Malawi was well on its way to being a success story. Under Dr. Hastings Banda’s thirty year dictatorship, people had been robbed of their rights and freedoms. Post 1994 was an era of promise and hope for the better. The winds of change blew away the old ways of a one party autocracy. By 1996 the constitution had been overhauled to include a bill of rights. The country’s institutional make up was designed to improve the rule of law, human rights and access to justice. Institutions like the Malawi Human Rights Commission were established. There was a spike in development, foreign investment and for a while, Malawi showed how democratic instincts with a human rights underpinning can lead to strides in democracy, development and economic growth.
But now Malawi’s best chances of success are being seriously foiled. Bad governance, corruption and impunity now mean that the people in Malawi are faced with acute fuel shortages, an escalating cost of living and an erosion of their constitutional rights. Naturally this has led to protests. People are out on the streets asking for improvement. The response has been as harsh as it has been disappointing.
The government has shown itself to be intolerant of criticism and dissent. Human rights defenders are especially vulnerable and are living in danger. Civil society activists, religious leaders, journalists, academics –in fact anyone calling for the state to uphold the rule of law and human rights, have in recent times, been subjected to death threats, harassment and excess use of force and unnecessary violence by state and ruling party agents. With entrenched impunity there is little accountability for abuse of state power.
This hostile environment has been brought to the attention of the African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights twice last year. Regional advocacy efforts culminated in a historical visit by the African Union Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. The Rapporteur- Ms. Reine Alapini-Gansou- came to Malawi in January for a workshop that commemorated thirty years of the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights, by taking stock of the African human rights charter and reflecting on Malawi’s human rights performance.
In the event organised by the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) in partnership with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), the Special Rapporteur engaged with human rights defenders in the country, recognised the valuable role they play and appealed for their protection.
An outcome of this workshop was a communiqué, endorsed by twenty human rights groups, which was presented to Ms. Reine Alapini-Gansou, who would then use it to petition governments at an African Union meeting in Addis Ababa.
The communiqué points to the unfavourable climate fostered by the “oppression of the media, suppression of the academic freedom, obstruction of the freedom of assembly and association, disregard of the court rulings with impunity, trivializing and disregarding of the minority rights, and promulgation of retrogressive pieces of legislation.”
The document appeals to the government to make the rights embedded in the national constitution a living reality and urge the government to implement human rights treaties that the state is a party to.
The call from human rights collectives to improve human rights compliance in accordance with the constitution may be received with irritation and seen as defiance. It may lead to further repression. Or more statesmanlike, it can be accepted as an invitation to start a process of dialogue and reconciliation; of talking, listening and acting together for the betterment of all. The government’s reaction to civil society’s calls will define whether Malawi takes a turn for the better or falls down the slippery slope of repression once again.
*Sanyu Awori, Consultant, Strategic Initiatives Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative