Malawi towns empty except for security forces

By Green Muheya, Nyasa Times

Shops and banks in Malawi’s main cities and towns were closed on Wednesday and security forces were patrolling empty streets after organizers called off planned anti-government protests.

Armed police officers are stationed outside shops, service stations and government buildings.

“It’s quiet today. It is unofficial public holiday and a demonstration that things are not okay in Malawi,” said a Lilongwe resident John Mbango.

Civil rights groups want President Bingu wa Mutharika to declare his wealth, solve dollar and fuel shortages that have hit the economy and restore diplomatic relations with the country’s former colonial ruler and major aid donor, Britain.

The organisers of the vigil agreed to United Nations-facilitated mediation. However, they promised more protests on September 17 if Mutharika will not address the chronic poverty and fuel shortages affecting most of the southern African country’s 13 million people.

Blantyre streets: Only security forces in town

“Our peaceful Vigil scheduled for Wednesday, 17th August 2011 has therefore been postponed until 17th September 2011 if no meaningful progress has been achieved,” said Rafiq Hajat, one of Malawi’s leading rights activist.

Hajat, a protest organiser who is also Director of Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) said they could not prevent any Malawians from exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and of expression “and would thus not dissuade or prevent our brothers and sisters if they are still determined to go ahead with actions such as staying at home, wearing red clothing, going slow, or walking to work etc. on their own volition.

“We believe that it is an inalienable constitutional right of all Malawians to hold elected Duty Bearers to account,” he said.

Malawian security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters in three cities last month, killing 19 people. Some of the demonstrations had degenerated into looting.

In a statement Tuesday, global rights group Amnesty International called on Malawi to stop using live ammunition against demonstrators and allow people to express their opinions without fear of violent reprisals or arbitrary arrests.

The United States has frozen a $350 million aid package to Malawi in response to the violence.

Another major donor to Malawi, Britain, suspended aid earlier this year due to a diplomatic dispute arising from a leaked cable in which the British ambassador in Lilongwe said President Mutharika is “autocratic and intolerant of criticism.”

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