Ill-fated EU Mission landed me in Malawi police cell, but itself into political firestorm

“Zuze,” reads one graffiti, “is the most corrupt police officer at this airport.” Another reads: “Ndatopamo muno, (In am tired with this place.) Tomorrow I am going home.” “Freedom is coming tomorrow South Africa,” reads another: “Let me go!” yet another.

European Union Election Observer Mission (EOM) officials Miroslav Poche and Mark Stephens talks to journalist Golden Matonga at The President’s Hotel in Lilongwe on Friday 10th January 2020. On Wednesday, 8th January 2020, Matonga was arrested alongside fellow journalists Steve Zimba and Francis Chamasowa while covering the arrival of the EOM team by police attempting to stop them from doing his work.

Being inside the sole police cell at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) is like touring an old museum.  There are names of people who have been inside the cell from all over the world, one can imagine from the graffiti, mostly from the Middle East. Muhamad Fati, Razik, Fazil, Chimwemwe Gondwe,

Some of the former occupants wrote their names and statements in all manner of languages. One could only haphazard guesses: Bangladesh, Pakistani, Indian etcetera.

The graffiti is testament to the various souls and bodies that were incarcerated here; with much difficulty you can imagine, while they were held briefly upon entry into the country, or exiting, for whatever criminality, or perceived wrongdoing that may have attracted the long arm of law enforcement.

We can only imagine what the foreigners thought of their welcome’s hotel or how everyone else, who has been inside, killed off their time as room got hotter and hotter. We, on the other hand, were unlike, so we didnt find anything to scroll the walls with and leave behind the graffiti, but as we kept our spirits high by joking aloud and chatting with some of the good police officers who had arrested us through a tiny wall.

One of them, brought us doughnuts. But when the bad ones, the overzealous ones who ordered our arrest and harrassed us, showed their face, we raged at them. I guess that’s what all prisoners do!

With its high walls and just a narrow hole to peep to the outside world and inhale fresh air, my incarceration in the cell, alongside Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) journalists, Steve Zimba and Francis Chamasowa educated me, with a glimpse of just how 20 or more Bangladesh or Pakistani illegal migrants feel when they are saddled inside like bags of maize.

It’s a small cell, the three of us felt like just enough for it on a hot afternoon. The bed sheets (there is no bed) are rugs and smelly. We didn’t even want to step our feet on them. Walking out of the cell after almost  2 hours, was a huge sigh of relief. But it also turns this writer, or so I reasoned, into an advocate for improved conditions not only at the police custody at the airport, but many other incarceration centres in the country.

If that in the heat of the moment resolution comes to reality, we have precisely the same overzealous cops who arrested to thank in spite of meting out the most flimsy of cases: arresting journalists for doing their work.

The particulars of that crime, by the way, is that as journalists, we trying to ask questions to the Election Observer Mission (EOM) from the European Union, no less a democratic franchise on their planned release of the Final Report on Malawi’s elections.

The EU officials had no problem granting us the interview. Police did.

So journalists brandishing their accreditation were dragged into the coolers; gadgets snatched, harassed, intimidated, ultimately, as we shouted incendiary at the police: prevented from doing their critical work.

But while the EU landed the journalists inadvertently in trouble, it did itself too.

With the Constitutional Court which has been hearing readying to pronounce its ruling on the petition by the two major opposition candidates, Saulos Chilima and Lazarus Chakwera, of United Transformation Movement (UTM) and Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who have been challenging the validity of the results that re-elected President Peter Mutharika, the arrival and intentions of the EU team was always going to spark fire.

Even before the team set foot on Malawian soil, as news filtered through of the scheduled visit, described by the EU as “routine” and “not unique to Malawi,” social media, particularly Facebook, went on meltdown.

“That’s a standard return mission and we will not make a statement until they are here. This is not unique to Malawi, this is standard practice,” EU deputy head of Mission Aurelie Valtat told The Nation.

Routine work it might be, but for a country that has been on knife edge since that fateful day in May—when 5.1 million Malawians voted for preferred presidential, parliamentary and ward councilor candidates, —but now awaits a panel of five judges to decide whether their votes elected the president or a ghost computer user, fake tally sheets or results sheets altered using a correction fluid, did the act.

Majority opposition party sympathizers expressed outrage, arguing that the EU report was tantamount to interference in the court process while pro-government users quickly celebrated what they perceived as opposition fearing the contents of the report.

“How stupid are we to still entertain the voice of the European Union over our affairs? How patronizing and colonial can these matters get,” wrote on Facebook, Shadreck Chikoti, a renowned award-winning author who often expresses opinions critical of the government.

The Malawi Law Society (MLS), as friends of court, in the current court process, faced stinging criticism from the opposition sympathizers recently when it published a legal opinion that many read as defending the position of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) in the elections case.

In a polarized state, its counterpart as amicus curiae—or as friends of court are also known—the Women Lawyers Association (WLA)—was hailed instead by the opposition sympathizers, while receiving muted response from those known to support government—as “voice of the people” and standing for justice.

However on the EU topic, MLS pulled no punches and redeemed itself in eyes of some in the opposition; arguing that release of the report would be tantamount to interference in the ongoing judicial process which are at an advanced stage.

“Considering that the outcome of the presidential elections is still in dispute at the Court and given the status of your institution, the Law Society is of the view that releasing your final report at this time risks falling foul of the subjudice rule besides playing as a catalyst to potential public unrest on issues concerning the presidential elections and possibly places your institution in breach of your duty under section 110 of the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections Act not to interfere in, or impede the normal course of the election,” the society’s president, Burton Mhango, wrote in a statement.

By then, both Chilima and Chakwera had informed EU of the folly of its mission. But the flight from Brussels, where EU is headquartered, was airborne. Social media was awash with threats on the EU team.

There were posts on Facebook calling for the Nsundwe Garrison to come to action—a reference to the population of a town on the outskirts of the capital Lilongwe, a hotbed of the recent regular violent anti-government protests where a police officer, Assistant Superintendent Usimani Imedi was brutally murdered while quelling a deadly protest and where in retaliation a group of police officers gang raped women, some under the age of 18 and one a few months pregnant at the time, according to findings of an investigation by the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a state funded constitutional body.

Considering that a whole EU ambassador’s vehicle was stoned by protesters during one of the protests, the EU was noting these posts with utmost seriousness.

That previous was compounded by a sting of social media attacks on the EU itself. When outgoing ambassador Sandra Peason, in wake of the killing of the Police Officer in Nsundwe called for calm and peace, she was lambasted by some social users (One social media user called Paeson a DPP cadet which prompted a shell-shocked Peason to respond: “Really?”) and she faced the same fate when she joined civil society groups, days later, to march in protests (pro DPP facebook users quickly termed Peason’s presence interference in local politics).

There is no move which the EU has made which has not be criticized by one party of the political divide or the other. For the state propaganda machinery, the animosity towards the EU exacerbated to the point that the public broadcaster MBC, the chief attack dog of the state, rushed to break the news that Peason was being recalled back to Brussels in celebratory terms.

With usual contempt to facts and professional journalism ethics, MBC suggested in its social media post that Peason was being recalled—with immediate effect— for political reasons and underscored the allegation of political interference. (Peason remains in the country and was not recalled for any political reasons but following internal EU management reviews.)

All that background, though, only then serves to raise the spectre of how ill-conceived the idea of publishing the EOM final report is. If the report would come at any time before or at the start of the elections case, it could have been warmly received by many.

But that is not the only problem area for the report. The EOM issued its preliminary report on the conduct and management of the May 21, 2019 elections the final results of the elections were released—amid controversy—on May 27th 2019 when EU and other election observers including former South African president Thabo Mbeki, had already caught a plane home. That was eight months ago.

The mediation efforts of the diplomatic community, the local church, a former president (Bakili Muluzi), have not yielded much.

It’s in that environment: polarized, toxic and dangerous, that the EOM team wanted to publish its report. When yours truly and colleagues arrived at the airport, it was not to cause a disorderly behavior, as we would later be accused by the police officers who threw us in that tiny dirty smelly police custody, but to capture this poignant moment and perhaps, ask whether coming now, and releasing the report now, was wisest—not just justified—thing to do. By then, the social media firestorm and the leaders of opposition had given the local office a clue.

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2 years ago

Kupuuluma a Matoga. Akufunyani just two hours into police cell at KIA. Learn to respect protocols. Mmawa you will be careful before taking pictures pa VVIP campus

2 years ago

Bad for you, hope the EU and MEC have learnt their lesson. Never steal an election.

Benjamin Kabinda Sakala
Benjamin Kabinda Sakala
2 years ago

If u are wrong,wait for the judgement,don’t challenge

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