July 20: The bloody price of freedom

When Malawi’s multiparty icon the late Chakufwa Tom Chihana said in the early 1990s that he was ready to die and his blood could be fuel for democracy, little did the younger generation know that they, too, would have to spill blood in an effort to bring a change in the governance system.

On July 20 2011, blood was spilled as people were denied their right to express themselves after almost two years of deteriorating social, political and economic standards that saw those entrusted with authority calling the citizens “stupid.”

There can never be a word to describe July 20. Almost everyone, including the most loyal supporters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), became victims and joined those that had lost their loved ones in mourning.

The beginning

It all started when DPP was in combative mood as the civil society announced that July 20 had been set for demonstrations. Government went on to brand the march as “pro-gay” despite the support it received from religious bodies of different faiths.

To make matters worse, government later announced that President Bingu wa Mutharika would hold a public lecture, which civil society leaders and their followers were expected to attend, on the same day that was set for the demonstrations. The lecture was supposed to explain why the country’s service stations were dry, electricity supply was erratic, foreign exchange had disappeared, Chancellor College was closed and public hospitals did not have drugs.

Nobody was willing to listen to the lecture; the people were angry and felt it was time for them to be heard. The private media got a prelude to July 20 when most key reporters got threats alongside civil society leaders, whereas Zodiak Broadcasting Station paid the highest price when two of its vehicles were attacked on the eve of the demonstrations.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Malawi Police Service released a statement on the conduct of the demonstrations and for the first time since multiparty democracy, everything looked set that government was willing to let people exercise their rights, even at the cost of being insulted.

But everything changed by 9pm on July 19. Suddenly, there was breaking news on government media channels—a concerned citizen had obtained an injunction stopping the march. But that was too little of information as many citizens have for long opted for other mediums to source information.

By 6am on July 20, Lilongwe reflected as if a State of Emergency had been declared. Unfortunately, I was not there on March 3 1959 when the other declaration was made, but I am sure historians like Professor Kings Phiri and Desmond D. Phiri had their memories sent back to that other dark day.

The chaos

Police were armed to their teeth and the first group to be detained comprised Ali Mwachande of Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV and Aids (Manerela+) and Iliyaas Itimu of National Organisation of Nurses of Malawi (NOMN) for having music equipment and carrying red flags—the colour of the demonstrations. I lost my camera at the same spot as Police confiscated it. It was a sign of things to come.

The shock and surprise gave way to anger, anger to vengeance, and an already tired society deep in social and economic problems went on volcanic eruption—the one that would overwhelm the Police, civil society and even government.

In Lumbadzi, Lilongwe, 17-year-old Mphatso Victor has to live with a bullet for the rest of his life after a police stray bullet hit him as he ran away.

A total of 21 people died after being shot by police across the country in the violence that ensued.

“Even if people were looting, police were supposed to disarm them not kill them,” Undule Mwakasungula, one of the leaders of the July 20 demonstrations told a Commission of Inquiry on the same. But 21 lives had already been gone.

As 2011 ended, the painful part of July 20 is that, looking back, it looks like all the victims of the day died, were injured or beaten in vain. The politicians have gone back to their bickering, blaming everybody but themselves.

Politicians such as MCP president John Tembo and Vice-President Joyce Banda, who were far away from demonstrations or offering their vehicles as ambulances, quickly organised public relations tours to condole victims, whereas President Bingu wa Mutharika defied all moral codes by opting to inspect buildings than human life lost.

Certainly, a day will come when we will judge the conduct of our political leaders and how they related to their people on July 20.

The aftermath

The day, with all the pain it brought on the families of the 21 victims who died, people who lost their property, others who were injured, police officers who lost homes, among other things, should teach all of us, that in a democratic dispensation, governments should be accountable to the people, not arrogant to them.

The civil society fought a good cause, but lost the steam afterwards. It later transpired that some of them had been silenced by the ruling elite. When they tried to organise follow-up protests, very few Malawians came out to support them. It could have been fear of losing lives and property that made people react this way, but it was also proof that Malawians are not puppets of someone’s popularity-seeking agenda.

The day should also teach many who assume and want leadership positions that you cannot ride on the back of the poor people and lie to them. Government, opposition parties and civil society leaders should learn that where real issues are and it matters to them, Malawians will always wake up and reclaim their rights as they did on March 3 1959, April 6 and June 14 1993 and July 20 2011.

Of course, the biggest triumph of the July 20 event is that Malawians told all politicians, in power or not, that they remain vigilant to upholding their democracy. That even with blood or human sacrifice, they are willing to die again and again for Malawi to be free.

The heroes of July 20 did not die in vain.

Lessons learnt

  • “A lot can be learnt from the 2011 demonstrations. Firstly, never lose sight of target, always concentrate. Do not stop before the job is done. The other thing is that never allow the author to direct and rule. Always consult and analyse situations. Lastly, we have to move in unity and never look back”.—Rafik Hajat, one of the civil society leaders of the July 20 protests.
  • “On the day of the demonstrations, we had no enough equipment; we used the few we had. That is why the Inspector General asked the donors not only to condemn police but provide equipment to help in such situations (providing safety and security). The other lesson is coordination. Police and civil society organisations should coordinate on the moves and discuss issues of security. Some people join demonstrations only to steal.”—Davie Chingwalu, Malawi Police Service spokesperson.


  • “As government, we learnt that it is better to create a roundtable discussion to talk out the issues with the organisations concerned. We look forward to having discussions with them if they have issues but as government, we have no issues. Let them come to us and hear what they have because in that way, they will understand better rather than involving the media, which is a third party.”—Patricia Kaliati, Minister of Information and Civic Education.  (Compiled by Grace Ndau).

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