Protests, demo and govt accountability: Thoughts on Malawi

Last week a coalition of local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) organised and staged demonstrations in the commercial city of Blantyre. They were demonstrating against corruption and lack of transparency within Joyce Banda’s government. Specifically, the CSOs demands that Joyce Banda’s administration account for proceeds from the sale of the presidential jet; the CSOs are also asking President Banda’s administration to explain what happened to maize grain that the administration reported as rotten last year. Finally, the CSOs want the government to disclose people and companies named in the cashgate forensic report, which has been published without names of those implicated.

All things being equal, these are easy and straightforward demands that any government that is accountable to taxpayers should meet without anyone having to take to the streets. But things are not always equal, and these were third demonstrations in the 23 months that President Joyce Banda has been in power.

This means that Malawians through various CSOs have so far presented three different petitions to the current administration. Have these petitions achieved anything? What would be the CSOs honest assessment on this? One of the CSOs leaders, Voice Mhone last Sunday told Zodiak Radio’s Tiuzeni Zoona programme that there has been a low turnout at public demonstrations since the July 20th 2011 protests that turn violent and at least 20 people lost their lives. This has created a sense of fear and has given demonstrations a bad name.

The demostrators taking a rest in the middle of Kenyatta Drive- Pic Lucky Mkandawire.
The demostrators taking a rest in the middle of Kenyatta Drive- Pic Lucky Mkandawire.

Mhone certainly has a point. I personally sensed this when I attended one of the demonstrations late last year. Malawians will have to regain confidence in public demonstrations. Yet, the bigger picture is that in Malawi there is also a growing feeling of disillusionment with public demonstrations and its organisers. There are accusations of self-serving CSOs leaders staging demonstrations to achieve their personal goals. Another issue is the clear lack of evidence and clarity that demonstrations would actually achieve its intended purpose.

This uncertainty is not good for demonstrations either. It deflates the core message of the protests and organisers are forced to spend time justifying those demonstrations instead of articulating their message and getting more people on the street. This is what drew Information Minister, Brown Mpinganjira out of his ‘comfort zone’ to accuse Malawi’s diplomatic community for sponsoring the protests. Mpinganjira deliberately decided to talk beside the point. His intention was to take attention away from core issues: where is jet money? Where is the rotten maize? Could you please give us names of those implicated in the cashgate forensic audit report?

After the demonstrations the focus and emphasis always turn turnout and how peaceful demonstration were. Again, this has nothing to do with the actual message of the demonstrators. It is in fact a psychological war between the government and protestors. One has to win, there is nothing like the two sides mutually working in the public interest. This is why there are people who believe President Banda’s administration should take credit that it allowed peaceful demonstration to take place. There is no much credit for giving someone what belongs to them. Protesting is a constitutional right in Malawi.

The point here is that President Banda has been clever where her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika was not. A government has nothing to lose when it lets people exercising their constitutional rights. Yet, denying them is equivalent to admission of guilty if not justifying the very demonstrations the administrations is against.

It will take some time for any administration in Malawi to happily allow any form public dissent, including demonstrations. It is the same case elsewhere. This is why demonstrations are always a good reflection on organisers and those that are relentlessly willing to hold public officials and corporations to account. It is a noble duty and a commendable act.

Next key thing for local CSOs in Malawi is to reflect on the actual point of demonstrations. Are the petitions good enough to achieve demands being made? Are the petitions the most effective way of achieving demands from governments that are not willing to concede anything without a fight? These are key questions, looking forward.

Demonstrations that change things are always relentless and continuous. Once you take to the street/or demonstration areas you stay there until your demands are met. This is why popular protests around the world have become synonymous with public squares. In these places people can camp for days. Setup refreshment places, sanitary locations etc., and more importantly repeat the same message until it is acted upon.

[highlight style=’pear-green’] Cashgate has also exposed the problem of aid dependency [/highlight]
Cashgate has exposed lack of accountability, impunity, corruption and outright theft of state resources by those in power. It’s forensic report has not only confirmed what every active Malawian knew but it has also underlined the perennial problem of aid dependency.
Donors are clearly deciding what Malawians should know about their own government and what they shouldn’t. The British government, IMF and other major donors have more information on cashgate than Malawians.
So while Malawians strive to clean its public service of all looters and bandits, it is also important to start taking steps that will liberate the country from aid dependency.”

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