Perhaps they had a plan. On the first day—the day Peter Mutharika handed himself to Southern Region Police Headquarters—the plan reflected itself in the careful and well-organised disorder Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters invoked at the police Station.
But it was on the second day—the day Mutharika and nine others were in Lilongwe, that their plan came out clearly hidden between the lines of a petition.
The petition which DPP supporters, led by Zomba Central parliamentarian Yunus Mussa, after an ‘illegal demonstration’, handed over to the district commissioner, said it all.
“We are sincerely calling for Your Excellency to facilitate immediate release of these political gurus without conditions attached for the betterment of Mother Malawi and Zomba in particular to avoid serious political repercussions that can set the country on fire.”
Though they used ‘can set the country on fire’, DPP supporters had already made headway in setting the country on fire.
On the day of the arrest, they went to Southern Region Police Headquarters, all dressed in blue party colours. Just after arriving, one group, quickly, began to gather tree branches, heaped them in the Chipembere Highway and also on the road leading to Police Headquarters’ office and burnt them. Huge dark smoke spiralled into the air. Traffic, instantly, was curtailed.
The other group, like a combat, broke into the police compound and pushed old stationery cars into the road. Roads within the police compound were blocked.
“No one is taking our Peter anywhere,” charged one young man, presumably in his early twenties, shirtless and with red eyes.
After blocking whatever they considered strategic passages, they, in unison, assembled at the gate. They roughed up police officers; tore up and burnt national flags; stoned every police vehicle in sight; hurled insults at anyone they thought was not part of them and sang vicious anti-government songs.
Even in Lilongwe, things were nasty on all days before the bail was granted on Thursday. For instance, on Tuesday—the same day Zomba, Phalombe and Thyolo DPP followers petitioned government—there was commotion in some parts of the city.
Just like Blantyre, DPP followers stoned police officers and damaged various properties, including Lilongwe District Council office window panes and a vehicle belonging to the council’s official. Even worse, several cases which were up for hearing in other courts had to be cancelled.
Was Malawi set on fire?
So, were these spates of violence and public disruption not a well-calculated step in an effort to ‘set the country on fire?’
“That was their ultimate wish. They wanted to set the country on fire and they worked hard. However, they failed because they did not manage to get enough support from the public,” says Simbarashe Mungoshi, a political systems lecturer in the department of journalism at Polytechnic.
DPP is not the first party to have its senior leaders arrested.
In 1995, MCP die-hards did not just riot after a judge had denied John Tembo bail. Tembo—together with Cecilia Kadzamira, Kamuzu Banda and others—was answering charges of being behind the killing of the Mwanza Four. Some even besieged for about half an hour the office of the then Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Kamudoni Nyasulu.
In 2007, UDF followers were all over the streets in yellow protesting the arrest of their national chairman Bakili Muluzi for treason.
Yet in all these historical arrests—arguably more high profile than DPP’s—there have not been violent responses than those witnessed last week from DPP followers.
None of the protests went as far as roughing up police officers and breaking police vans. None went as vile as taking the law into their hands by holding demonstrations without notifying the police and threatening to set the country on fire. None went as barbaric as breaking properties, blocking highways and disturbing public and private services.
Surely, there must be more to DPP’s conduct than just expressing anger against their leaders’ arrest. A spirit so violent that it moved them to tear and burn to ashes the national flag—a protected emblem under the Constitution of Malawi.
What could have been behind this violence?
Emeritus professor of political history Kings Phiri argues that it may be misleading to compare last week’s spate of violence by DPP supporters to those of MCP and UDF supporters.
“We need to understand the timing of these arrests. These arrests have been at a time when the country is only a few months to a big political event: the 2014 general elections. That was not the case with the arrests that happened to Dr Banda and Muluzi. As such, I think DPP supporters went this wild because they have a feeling that these arrests are trying to disturb the political field for their candidate, Peter Mutharika,” he says.
Phiri, who maintains that the law should take its course on those accused, adds that Malawians should not connect DPP’s violence last week to the violence the party unleashed when it was in power.
“If you look at our history, you will note that almost every ruling party turns violent in dealing with criticism whenever absolute power gets into their brains. We saw it with MCP and UDF, and there shouldn’t be something unique with DPP,” he says.
But although the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) and others have condemned last week’s violence, DPP leaders are yet to come out to condemn the violence.
Speaking from the police cell last week, the party’s publicist Nicholas Dausi appealed for calm, only to blame the violence on People’s Party (PP).
He was quoted on Zodiak Broadcasting Station as alleging that “the ruling People’s Party (PP) is sponsoring hooligans to masquerade as DPP supporters to terrorise court proceedings as a ploy to have the suspects delay to be taken to court”.
As the country drifts to 2014 elections— a tripartite election which commentators forecasts tense competition—these spates of violence are becoming a worry to some locals.
“Imagine DPP loses, will they accept the defeat peacefully? Some of us are worried,” says Emmanuel Chirwa, a resident of Chirimba, Blantyre.
Will 2014 be decided by handling of treason cases?
Professor Phiri, however, argues that the success of 2014 elections will largely depend on how government handles the treason case involving DPP gurus.
“It is my prayer that the trial will be prosecuted and finished in time—say by June this year. Parties need to get over this so that they return to normalcy, thereby preparing for elections next year. But with the history of how government lawyers fare so far when prosecuting these cases, I fear it will take time and that will be suicidal for a country preparing for a big political event,” he says.
Chancellor College political scientist Michael Chasukwa adds that political parties need to ensure that their supporters are aware of the fact that supporters themselves have to contribute positively to processes leading to 2014 elections if the results are to be satisfactory.
“More often, parties tend to consider elections an event, not a process. If they had in mind that an election is a process not an event, they should have been actively civic educating the masses so that we should have good elections,” he says.
Beyond that, DPP, too, needs to put its house in order.