Malawi remains in political limbo as judgment day looms

As Malawi anxiously awaits the results of a Constitutional Court case that could nullify last year’s presidential election, popular resistance to President Peter Mutharika is growing more strident, precipitating the country’s worst political crisis since the return to democracy in 1994.

Saulos Chilima (L) the first petitioner in the elections case, President Peter Mutharika (M) the first respondent as declared winner and Lazarus Chakwera the second petitioner

The scars of the unrest are all too visible in Msundwe, a trading centre on the outskirts of the capital Lilongwe that has become a hotbed of protest action against the government. The police station, close to the main marketplace, is in ruins: ransacked, vandalised and burnt by a community that has effectively revolted against the current government. Prisoners inside were released when the building was torched several months ago, and the town and the villages which surround it have become no-go areas for police.

Just a few kilometres from the birthplace of main opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera, Msundwe is now an opposition stronghold. Long-standing local grievances against this government were crystallised after the presidential election in May last year, which was won by Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with 38.57% of the vote. Chakwera and the Malawi Congress Party came second with 35.41%.

But the results were marred by serious allegations of electoral fraud, and rejected by opposition parties, who launched a legal challenge. This is now before the Constitutional Court: arguments have been heard, and the country nervously awaits judgment which is expected in early February at the latest.

In the meantime, protests against the government have been growing louder and bolder. The protests began with calls for the resignation of Justice Jane Ansah, the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission, but have evolved into a wider expression of dissatisfaction with the government.

Msundwe, which has never before played a significant role in Malawian politics, has taken centre stage. Whenever the opposition are holding anti-government protests in Lilongwe, scores of lorries and pick-up trucks arrive from Msundwe. These vehicles are bussing in the most notorious of the opposition supporters — christened the Msundwe Garrison — who have surprised many watchers by maintaining regular street protests for close to seven months.

A president under siege

Mutharika has reacted to the popular unrest by going to ground. After being sworn in for his second term, he stayed for months in Blantyre, despite the presidency being based in Lilongwe.

President Mutharika’s motorcade

He has dramatically cut down on public appearances and avoided travelling in opposition-friendly areas, especially in the central regions. The size of his security detail has been greatly increased, and he now travels with an escort of armoured military vehicles. But in interviews he has remained defiant and attacked the opposition as bad losers.

In early October, matters came to a head when Mutharika emerged from his shell and attempted to host a public event in Lilongwe. Opposition supporters in Msundwe attempted to block all traffic heading in the direction of the event (in an earlier incident, Mutharika’s convoy was forced to take a different route into the capital to avoid a similar blockade). Angry youths barricaded the roads and fought running battles with police. One police officer was brutally stoned to death.

Later, the police returned to the area, firing teargas into houses, beating residents and making hundreds of arbitrary arrests in reprisal.

A report by the Malawi Human Rights Commission, a constitutionally mandated institution, later revealed that police officers had sexually violated 17 women in the Msundwe area, including four minors and one pregnant woman.

“Some of the survivors were raped right in the presence of their children, some of whom are able to recount the incident and describe the police officer’s penis in great details,” reads part of the horrifying findings. The government has questioned the validity of the report.

James Mwale, a businessman at the Msundwe trading centre, sais although the protesters have attracted notoriety for the violent protests, it has also suffered severely for its actions. “Police too have been a nightmare, when they want to retaliate against the area, they don’t spare anyone, people have had to sleep at graveyards in fear of violent police reprisals,” he said. He noted, however, that the extended absence of police has also led to a general security breakdown in the area.

Nationwide turmoil

The unrest in Malawi is not limited to Msundwe, however. With Mutharika faring poorly in both the centre and northern parts of the country, sustained protests have left his government under siege and the economy in a tailspin.

Lilongwe marchers accompanied by heavy security

Inflation, currently at 10.4%, is on the rise, and undercollection by the Malawi Revenue Authority means the treasury is running at a deficit of 59-billion kwacha (R1.2-billion, $80.3-million). The tourism sector has attributed a poor season to the political crisis.

The military has been called in to maintain law and order during the protests. This, however, has led to some tensions between soldiers and police officers.

Divisions have emerged even within Mutharika’s ruling party, with some senior officials hoping to succeed him if a fresh election is called.

It is still far too early to write off Mutharika, however. Although a late entrant to the public sphere — he spent decades in the US as a law professor — he has proven to be a remarkably resilient politician. Many observers thought his political career was over when he failed to prevent Joyce Banda from succeeding his brother Bingu wa Mutharika as president, on Bingu’s unexpected death in 2012, but he went on to beat Banda in the next election.

His spokesperson, Mgeme Kalilani, said that the opposition is to blame for the widespread unrest in the country: “They chose to unleash violence as a reaction to their loss. The president tried his best to help the opposition and the HRDC [Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a civil society umbrella group] leadership understand that political violence was not welcome in a democracy.

“He keeps reminding the opposition leadership and their supporters about this fact. The expectation of the president is that the opposition and the HRDC leadership will see the need to stop the violence and the terror their supporters have been perpetrating against members of other political parties and other innocent citizens,” Kalilani told the Mail & Guardian.

Political limbo

Nothing is likely to be resolved before the Constitutional Court delivers its verdict on the legitimacy of Mutharika’s election, however.

ACB boss Matemba  surrounded by MDF soldiers when he received HRDC petition to reveal the names of people involved in the judges bribery saga

“There are three possible outcomes of the impending court judgment,” explained Billy Mayaya, a political analyst.

“Firstly, a ruling in favour of the incumbent will result in major political upheaval. Secondly, a ruling in favour of the opposition will lead to major resistance on the part of the governing party.

“The third option of fresh elections may provide the solution but without major reforms in the law and to the Constitution, nothing will temper the situation.”

Concerns over political interference in the judiciary remain high — not least within the judiciary itself. In an unprecedented development, the five judges presiding over the case lodged an official complaint with the Anti-Corruption Bureau complaining that a prominent businessperson and a Supreme Court judge had attempted to bribe them. While confirming the complaint, the bureau has refused be drawn on whose interests the two men were representing.

Until the judgment is delivered, Malawi remains in political limbo. “A lot of people are expecting the courts to nullify the elections, if we judge by the numbers that have been attending the protests and the anger expressed. Should the courts express a different view, the likelihood of chaos would be so, so high. It’s going to be a deadly aftermath,” said Euginio Njoloma, a security analyst and lecturer at Mzuzu University.

  • Golden Matonga is an award-winning journalist, columnist and blogger based in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe.

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Madalo
Madalo
8 months ago

JUDGEMENT DAY IS DOOMSDAY FOR DPP .

Malawi belong to the citizens.

The source of unrest in Malawi was as a result of how the electoral commission handled the whole election process, especially votes for the presidential candidates.The electoral commission had already someone in their mind, coz they didn’t even follow the rules concerning election. Those who are demonstrating,they are showing their anger when things were not properly conducted.Electoral commission should act as indipendent organ, otherwise if it favours a candidate and help that person to win and impose him/ her on the citizens, that is exactly what happens citizens becomes violent.Next time electoral commission should try to be independent coz Malawians… Read more »

Foolish
8 months ago

Fear of the unkonwn. Nothing will happen either way of judgement

Mbwiye
8 months ago

After judgement, I pray malawians should engage in civil war for a month for us to come back to our senses. It seems we don’t know what we want. Am ready.

True Patriots
True Patriots
8 months ago

Man made crisis created by tippex regime, when a greedy inhuman corrupt politicians still cant accept loss, and pass their baton to the rightful elected leader. This unnecessarily crisis could have been avoided with Inflation, currently at 10.4%, is on the rise, and undercollection by the Malawi Revenue Authority means the treasury is running at a deficit of 59-billion
kwacha (R1.2-billion, $80.3-million) due to embezzlement by crooked politicians who don’t care about Malawi but their bellies. #No tippex leadership # No corrupt politicians, no to impunity.

Atokwene
Atokwene
8 months ago

A Golden Matoga what else can you write after being detained by Airport police ??shame on you

Agenda Setting Theory
Agenda Setting Theory
8 months ago
Reply to  Atokwene

You can also write what you want people to hear. What is wrong with his writing? Tippex brain

Lego
8 months ago
Reply to  Atokwene

There is nothing about this article unless if you hate Golden Matonga.Whether he was detained by police nor was he,that is not your business.

Anti-Demos Vigilante
Anti-Demos Vigilante
8 months ago

You have totally failed to convince me why the court must rule for fresh polls apart from the fact that the judges should be intimidated by huge number of jobless, minors, tribalist and thugs who patronise the HRDC demos. I plead with the judges not to be hoodwinked by that line of thinking. APM and DPP have equally or even more angry and violent supporters who can match them in deed and number. Why, if I may ask, do you want DPP supporters to throng the streets for you to appreciate that tilipo and tikhonza kupanga zomwe enawo akupanga? Chonde… Read more »

Gertrude
Gertrude
8 months ago

You totally missed the point of the article!

Dudier
Dudier
8 months ago

U ARE A STUPID CADET. JUST SHUT YOUR MOUTH

Kim
Kim
8 months ago

Valueless comment – its in negative

Agenda Setting Theory
Agenda Setting Theory
8 months ago

Yet Kamuzu was from the centre. It is a curse to be a cadet

True Patriots
True Patriots
8 months ago

You’re a misguided soul following blindly corrupt individuals, who’re only using you for their selfish gains that are not patriotic. Look around you’re living 6th poorest nation in world with high inflation yet you follow leadership with retrogressive ideologies.

Kano
Kano
8 months ago

True conclusion.

Nyaphapi One
8 months ago

Nothing will happen.

Chuwakwabyama
Chuwakwabyama
8 months ago

chaiiiiiiiii……..na bi true…..!

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