A Day of Protests in Malawi: A Chronological Account from Afar
I have written this post out of my disappointment with the [narrow] reporting in the international media. The story — in which the protests were more often characterized as riots — has been reported on by Al Jazeera English, AFP, Associated Press, BBC, and Reuters. On-the-ground journalists with local newspapers would certainly do a better job of reporting on the events (though might, like international papers, be constrained by word counts), but various media restrictions and reports of online sabotage of opposition news agencies has reduced the availability of such reports (but see Associated Press story above, written by Malawian journalist Raphael Tenthani). My impressions from afar will largely be substantiated with blogs and posts to Twitter by sources in Malawi I trust.
It wasn’t certain whether Malawians would turn out today in large numbers to participate in demonstrations across the country organized as part of the protest themed Uniting to Resist Poor Economic and Democratic Governance: A Better Malawi Is Possible. Late last night, the high court had granted an injunction against the demonstrations, nullifying local authorizations for civil society groups and sympathetic citizens to assemble and march.
The injunction confused potential participants as to whether the protests would still happen. Twitter updates and posts to Facebook pages questioned whether the demonstrations were still going to happen.
The marches were scheduled to begin at 8am, but just an hour before, there were reports of quiet streets in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital located in the southern region. Vince Kumwenda wrote about the lack of minibuses, closed filling stations, a general sense of fear and a heavy police presence.
Similar reports came from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe in the central region, that there were few vehicles on the roads, save for the police and Malawi Defence Force units.
Before any marches began in Lilongwe, potential protesters were held for questioning. It seemed early in the morning that police in Lilongwe had a stronger grasp and/or faster response to the pending protests (Lilongwe was where the President, Bingu wa Mutharika, was scheduled to give a public lecture).
Crowds began to amass in Blantyre in the morning. Police attempted to disperse those congregating, but civil society leaders asked for copies of the injunction that unauthorized the protest, which officers failed to produce.
Reports from Blantyre in the morning characterized the protests as largely peaceful and photos/videos taken then featured smiling and singing participants.
Protesters sing Malawi’s national anthem in Blantyre, shot by Jason Price.
Popular civil society leaders and well known opposition leaders attended the Blantyre protest, including current Member of Parliament and former Vice President Cassim Chilumpha and democracy advocate (and executive director of the Institute for Policy Interaction) Rafiq Hajat. Both were interviewed at the Blantyre protest.
Cassim Chilumpha on the reasons for protest, via YouTube from amtupanyama.
Rafiq Hajat making the argument that police keeping the march from happening has led to a situation that will soon be uncontrollable by police, via YouTube from amtupanyama.
Hajat’s interview accurately forecasted the eventual unfolding of events in Blantyre. The escalation was slow at first, but eventually the city saw tires burning, stores looted, and violence against protesters.
As violence went on, protesters marched to the district headquarters, where they submitted a petition detailing their concerns and recommendations (Hajat delivered the petition to the District Commissioner with the understanding that it would then be given to the president). To summarize the petition, the topics addressed included: foreign exchange shortages, fuel shortages, electricity shortages, lavish government spending, corruption, disrespect for the rule of law, postponement of local government elections, the stalemate with the University of Malawi on academic freedom, and political intolerance and violence (see full text on Bright Mhango’s blog).
Meanwhile in Lilongwe and Mzuzu (the capital of the northern region and also Malawi’s third largest city), there seemed to be much more violence between police and protesters.
Tear gas was employed early in Lilongwe, and protesters also became violent earlier in the day.
I suspect fewer opposition leaders were present at the Lilongwe protests than at the Blantyre protests for reasons similar to those I learned about John Tembo’s absence (Tembo is the party leader of the MCP, a former ruling party). Tembo did not participate in the protests because he was previously served a copy of the injunction at his home.
Malawi Voice reported opposition leaders (including Vice President Joyce Banda’s sister) and journalists suffered at the hands of police.
Police lost control of events in Mzuzu early on.
Trucks painted blue and branded with the ruling party’s acronym (DPP for Democratic Progressive Party) were burned by protesters.
There was a lot of uncertainty surrounded the casualty count in Mzuzu. Though the AFP article stated only 1 death could be confirmed, numerous tweets of greater magnitude were posted.
It is still unclear at the time I write this the number of casualties in any of the protest locations, let alone the total number across the country.
Reports of protests were less frequent from smaller towns, though there were reports that people gathered to participate in protests in Chinteche, Chitipa, Kasungu, Mangochi, Mulanje, Mchinji, and Zomba districts. Musician and former MP in the United Democratic Front (UDF) party Lucius Banda was said to have tried to lead a protest in Balaka district in the southern region, but that the protest was quashed early. A former student of mine was working in Karonga district and happened to be in the district capital today. She reported:
People everywhere are gathered around radios listening to Bingu’s speech and to the news…Shops are closing early and there are more and more people thronging in the streets. Many are wearing red t-shirts. We are followed briefly by a pickup truck filled with shouting men in red.
Shortly after she left Karonga’s district capital, protesters assembled and began marching. Eventually, some stores were damaged and looted.
I am certain there is more to be reported from areas beyond those I’ve highlighted (feel free to add to the comments section any area that you feel was overlooked). But the major takeaway should be that, if we take the Blantyre situation as an example, the protests did not have to turn violent. In Blantyre, the protesters started off smiling and singing. How might today have ended were people allowed to freely congregate and march? Two people from Lilongwe remarked:
It’s also important to realize that the protests were not spontaneous. Civil society organizations had previously attempted a similar protest in February and university students and lecturers successfully staged protests in May primarily rooted in demands for academic freedom. It is thus important to put these protests in context. There are two brief but helpful background pieces:
- Malawian writer Steve Sharra recently authored a piece for Global Voices Online, entitled, Malawi: Arab Spring Spreading South of the Sahara?.
- And earlier this week, I wrote Situation Report: Malawi, highlighting the major political events in 2011 leading up to the protests.
Beyond those, other bloggers have weighed in on reasons behind the protests (for example, see Face of Malawi, Chimwemwe Msuku, and Boni Dulani). If there are other informed voices that should be included, please include links in the comments.
As Malawi plans for protests again on August 17, what has the government learned from today? Will the government promote an uncertain context in the lead-up to the August 17 protests?
This post and my Twitter updates throughout the day would not have been possible without the generosity of friends and strangers on the ground in Malawi willing to take the time to talk to me over the phone or online when they could have otherwise been spending their energy participating in a meaningful event and/or improving their personal safety situation. Thank you all for sharing information about today’s events.