20th July: The police were victims too

We are applauding and celebrating the new PP administration for its efforts to go to the bottom of the challenges we faced during the last two years of Bingu wa Mutharika’s regime. During the recently organised prayers remembering all those who lost their lives during last year’s 20th July 2011 demonstrations, various speakers highlighted the importance of forgiving but not forgetting.

President Mrs Joyce Banda highlighted the fact that the 20th July commission was established by the late President Mutharika (and not her, probably sensing public fatigue with so many commissions). She also emphasised that it is important to go to the bottom of what happened, so that ‘lessons can be learnt’. What we, at the Nyasa Times are concerned with are two things.

The first is the organization of an important national event in the northern region, which according to statistics, seems to have lost more people than the other regions during the protests. Yet, there is a growing concern in the country, that there is an overemphasis on the suffering of the northern region over and above the national experiences. Perhaps a counter-argument could be advanced, positing that national events can be organised anywhere in the country. Yet, the presence of prominent political and religious leaders from the northern region (coupled with the absence of key institutions and leaders from central and southern regions) is ticking time-bomb of ethnic politics in the country.

The second concern emanating deals with the politics of narration and memory, especially the way the President is leading the nation in remembering and forgetting issues related to the 20th July protests, which were organised and choreographed by NGOs and civil society institutions . How amazing, that these organisers continue to absolve themselves of the responsibility of the violence and the wanton destruction of property.

The President narrated a moving story of her visit to the family of a Lilongwe man who had been shot dead whilst working within his compound. Moving as the story was, it had lots of facts that were problematic. What is of concern to the Nyasa Times are three issues:

(1)   She is taking everything that she is told by the victims as gospel truth.

(2)   She is leading the nation in remembering the 20th July protests from a very ideological perspective – that on one hand there was the brutal dictator and on the other, the victims.

(3)   She is leading the nation in silencing the perspective of the police, at a time when we are experiencing security problems in the country.

These are serious problems in relation to the construction and sustenance of a national narrative on the protests, which were a national and not a regional tragedy, notwithstanding the different number of victims across the regions.

The dangers of taking as gospel truth everything that the real and imagined victims tells her is that there are other silent victims in this story. There are victims who, despite not loosing their lives, actually lost much more than those who died: Some ended up loosing the use of their limbs; others lost their means of livelihood – In essence, resulting from the violent demonstrations, there are people  who are living their lives as a form of death.

Depending on their ideologies or professionals, different groups saw and experienced the protests from different perspectives. There are people who lost their businesses who still blame civil society organizations for their failure to control the devil of the demonstrations that would later turn violent.

Yet an important victim in this story is saliently being taken out of the President’s narration – and this victim is the Police(wo)man, who is guided by bureaucratic authority. There are numerous cases of Nazi criminals whose defence against accusations of participating in exterminating Jews was that they were simply following instructions. And that’s what the Malawian police man/woman did on the 20th of July:  Following orders to keep public peace.

Civilians might have so many theories and assumptions about how the police should do their job – but we fail to imagine, how, a Force that has never experienced such a violent demonstration (characterised by looting and beatings) could be controlled by poorly-trained and ill-equipped and underpaid officers; some of whom had their houses burnt just because they happened to be officers.

As such, they too were victims of the system and the protests themselves. They too have a story to tell. To suppress their story because we want to seem to be politically correct is an injustice to the very truth that we claim we want to establish. The problem with the truth is that, in its crudest form, it is simply a collection and recollection of facts that we put together – in other words, truth is the sum of our memories and recollections. The truth about the 20th July therefore cannot remain the sole property of those we think were the real victims – there were other unwilling victims, such as the police  – and we would like to warn our political and religious leaders from politicising national memory – because they too contributed towards poisoning the political environment that resulted in the 20th July, and in that case, they actively contributed to the perpetration of injustices arising out of the protests.

Whilst commissions of inquiries can help establish the elusive truth, they also have the political attribute of masking and blindfolding the truth that we ideally seek. When politicians take the lead in politicising the reasons for establishing the nature of the work of the commissions, what we tend to get in the end is a malleable form of truth, that has been moulded to fit certain ideological duplicities. Because the question that we at the Nyasa Times would ask the nation is, how far are we willing to go in finding the truth? Why would we chose to investigate Robert Chasowa’s death over that of, say for example, Evison Matafale?

What we at the Nyasa Times want to encourage the nation is to understand that the pursuit of truth is costly,  and a very political and selective process – and oftentimes, does not contribute anything towards national building. The recent speech by the President was a wonderful reminder of the hardships that we continue to experience in this country, but it should not be forgotten that some of the perpetrators of such national tragedies were sitting with her at the podium. They are the very people who, instead of teaching us to love one another and to build our country, they taught violence, nepotism and lies.

In the end, the policeman and woman have been hung out to dry by the current government and the politicised civil society institutions. The police have been victims of political indecisiveness – they too have a story to tell, and even if we might not like what they say, even if we disagree with their recollection of events, even if we dispute their criticism of our advocacy and activism – they nevertheless participated in those protests – and thus their view is as valid as those views of the politically correct victims that our leaders believe they speak for.

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