Stumbling at the finishing line

The next 40 days are very crucial as political parties jump the last hurdle on the race to State House and it is during this period that no political party wants distractions or scandal that would take the attention from the key messages on the campaign trail.

No presidential candidate wants a financial scandal at this point and or caught saying the wrong thing particularly closer to polling day.

In the run up to the 2014 tripartite elections, the then president Joyce Banda had experienced a somewhat brief but eventful period as leader but in those short two years, she had to answer to the public on how billions could have been moved out of Capital Hill so easily under her watch.

Dogged by Cashgate and her likely involvement in the whole deal, she made a casual remark which her opponents capitalised on: One who receives stolen goods is not a thief.

As if that scandal was not enough, news of the dubious sale of the presidential jet broke and Banda could explain how the jet was sold and what happened to the proceeds.

The jury is out on whether any of these issues contributed to her downfall, to the extent of coming third, way below a political party which just two years before everyone wanted to see the back of it.

In this last hurdle, there are bound to be mistakes, made deliberately so in some cases—after all to some, it might be 40 days to the end of their ‘time to eat’.

It is during this period that ‘orders from above’ must be carefully weighed against the loss of crucial votes because people are watching any whiff of abuse of power during this last mile.

The arrest of a citizen Tumpale Mwakibinga for posting a meme of the First Lady Gertrude Mutharika in the head regalia she donned at the launch of the DPP manifesto comes to mind.

The meme transposes a picture of the First Lady taken at the event with that of the animated character, Rango and it was widely shared not long after the event.

It is such actions which bring unnecessary and unwanted attention to the presidency and President Peter Mutharika cannot afford such at the moment.

Unless the police are saying they will actively monitor activities in people’s personal social media accounts, this arrest is uncalled for and has generated bad publicity that the DPP government cannot afford to have on its neck right now.

The incident is just a gentle reminder that Malawi is decades behind in terms of social progression. In other parts of the world, critiquing the First Lady’s fashion sense is common and like a public person a First Lady would take such for what it is: an exercise of freedom of opinion and expression.

Legal minds have observed that the offence of ‘insulting the modesty of a woman’ is archaic and vague and has on several occasions resulted in its arbitrary application.

A female human rights defender Beatrice Mateyo was arrested last year for carrying a placard which in the police’s judgment was an insult to the modesty of a woman. The case has not come for prosecution, the prosecutors are probably wondering how mentioning a body party is an insult to the owner of that part.

Time has long gone for any government to use such archaic laws to suppress freedom of expression. This could be seen as a suppression of artistic creativity.

This is why it is laughable when the DPP says no Malawian has been arrested arbitrarily in the five years they have been in government. The examples are there to see.

The arrest of Mwakibinga sets a dangerous precedence for freedom of expression and it sends a bad signal about the next five years, a signal that the two Mutharika brothers might not be different after all when it comes to second terms. n

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