a rhetorical statement in the Constitution until the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union (Casu) won its battle of nerves with the State on campus, on the streets and in the courts.
And so it has been with the right to freedom of assembly and demonstration. It has been practical actions on the ground that has breathed life into what would otherwise have remained no more than a rather bland collection of words in the Constitution.
In the 1990s, it took the likes of lawyers Babezelenge Mwafulirwa and Ralph Kasambara going to the streets at great personal risk to demand freedom for jailed icon of the struggle for multiparty democracy, the late Chakufwa Chihana.
In the early 2000s, it was the turn of people like Father Boniface Tamani, the late Harold Williams and members of the Forum for the Defence of the Constitution to go to the streets to face off the police in a demonstration against the attempt to change the Constitution to extend the terms of office of the President. And we all know about July 20 2011.
Rights do not get their life through endless intellectualisation in the serene environments of lecture rooms, interminable debates at workshops among civil society elites or the churning out of verbose press releases by every “activist” with a laptop and an ego.
It is in the lived reality of streets that every society determines the real scope and limits of the rights of its citizens.
By all accounts January 17 was not July 20. Judging by some of the rhetoric prior to the demonstration some of the opponents of the demonstrations appeared to be hoping for a repeat of the mayhem of the July 20, 2011 demonstrations so that they could smugly claim: We told you, so demonstrations equals mayhem. Thankfully two factors enabled the nation to avert that grim scenario.
The first was the competent management of the demonstrations by the organisers. To be fair, the numbers that had to be managed this time were miniscule compared to the numbers that came out on July 20 and so the Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) had a lighter task than the organisers of the July 20 had.
Nevertheless, the fact that criminal elements such as looters appear to have failed to infiltrate the January 17 demonstration speaks volumes for the measures that the organisers had put in place, including a workable marshal system.
Police at work
The second factor was the professionalism of the police. With respect to January 17, the police appeared to have taken seriously their constitutional obligation of protecting all citizens, including demonstrators. Their approach certainly appeared to be very different from that of the police force (yes, force) that clambered over a church wall in Lilongwe with the sole purpose of attacking demonstrators and journalists sheltering there during the July 20 tragedy.
Food for thought
Come to think of it, if demonstrators and the police were to be left to work out the ins and outs of demonstrations, perhaps we would have more peaceful assemblies and demonstrations than if politicians take centre stage.
Too often, it is politicians who ratchet up the tension through inflammatory statements, instigate propaganda shenanigans through the media and mobilise paid agent provocateurs.
Questions and triumph
In the context of Malawi, it is these nefarious activities by politicians that often turn peaceful demonstrations by citizens into riots by angry mobs.
As the demonstrators pack away their placards and the police return their anti-riot gear to the armoury, we can now turn to those who, in the run up to the demonstrations, extolled the virtues of dialogue as the way to address our challenges.
It is important that this camp now come forward and tell the public more about the dialogue route, including what is the question to be dialogued? Who should dialogue (should IMF and World Bank be part of the dialogue)? And when should the dialogue take place?
In the meantime, let us celebrate the fact that the July 17 demonstrations turned out to be a triumph for citizen rights and police professionalism.
And when that happens we all win.