CIVICUS speaks to Timothy Pagonachi Mtambo, a human rights defender and the executive director of Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) in Malawi. CHRR recently led protests in the capital Lilongwe. Mtambo explains why the protest happened, the response of the government and the state of civic space in Malawi.
1. Tell us about the recent mass protest in Malawi on 27 April 2018. Who organised it? And what were the reasons that drove the protest?
The April 27 nationwide protests were for demanding a greater transparency and accountability from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led government. The marches were led by Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and partners, under the banner of the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition. The protests involved patriotic Malawians who have been disappointed with the 4-Billion Kwacha (US$390 million) scandal and the deteriorating state of governance in the country. This is as evidenced by executive abuse and manipulation of public resources which are meant to serve the interest of Malawians; high cost of living; nepotism; lack of security especially for persons living with albinism; high levels of corruption; the abuse of tax payers money to reward the regime’s political cronies and DPP selected chiefs, activists, religious leaders who are paraded on state-media Malawi Broadcasting Corporation to either attack the critics of the regime or stand in the way of policy or legal reforms that advance the interest of Malawians. The public is also dissatisfied with the continued electricity blackouts, alarming rates of unemployment amongst the youth and the shortage of drugs and medical personnel in hospitals amongst many other challenges.
The demonstrations followed the K4-Billion scandal under which selected members of parliament (mostly those representing the DPP) were given payouts as “Thank You” gifts by the state for turning down the progressive Electoral Reforms Bill. This scandal raised serious governance and accountability questions including the issue of trust with tax payers’ money and the betrayal of public trust.
The protests were also fueled by the continued abuse of the Malawi Communications and Regulatory Authority (MACRA) and the taxpayer-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation which by the way operates as if is owned by the party in power coupled with continued poor service delivery in other public institutions.
2. Can you describe the day of the protest. How was the attendance and were citizens free to express themselves at the protest?
Just a day before the demonstrations, DPP supporters went around cities in party colours, spreading violence and hate, telling people not to participate in the march. They threatened to deal with anyone who would participate in the April 27 protests. This was done in the presence of DPP senior officials and the Minister of Information Nicholas Dausi inclusive. Since the DPP is known for brutality, terror and violence, some citizens were so afraid that they failed to turn up. But for thousands of others who have come to know the propaganda of the DPP, they defied all such threats and participated on the day.
The demonstrations were highly attended, this was historic and an indication that Malawians were tired of impunity and corruption. In total about 35 000 demonstrators participated. The capital Lilongwe had the highest number of over 13 000, seconded by Mzuzu city of about 11 000 and in the rest of the cities and districts that is Zomba, Blantyre, Karonga and Rumphi, each had demonstrators of not less than 4 000 people attending. During demonstrations, especially in Lilongwe, there were efforts to provoke demonstrators to turn violent by the police such as by blocking demonstrators to go to the Capital Hill (government head offices). Fortunately, citizens remained calm and demonstrators could pass after an hour.
The demonstrations received maximum media coverage from all local media institutions and international media notably British Broadcasting Corporation and Aljazeera. A petition was delivered to the authorities in which the president has been given 90 days to respond to the concerns or resign failing which citizens will again hold nationwide demonstrations in all the 28 districts of the country to push for a vote of no confidence in his presidency.
3. After the protest the Peter Mutharika President responded in local media saying those behind the protests were supporting an insurrection against the government. How do you respond to this?
It is sad that the President made such remarks. These are words that are from a leader who either does not care for the welfare of his people or is ill-advised by those around him. He should have rather have been more sensitive and acknowledged our concerns instead of accusing the protest organisers and patriotic Malawians of trying to make the country “ungovernable’’. The concerns raised in the petition are not only those of the organisers or civil society organisations in the country, but they are concerns of every citizen. A government that is responsive ought to consider the welfare of its citizens as a priority. However, any critical observer would not be alarmed with the approach President Mutharika and the DPP in general took regarding our petition as well as the demonstrations. From the onset, the DPP-led government was bent on frustrating anything to do with those demonstrations. In fact, sadly, such unresponsiveness and intolerance is what they have come to master.
4. What is the way forward now concerning the petition you delivered?
As organisers, we will be closely monitoring government’s implementation of those democratically genuine demands and concerns raised in the petition. It’s also important to note that it’s not just us organisers doing the monitoring. Thousands of Malawians whose constitutional right it is to hold public office bearers accountable on issues that affect their daily living are also monitoring. Government’s failure to address those concerns will see Malawians taking the DPP administration to task with more intense demonstrations that will be conducted in all the 28 districts, where citizens will register their decisive vote of no confidence in the current administration and that will be the beginning of a new chapter for Malawi.
5. What is the state of civic space in Malawi?
The civic space in Malawi is neither favourable nor ideal for a professing democracy. It is one where dissenting views are violently disregarded. Under the DPP-led government, cases abound of people who once they have expressed dissenting views against either the administration or leadership have ended up being threatened, assaulted and some have had their offices, houses and cars torched to ashes. Thankfully, Malawi still has people who believe a better Malawi is possible, that no one is above the law, and that all people are born equal and free. Currently the government is shrinking civic space further through the introduction of repressive NGO policies and laws.
- Timothy Mtambo is a passionate Governance and Human Rights Practitioner and activist in Malawi with experience in human rights and governance. The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a pioneering human rights and governance institution in Malawi was founded in 1995. Its mission is to protect and promote the culture of human rights and good governance for human development. See their Facebook page here and follow on Twitter @CHRR Malawi
- Civic space in Malawi is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor