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Malawi: Arab Spring Spreading South of the Sahara?

It's winter in Africa, south of the Equator, but the temperature in Malawi feels more like Spring – particularly that of the recent Arab pedigree. The Malawian air is rife with tension and anxiety over what is expected to be a clash between civil society and the Malawi government on Wednesday July 20, 2011.

Civil society activists have set that date as a day for the beginning of a series of mass demonstrations aimed at expressing their displeasure with the Malawian leadership.

Rife with tension

'United for Peaceful Resistance Against Bad Economic and Democratic Governance'. Image courtesy of 'DEMO YA TIYENI TONSE PA 20 JULY' Facebook page.

'United for Peaceful Resistance Against Bad Economic and Democratic Governance'. Image courtesy of 'DEMO YA TIYENI TONSE PA 20 JULY' Facebook page.

Malawi is currently undergoing a severe fuel shortage, which began at the beginning of June, one of a recurrent number of crippling shortages since 2009. The country has had severe foreign exchange (forex) shortages, at a time when it is supposed to have plenty of from tobacco sales, currently in season.

On Thursday, July 14, the British Government announced it had stopped giving budgetary support to the Malawi government, citing concerns with the suppression of demonstrations, the intimidation of civil society organisations, and an injunctions bill that prevents citizens from obtaining court injunctions against the government.

The British Government also said Malawi’s currency, the Kwacha, was overvalued, resulting in chronic forex shortages “which are having a serious impact on the Malawian private sector’s ability to drive future growth. There are now daily fuel queues, tobacco exports have deteriorated and Malawi is off-track with its IMF programme.” The IMF has also suspended its support to the Malawi government.

The political landscape has been tense since December 2010 when the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expelled the Right Honorable Joyce Banda, the country's vice president, for what is widely believed to be a ploy for President Bingu wa Mutharika to pave a political path for his brother, Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika. The vice president has since formed her own party, although officially she remains in her government position.

President Bingu wa Mutharika has recently signed law bills that have been met with widespread criticism and resistance, including one empowering the Minister of Information to ban any publication deemed not to be in the public interest. A more recent law makes it impossible for individuals to obtain a court injunction and seek judicial redress against the government.

The University of Malawi has had two of its constituent colleges, Chancellor College and The Polytechnic, shut down since February 2011 when lecturers started refusing to enter classrooms for fear of spies. The saga started in February this year when the Inspector General of Police, Peter Mukhito, summoned a Chancellor College political science lecturer, Dr Blessings Chinsinga, to question him for mentioning the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt during a lecture.

The University of Malawi governing council is currently engaged in a court battle with the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union (CCASU), who are challenging the Council's firing of four Chancellor College lecturers, including Dr Chinsinga and Dr Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, the union's acting president.

Fear of violent protests

There are fears that the July 20 mass demonstrations may turn violent. Supporters of President wa Mutharika and the DPP have announced a counter-demonstration on the same day. There are reports that 800 police officers are being specially trained to stop the demonstrations “with zero casualties” according to online newspaper Malawi Voice.

On Thursday July 14, the United States Embassy in Malawi issued an alert to US citizens in Malawi about about the demonstrations and the possibility that they could turn ugly. Titled “Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens – Possible Demonstrations”, the alert first appeared on the discussion site Nyasanet on Friday, and later on the online newspaper Nyasatimes.

One member on the Nyasanet forum observed that the mere fact that the US Embassy issued such a statement meant that there was something serious brewing underground:

The Statement from the US Embassy means that the Chief of Station (Head of the CIA in Malawi) has done his/her homework. They are rarely off target.

As the air grew tense with the countdown to Wednesday, there were reports on Sunday, which first surfaced on a Google forum, that a vehicle belonging to Zodiak Broadcasting Station, an independent radio station, had its windows smashed by men wearing face masks.

Much of the news of the demonstration has appeared online, whereas the government's response has used state media with government spokespersons holding press conferences on television and radio stations. A Facebook event page has been created for the demonstrations with the title ‘DEMO YA TIYENI TONSE PA 20 JULY', roughly translating as a demonstration of one and all on 20 July. As of writing, 2,422 people have indicated they will attend the demonstration; the date on the event's page says 20 October instead of the July 20 event that everyone is talking about.

The Facebook page gives a detailed description of when and where people should assemble for the demonstrations, a programme that has appeared in other online newspapers and in print newspapers. Comments on the page range from the biblical to the profane.

A Bible-quoting commenter writes:

There4,let us follow aftar the things dat mek 4 peace & things by which 1 may edify another” Roman 14:19

One bordering on the profane goes:

It's our right to demonstrate, that is the only way we can ring a bell in to an obstinate and gullible this stupid fool called ngwazi. Let us show him that Malawi does not belong to one tribe neither his family, gogogogogo! DEMO.

Another comment sounds rather militant:

It Has to be done…Malawians Stand Up and Be Counted! No One Should Abuse Our Hard Fought For Freedom!

A more reflective commenter quotes Nelson Mandela:

It always seems imposible until its done-Nelson mandela.

Interest in the impending mass action appears to be spreading outside Malawi. A Malawian landing at Kamuzu International Airport on Sunday posted on their Facebook page about a group of foreign journalists aboard the same plane they were on:

Had a contingent of foreign media in the same flight this afternoon coming into Lilongwe, looks like the Demos have attracted the attention on the international media!” One passenger even asked a question the Malawian chose not to answer: “Some one asked me, is it true Malawians are changing regime on 20th July? I didnt give hima any answer.

But an observer of Malawian politics posted on Twitter about there not seeming to be a lot of international media attention on the looming demonstrations: “still nothing shows up in international news feeds on upcoming #Malawi demonstrations #20July”.

The Twitter hashtag for the demonstration is #20July, says @chiume.

Response from the top

Uniting for Peaceful Resistance. Image courtesy of 'DEMO YA TIYENI TONSE PA 20 JULY' Facebook page.

Uniting for Peaceful Resistance. Image courtesy of 'DEMO YA TIYENI TONSE PA 20 JULY' Facebook page.

President wa Mutharika appears to have been aware of the mood amongst many Malawians, and has been planning a response. On arrival from a trip to the United States towards the end of June, he announced that he was going to give a public lecture, in which he would address the many concerns Malawians are expressing.

No date was set for the public lecture, but immediately as the organizers of the July 20 demonstration announced their date, government announced the same date of July 20 for the public lecture. Government spokesperson Honorable Vuwa Kaunda, Minister of Information and Civic Education, and presidential spokesperson Dr Heatherwick Ntaba held a press conference, urging Malawians not to go to the demonstration, but to the president's lecture instead.

Among the many reasons the two cited as to why Malawians need to listen to the president, Hon. Vuwa Kaunda performed his trademark praise song to President wa Mutharika, listing the many achievements of the DPP-led government. Hon Kaunda has become known for rattling off, in rapid style, President wa Mutharika's achievements: an end to chronicle food shortages, new tarred roads across the length of the country, six new universities being planned for the next ten years, new parliament building, a new five star hotel and international conference center in the capital city Lilongwe, and Nsanje World Inland port connecting Malawi to the Indian Ocean, among others.

Up to until his re-election to a second term in May 2009, President Bingu wa Mutharika enjoyed broad support locally, and wide admiration abroad. Civil society activists held demonstrations in support of his policies against a majority opposition which was seen as only bent on frustrating his development plans. He introduced a farm input subsidy, which is credited for having turned Malawi from a food importer to a food exporter. He was Malawi's first president to become chairperson of the African Union for the year 2010, a development that added to his international credentials which earned him attention on the front pages of major newspapers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere. There was renewed hope and pride amongst many Malawians, and President wa Mutharika was seen as the new face of a new Africa.

Compared with the mood in the country today, a lot has changed in a space of two years. A Malawian development economist observed on Nyasanet in May this year:

I was at the world economic forum last month. Only two years [ago] bingu was a hero. Now Malawi was a source of bewilderment.

In an attempt to dissuade Malawians from attending Wednesday's planned demonstrations, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation has carried news bulletins, on three consecutive evenings, claiming that Malawians are being duped about the demonstrations, whose real aim, the state broadcaster claims, is to show support for gay rights, for which civil society groups have received millions of kwacha. The bulletins have been saying organizers of the demonstrations want to use photographs of demonstrators to show to donors that Malawians support gay rights and same-sex marriages.

Reactions to the government's story have been derided as bordering on the desperate. One reaction posted on Twitter said:

Malawians urged not to listen to MBC TV & Radio on 20 July – coz of its tendency to misinform in news coverage

Another tweet sought to identify a possible irony in a television anchor's attire:

MBC TB news anchor, Nyang'wa in a red tie – maybe in some dress rehearsal for the July 20 demo (dress attire is red)

On February 14 earlier this year civil society organizations planned a demonstration to protest against fuel shortages, but it was stopped by police. According to online newspaper Malawi Voice, the demonstrators were hugely outnumbered by the police, who were over 250, against a few dozen protesters, numbering about 30, according to print newspaper The Nation.

The leader of that foiled demonstration, Mabvuto Bamusi, has since made a 180 degree turn. He is now frequently invited on national television to provide analysis and commentary that supports government and lambasts his former colleagues in civil society.

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