Malawi’s uprising: Democracy, debate and leadership, by Steve Sharra

Keywords : Malawi

Wednesday 20 July found me at Katoto Teacher Development Centre (TDC), less than a kilometer away from Katoto Freedom Park, ground zero for Mzuzu demonstrations. We had a teacher professional development workshop with 20 educators from Mzuzu City and Mzimba North. Hardly had we started the day when we heard the chants and songs. It was tantalising.

An hour into our session, one participant apologised for interrupting, saying they had received a phone call. Riots were breaking out in town, vehicles were being overturned and burned, and shops were being looted. I stole a glance at my phone, and people were posting updates on Facebook and on Nyasanet directly from the centre of Mzuzu. Soon we started hearing the sounds of teargas canisters.

Two participants who had gone out to the bathroom came back dabbing wet handkerchiefs to their eyes. The teargas had wafted in our direction. We closed the windows. Dozens of youngsters ran past our training venue. We kept on with our training, constantly peeping through the windows to monitor what was going on outside. The trickle of people running past our venue started growing in volume. People were now passing by carrying merchandise. A crowd gathered outside nearby, and the teargas shots grew louder. There was no doubt things had turned ugly. Our driver, who had left with the car on some errands, came back on foot. Cars were being targeted, and he nearly got caught up in the mess. He quickly drove into a nearby neighbourhood, asked if he could keep the car inside somebody’s fence, and walked back to the training venue.


We broke off for lunch at 12pm, and three of us walked toward Katoto Filling Station, which faces Katoto Freedom Park. The filling station, popularly known as Pa Harry (owned by popular local politician Harry Mkandawire), is located on the corner of Mzuzu City’s largest intersection. The three-way traffic lights open the gateway to the lakeshore districts of Rumphi and Karonga, and Chitipa further up in the north. To the east lies Nkhata Bay and the beaches of Lake Malawi, and southward the M1 takes you to the capital city Lilongwe. There were rocks strewn all over the T-junction. A billboard boasting the height of Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika’s achievements only two years ago had been torched, but you could still read the words: ‘Let the work of my hands speak for me’, an English translation of a Chichewa saying about how deeds offer better evidence than words. The stark irony was lost on no one. There was a fire, still smouldering in the middle of the intersection.

Now and again crowds surged, running away or towards the northern end of the bus depot. A police land cruiser seemed to be coming from that direction. A vehicle belonging to the National Aids Commission arrived at the filling station where we had stopped. Somebody behind me started shouting in a menacing way. He was trying to galvanise others to attack the vehicle. The driver quickly made a u-turn and drove away. Suddenly an army truck appeared from the direction of Moyale Barracks, east of the city. It was full of soldiers, carrying guns. Another one quickly followed, and a third. You could feel the tension go up a notch amongst the crowd. A few people waved at the soldiers.

I was itching to go nearer and take pictures, but I was strongly advised not to. We walked back to our training venue, passing residents of Katoto who had come out of their houses and were thronging the neighbourhood streets. Back at the training venue, we continued with our programme. It was a surreal experience. Here were 20 Malawian educators discussing professional development plans for Malawian schools, with gun shots sounding very close by, and people streaming past the building. Police teargas and live gunshots were still droning when we left Mzuzu and headed for Mzimba Boma as the sun set.

That evening Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) rebroadcast President Bingu wa Mutharika’s televised public lecture from earlier that day, so I had a chance to watch it. He spoke for about two hours and 15 minutes. On Twitter and Facebook, the reactions to the lecture were furious. The choice of Wednesday 20 July was clearly meant to not only sabotage the planned demonstrations, but to also cause mayhem and confusion. In that, they succeeded. The government machinery had done everything possible to discredit the planned demonstrations. Tactics used by the MBC bordered on comic relief. On several consecutive days the prime time evening news bulletins carried opinionated claims masquerading as news to the effect that the real aim of the demonstrations was support for homosexuality.

That the government has been scared of a Tunisia-Egypt type revolt has been evident in the way it has reacted to the slightest mention of demonstrations. The academic freedom struggle has its roots in that fear, as does the edict Mutharika issued on 6 March 2011 that anybody wanting to stage a demonstration must first pay two million kwacha (approx. US$13,000) to the police as surety against property damage. Such has been the government’s fear of demonstrations that it has gone out of its way to placate a few civil society activists, who have since turned around and now praise government, while ridiculing former civil society colleagues. If events of 20 and 21 July look as if they vindicate government’s fears, it is not for its foresight; rather it is for having worked hard toward that fulfillment. The president’s decision to blame the organisers of the demonstrations for property damage and loss of life leave that in no doubt.


There are two tragedies. First are the deaths that have resulted from the demonstrations. Second is the precipice we have gone over, beyond which debate does not seem salvageable. The second tragedy has important implications for the African renewal that Mutharika, and many of his then admirers in Malawi and outside, had hoped his presidency, and his one-year rotating chairpersonship of the African Union, would accomplish. I’ll get to this point in due course. On Thursday 21 July the organisers of the demonstrations took out a public service announcement urging a stop to further protests. They said only Wednesday 20 July was the legitimate date for demonstrations, and a petition had been delivered to the president to that effect. Any further protests after that date were illegal. The president’s lunch hour address to the nation on Thursday 21 July ended with an invitation to dialogue, having spent much of the address blaming the organisers for having paid demonstrators to loot and damage property. On Friday 22 July the president spoke to graduating police cadets at Zomba Police College, and all the pretense for dialogue was gone. He accused the protest organisers of treason, and threatened to ‘smoke them out’. Offering condolences to the families of those killed in the protests, he read from his prepared remarks: ‘They have died in vain.’

Mutharika and leaders like him have always presented a particularly difficult dilemma for me. I have suggested previously that all political leaders are the same, a manifestation of what they perceive to be the imperatives of wielding political power. It is the levels and degrees of civil society activism that explain the differences in the extent of what each particular leader is capable or incapable of doing. 20 July itself offers a telling Malawian example. The entire idea behind the lecture was ill-thought. As George Kasakula noted in one of his columns in The Weekend Nation recently, Malawians did not need lectures; they needed solutions to chronic social, economic and political problems. The choice of the date itself was a ‘bizarre juxtaposition’ with the demonstrations, to quote Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza in his 21 July article, ‘Malawi on the Brink: The July 20 Movement.’ That was reason enough for many not to even listen to or watch the lecture. Even after listening to it in its entirety, many people’s reaction was utter dismissal and ridicule. That was exactly my attitude as well.


Early in the lecture, the president referred to an opposition critic of his government, who said the president had been wrong to antagonise Britain, because Britain was ‘our mother’. The president said the last line in the country’s national anthem goes ‘…and mother Malawi’, not ‘…and mother Britain’. A lot of the reaction to the president’s decision to expel the British High Commissioner, Mr. Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, was understandably in fear of the potentially disastrous effects of any British retaliation in the area of development aid to Malawi, which is widely believed by many Malawians to support poor people. As a matter of fact a lot of foreign aid benefits the donating country as well as the wealthy elites of the recipient country. But another corner of the reaction bordered on hysteria, fed by the existential belief that foreign aid is an act of Western altruism and not strategic political interest; that it is the natural order of things for Western countries to give aid, out of altruism, to Third World countries for whom it is the natural order of things to forever remain beggars.

The strategic purposes of foreign aid extend beyond bilateral support to national budgets. Most non-governmental organisations receive aid for reasons that have little to do with altruism. An article forwarded recently to the Fahamu Debate List, written by Tafataona Mahoso, has a most telling title: ‘How the US controls “civil society” throughout Africa’. In the article, Mahoso argues that all of civil society in Africa is sponsored by US and European interests, with the aim of making Africans ‘feel and believe that they are only thankful receivers of freedom and human rights conceived, taught and funded by the West’. He goes on: ‘The Anglo-Saxon powers, led by the US, already control a continental network and superstructure of “civil society” throughout Africa.’ A syndrome that has been cultivated over several centuries, Mahoso argues that it ‘is not natural’. It has created, Mahoso argues, a ‘willingness to apologise against our own dignity and interests while upholding the arrogance of the enemy’. Mahoso is quick to point out that ‘the problem is not with the North Americans and Nato as such’. Africans themselves are to blame: ‘…we have allowed ourselves to be tutored in governance matters by people who are our declared enemies or by organisations and individuals funded and managed by our declared enemies.’

Whether or not one agrees with Mahoso’s language of ‘declared enemies’, and the depiction of African civil society as pliant and supine, the point about self-sabotage should not be a substitute for apportioning blame where it belongs. As I have already pointed out, the benefits from this system go to both the Western donors and to wealthy African elites. It is the poor, and marginalised Africans that get sacrificed in the process. For all the comical relief and laughable madness about MBC’s claims of the 20 July demonstrations being aimed at showing support for homosexuality, gay rights have become a tug of war between competing interests in the West. Africa has become the battleground for Evangelicals wanting to use Christians in Africa to stop the spread of Western forms of homosexual lifestyles, and a battleground for gay rights activists to contain Western forms of Christian homophobia. In the process, the human stories of Africans born gay, and their genuine struggle for their humanity, their rights and equality, get lost in the pandemonium. Because matters of sexuality are considered private in most societies, the surface outlook suggests that there are no born homosexuals and other types outside heterosexuality in Africa.

Mutharika has spoken of gay people in the worst terms possible, repeating language used by President Robert Mugabe. He has claimed that homosexuality is unMalawian and unAfrican, reflecting an insensitivity to the diversity of human sexuality that is as part of human nature as is heterosexuality. The entire discourse about gay rights is fraught with extreme views on either side, making debate, and opportunities for educating ourselves about the gifts of God’s diverse creation, impossible. The irony of the denial of one’s humanity for how nature created them, a phenomenon black people around the world are only too familiar with, has not even registered.

Mutharika spoke to Malawians a month earlier on Friday, 24 June about the causes of the fuel and forex shortages in Malawi and the reaction from most Malawians was predictably the same. Front pages the next morning said his speech was empty and devoid of any solutions; full of blame for the IMF, donors and everyone but himself. In his 20 July lecture, he went on to talk about how Malawi’s forex ends up in Mumbai, London and other global financial centres. He repeated what he had said on 24 June that it was the IMF that had ordered the government to liberalise oil importation and forex, and leave them in the hands of the private sector. The acute shortages the country was experiencing were a direct result of those policies. There has been very little discussion on email forums, newspapers and electronic media as to why exactly the country has no forex, or responses to the president’s accusation that foreign banks, which have proliferated as part of Malawi’s economic growth since he was elected, have been siphoning it out of the country. Nor has there been much discussion as to whether poor countries have the power to reject the IMF’s neoliberal policies, with the prevailing opinion being that countries choose whether to follow IMF advice, or to leave it, with no consequences.

Is democratic debate still possible?

Not everyone has received Mutharika’s lecture with indifference and ambivalence, however. In The Nation of Friday 22 July, the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) responded to some of the issues the president raised. Speaking for the organisation, the executive director, Chancellor Kaferapanjira, doubted that the government had the resolve to institute measures of self-sacrifice that would be required for the president’s suggestions to be implemented. ‘The vehicle fleet of the Malawi government is one of the largest in Africa,’ said Mr Kaferapanjira. ‘If they can get rid of the appetite for new vehicles and maintain the current ones, it can help in reducing recurrent expenditure.’ An interesting observation this one, but one wonders why the Malawi police and the ministries of health and education, big ministries with big numbers of employees and big operations, have never had adequate numbers of vehicles. But Kaferapanjira’s observations are also echoed by the petition civil society has presented to the president. They are also echoed by several columnists and commentators, including The Weekend Nation’s Ephraim Munthali and The Sunday Times’ Deborah Nyangulu-Chipofya and Raphael Tenthani, who have pointed out how government could rein in excesses and abuses if they could embrace self-sacrifice and austerity measures themselves.

That there has been little debate stems, partly, from the manner in which the president speaks. It has become an expectation that every time the president veers off his prepared remarks, he will make the next day’s front-page headlines. He has called his critics ‘drunks’ and ‘tiankhwezule’, (in reference to a small bird that, by implication, should not be taken seriously), and donors ‘stupid’. The latter term has so scandalised Malawians, to the extent of the opposition critic who is reported to have said Britain was Malawi’s mother and should not be antagonised. It is common amongst Malawian pundits and columnists to declare that imperialism ended with colonialism, and Malawi has all but herself to blame.

This is an observation made mostly in reaction to what Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has called ‘the president’s nationalist anxieties and preoccupations with colonialism and admonition of Britain’, which to the majority of Malawi’s population, born after independence, ‘are outdated and irrelevant’. Obviously, the tendency by African leaders to use colonialism as an excuse has backfired on them. However, imperialism is still very much at work, as a growing body of development studies scholarship shows. This is a body of scholarship intellectuals from Africa and from other parts of the world that demonstrates how African wealth and resources migrate out of the continent every year. The blame game insists on one culprit, when it is both Western interests and wealthy African elites behind the looting and plundering.

Mutharika’s second term of office has given cause to two questions about many African leaders: are they their own worst enemy? Are they really different from other leaders elsewhere? They set the tone for how Africans are going to discourse. It will be them setting the terms, as they know best; they cannot take Africa over a cliff, they reassure. Because there will be no real dialogue and serious debate about genuine issues raised in the pronouncements by both the presidents and their critics, the only choices left on both sides will be extreme positions that portray the other party as out of touch and ignorant, intolerant and stubborn. In their extreme moods, African leaders want the organisers of protests and demonstrations prosecuted for treason, or ‘smoked out’. In the extreme fringes of the protestors, they want these leaders out of power, and worse. The presidents bring the full force of the state to bear on their detractors, who find ready support from Western interests. The middle ground which was supposed to foster debate about Africa’s desires for true democracy and independence, ‘Africa of the new beginning’, to use Mutharika’s own words, is further adrift.


* Steve Sharra, Ph.D. blogs for Global Voices Online and at Afrika Aphukira.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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