The stand-off between Malawi Police Service and Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) worsened on Monday as none of the parties appeared to be in a position to accommodate the other on nationwide demonstrations that have turned ugly.
During a news conference convened at National Police Headquarters at Area 30 in Lilongwe with Malawi Defence Force (MDF) Commander General Vincent Nundwe in attendance, Inspector General of Police Rodney Jose maintained his position as expressed in a letter dated July 27 asking organisers of the post-election demonstrations to stop for the sake of peace in the country.
But HRDC leadership, which held its press conference an hour after the police chief’s media briefing, categorically refused to bow down to the demands.
Jose interchangeably used the words ‘order’ and ‘request’ in reference to his letter to HRDC.
However, the police chief clarified that his letter to HRDC, which is organising a demonstrations to push for the resignation of Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah for allegedly presiding over a flawed electoral process in the May 21 Tripartite Elections, was a ‘demand’. This classification left questions hanging on whether the police have effectively banned protests.
During the news conference, Jose, Deputy IG (operations) Duncan Mwapasa and director of operations Griffin Mpumulo contradicted on implications of the IG’s letter if the civil society protests continue.
On the action police would take if the protests continued, Mwapasa warned that the police would disperse the protesters while Mpumulo said the law enforcers would offer protection “as long as the protests are peaceful”.
On his part, Jose said the Police were stretched by the demonstrations. He also dismissed assertions that the law enforcers were being used by government to thwart demonstrations.
In his letter that drew widespread condemnation from some commentators who said it would be tantamount to usurping constitutionality, Jose said: “In view of the above, the Malawi Police Service, in exercise of its powers under Section 105 (1) of the Police Act, demands that HRDC should forthwith stop convening demonstrations until such a time when it would be possible to convene and hold peaceful demonstrations. You are also required to convey this demand to members of HRDC at all levels.”
On Monday, Nundwe, donning a grey business suit, took a backseat role throughout the press briefing. The Army chief also avoided direct questions such as whether the military has assessed the stated security breakdown.
He opted to quote laws on MDF roles in supporting internal law and order.
Said Nundwe: “Our role is to protect the constitutional order.”
Earlier, Jose admitted that police have received feedback that its relationship with the public has deteriorated due to, among others, crowd control tactics such as the use of tear gas.
During their briefing also in Lilongwe, HRDC directly responded to the security agencies’ news conference, but shifted demonstrations planned for Tuesday and Thursday this week to August 6 to allow adequate planning.
HRDC national chairperson Timothy Mtambo, who also demanded Mwapasa’s resignation purportedly because his admission that police could no longer protect the public reflected personal failure, said demonstrations would be held next Tuesday in Mzuzu, Blantyre and Lilongwe. The August 6 demonstrations have been dubbed ‘One Million March’.
In apparent reference to Jose’s letter, he said: “We are surprised they are addressing the letter to us instead of the Commander-in-Chief who can beef up their capacity. Or they should have asked President Mutharika to fire Jane Ansah.
“Will we stop the demonstrations? Clear answer: No! We are going ahead with protests!”
HRDC vice-chairperson Gift Trapence said the move by police amounted to a declaration of a State of emergency which the group will move the courts to challenge.
Mtambo warned government for continuing ignoring the protests but vowed to keep the protests going until Ansah leaves the electoral commission.
On the mediation effort initiated by former president Bakili Muluzi last week, Mtambo said HRDC will still give the effort support. But the group rejected Muluzi’s demand for a six-day truce.
Reacting to the developments on Monday, governance and political analyst Henry Chingaipe described the situation as a stalemate and predicted that the demonstrations are going to continue.
He said: “It is also clear to me that the authorities are missing it by focusing on finding ways to curtail the demonstrations in one way or the other without addressing the issues that protesters have raised and for which they have taken to the streets.”
Chancellor College political analyst Ernest Thindwa also questioned the move to bar the demonstrations, saying HRDC and any Malawian have constitutional backing on holding protests.
In a 2002 case where Malawi Law Society, Episcopal Conference of Malawi and Malawi Council of Churches were applicants against the State and the President, Minister of Home Affairs, Inspector General of Police and Army Commander, then High Court Judge Edward Twea, now Justice of Appeal, ruled against blanket banning of demonstrations against Muluzi’s bid for a third term of office.
Said the judge: “It should be noted that the police have powers to regulate assemblies, meeting and processions… The State has numerous other laws that regulate assemblies and prevent rioting, and also laws on defamation that regulate freedom of speech and expression. The Police Service would be advised to use these powers properly.
“Again, as Malawians, the organisers of demonstrations on this issue, or indeed any other issue, for or against must bear in mind public tranquillity. Democracy will always have enemies both within and without the government.
“There is need to strike a balance between the needs of society as a whole and those of individuals. If the needs of society in term of peace, law and order, and national security, are stressed at the expense of the rights and freedoms of the individual, then the Bill of Rights contained in our Constitution will be meaningless…”
Twea said matters of national security should not be used as an excuse for frustrating the will of the people expressed in their Constitution.