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Malawi: Death of a Student Activist and a Campaign of Terror

Early on the morning of Saturday September 24, 2011, a University of Malawi Polytechnic student was found lying stiff on a paved surface, next to a pool of blood, on the university campus. His name was Robert Chasowa, and he was dead. Early whispers suggested suicide, including a question posted on an unlisted google forum for Malawian journalists:

Is it true a male student has committed suicide by throwing themselves off from an upper floor?

Chasowa was said to have had a cut on the back of his head, and not everyone was buying the suicide suggestion. In the evening of that Saturday the police announced they were going to issue a statement. It came late afternoon the following day, Sunday, September 25. In the statement, National Police Headquarters spokesperson, Mr Willie Mwaluka, announced what he said were postmortem results from Malawi's leading pathologist, Dr. Charles Dzamalala. Based on the postmortem results, and a note the deceased was said to have left for his parents, Mr Mwaluka announced that Robert Chasowa had apparently committed suicide.

Malawian student activist Robert Chasowa. Image source: RIP Robert Chasowa Facebook page.

Chasowa was buried on Monday September 26, two days after his death, but then on and offline, the questions were only beginning: Why were the police in such a rush to conclude that Chasowa had committed suicide? Why was there a cut at the back of his head? Where was campus security when all this happened? What was going on with Malawi?

 

Chasowa's death came after a spate of arson attacks on two vehicles belonging to a radio station claimed by the president to be hostile to the government, and more arson cases involving houses and offices of human rights activists. In September three markets in the cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe suffered extensive fire damage, also suspected to be arson. Another activist, Lawrence Bisika, was reportedly beaten up in a bar in the city of Zomba on September 21st by people believed to be using a vehicle from Ministry of Lands. There have been death threats to journalists, columnists and individuals seen as critics of the government. The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) [dead link] announced on the same day Chasowa was buried it was going to open an investigation into the death of the student activist.

On Saturday, October 1, a weekend paper, Malawi News [dead link], published on its front page a story in which Dr. Dzamalala denied ever releasing to the police a postmortem report on Chasowa's death. He said he had indeed performed a postmortem on Chasowa, but had not yet released the results as some tests were yet to be concluded. Another story in the paper said Dr Dzamalala had been surprised by the number of police officers who were present during the postmortem, and by the several police visits to his house later, asking him for the postmortem report. On Tuesday, October 4, Dr. Dzamalala was interviewed on Capital Radio Malawi's Straightalk programme, and announced that the results of the postmortem would be out the following day. On Wednesday October 5th both Malawi's dailies The Nation and The Daily Times [dead link] carried banner headlines on their front pages, quoting the postmortem report, proclaiming that Robert Chasowa had not committed suicide; he had been murdered.

On Thursday, September 29, blogger Bright Mhango Baghaya published on his blog an article titled “The document that killed Chasowa“. Baghaya prefaced the article with a statement saying he was publishing the article, verbatim, and did not intent to infringe anybody's copyright, creating the impression that the article had been authored by Robert Chasowa:

Black Moses is answering sedition charges because of this here publication, Robert Chasowa was being sought and killed [my verdict] because of this here document. I have just taken the whole bit, verbatim… I do not intend to infringe any copyrights. its strictly journalistic. This is the sixth edition, it came out on Monday, Moses was arrested on Tuesday, Robert was killed on Saturday.

Chasowa's mum bids farewell. Image courtesy of malawivoice.com

Chasowa's mum bids farewell. Image courtesy of malawivoice.com

Written in point format, the document lists 12 questions, asking President wa Mutharika to explain various aspects of governance, including allegations of corruption and foreign bank accounts where Malawi's wealth is allegedly being siphoned off to:

1. We need an explanation- why the presidential jet was impounded in America
2. Mr. President-explain to us why should the Secretary for Treasury extort K16 Million from investors on behalf of DPP and you, your Excellency?
11. Mr President-why should Paladin Africa a company which is mining uranium at Kayerekera be banking U$100,000 every month to your personal account in Australia-when Malawi is experiencing a cute shortage of forex

On Wednesday October 5th blogger Mabvuto Jobani published on his blog an article, reporting that two police officers had visited the blogger, saying they knew who killed Chasowa. They asked for anonymity, telling Jobani:

But we definitely know the guys who killed him…there are the same guys who torched Rafiq Hajat’s offices in Blantyre and Rev Sembereka’s house in Balaka but the trouble is that we cant arrest them because they are being protected.

News of the suspicious death was spreading like wildfire and was being hotly debated on social networking websites, discussion forums and in the comments’ sections of online newspapers. On Thursday October 6 Jobani posted an article announcing that the European Union was going to issue a statement on Robert Chasowa's death. The statement appeared on Friday, October 7.

On Thursday, October 6, President wa Mutharika was a special guest on the BBC's current events programme Africa Have Your Say, in which Malawians were expected to call in to ask the president questions. Chasowa's death was the subject of the very first question. The president responded by saying he had instituted a commission of inquiry to look into the political violence being reported. Much of the hour-long programme went with the host, Alex Jakana, and the president discussing the president's new book The African Dream: From Poverty to Prosperity. There were very few questions from callers, and very little probing of the security atmosphere in the country.

On Saturday, October 8, Malawi's two weekend papers, Weekend Nation and Malawi News both carried investigative reports that probed deep into Chasowa's death. The revelations have been nothing short of a bombshell. Accounts by both papers quote people involved in student groups that Chasowa belonged to, and top police officers who worked with Chasowa, describing events leading to his death. Chasowa is reported to have worked with the police and politicians to try and stop demonstrations that civil society organizations had planned for Wednesday, August 17, following the expiry of a deadline given to President wa Mutharika to address concerns delivered to him in a petition on July 20. That was the day when the first demonstrations took place in Malawi's major cities and 20 civilians were killed.

The published reports say Chasowa and his colleagues were given money and equipment to carry out operations aimed at stopping the August 17 demonstrations. They were promised K10 million (aprox. US$60,000) upon successful completion of the operation. The demonstrations were postponed to September 21, later changed to a mass stayaway, but the police refused to pay the K10 million, claiming the postponement was not a result of the students’ work. The reports say Chasowa persistently called the senior police officers and senior politicians in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and threatened to reveal government secrets if the money was not paid.

Online newspapers and blogs have gone even further, giving blow by blow accounts of the events leading up to Chasowa's death, including phone numbers of the Inspector General of Police, the President's brother and current Minister of Foreign Affairs, and others involved in dealings with the students:

Chasowa lost very little blood (not more than a litre) showing that he was not killed by a fall, loss of blood and most importantly that the blood came out via rigor mortis (if the heart was still pumping, there would be a lake of blood) this shows that he was dead before he bled.

Chasowas had dust on his knees, showing that he had knelt….what this the time he was being forced to write the suicide notes?

Chasowa was found lying face down, but the face had no dents to show that he had fallen, his shoulders and all parts of his body had no fracture to show that he had fallen.

The revelations continue to cause shock and dismay across and beyond Malawi, as expressed on discussion forums and social networking sites. One tweep asked:

Its alleged Robert #Chasowa kept a diary – Is it true? Who has it? Whats in it? #malawi

Meanwhile, the print edition of The Nation of Wednesday October 12 carries two new developments. It quotes John Kapito, chairperson of the MHRC as asking the Inspector General of Police, Peter Mukhito, to go on holiday so as to enable the MHRC's inquest into the death of Chasowa. The paper also carries a story on deaths threats being made through phone calls to Phillip Pemba, the reporter who wrote the Weekend Nation story that mentioned names of the Inspector General and Southern Region Commissioner of Police Rodney Jose as having met and funded Chasowa and his colleagues.

A new blog called DPP Stormtrooopers is asking Malawians to reveal names of ruling party DPP “thugs” involved in “political thuggery” by submitting names and details of attacks. The blog's description reads:

Violent political thuggery in Malawi is growing. Let us expose the vile cowards who do this. Submit the name and address of any DPP thug you know.

The blog promises to do two things:

i) List the culprits responsible for cowardly attacks on our brothers and sisters who are trying their best to serve the country constructively and take us forward. These cowards live in our very own communities!! Lets know them, keep an eye on them, pressure them, and protect our activists from them. From there, justice will find its own path.

ii) Record any attacks on dissidents and activists.

Its just a small start, but we have to do something and stand up for each other. We are many, have smart people among us so lets find ways ways to make it impossible for these clowns to move freely and kill people with impunity in our communities.

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