Malawi: a quiet revolution?

There is a subtle and yet very pronounced move towards political reform.

The world's eyes are set on the revolutions of the Arab world and yet Malawi, the small landlocked African nation is trying to achieve its own, more quiet political transition.

Malawian civil society and church leaders this week postponed planned marches for the second time in two months, in favour of a stay-at-home vigil, which halted businesses on Wednesday. The decision came as a response to the high court decision to ban the protests and the fear that the marches could end in bloodshed, as proclaimed by one of the civil society leaders, Billy Mayaya when speaking at a press conference.

The demands by Malawi's civil society groups include attending to the country's economic woes such as the acute fuel and foreign exchange shortage, dealing with issues of corruption within the government and guaranteeing political freedoms, by for instance revising the newly enforced media censorship bill.

The call for people to stay away from work and pray or reflect in the safety of their homes, comes two months after demonstrations on 20 July which left 19 people dead - a shockingly high number for an otherwise peaceful and close-knit society. As Rafiq Hajat, a civil society activist and director of the Institute for Policy Interaction explained to me, the decision to call off Wednesday's marches was taken due to the fear of inadequate preparations which 'could lead to a chaotic situation that could easily get out of hand.'

Unfortunately the quiet protest and the suspension of the civil society dialogue with the government, also come at the cost of intimidation: the court ruling against the protests, police and military patrolling of the roads, scenes of machete wielding youth touring the streets of Blantyre the commercial capital, in the run up to last month's protests and the fires in the office of Rafiq Hajat and the home of Reverend MacDonald Sembereka, which are still unaccounted for. According to Hajat, non-governmental organisations were warned by the government that they would lose their licences if they participated in the protests. The online news site Malawi Voice reported Deputy Minister Nicholas Dausi to have said:

'They have no mandate whatsoever to declare a public holiday and telling people not to work is tantamount to sabotage.'

Meanwhile the Malawian government's response to civil society's demands has been mixed. In the last month, President Bingu wa Mutharika dismissed and reshuffled the Cabinet, encouraged vendors who's shops where disrupted and destroyed by July's protests to side with him and warned Malawians not to insult him on internet forums such as Facebook and Twitter.

Aside from the decision to give their government a quieter nudge towards political change, the Malawian protests cannot be seen as a simple tag-along in the shadow of the 'Arab Spring'. Political dissatisfaction and poverty have been seeing a long gradual build-up over the last years, from the tax increases, to fuel shortages, to the expulsion of the British High Commissioner in April due to a leaked comment on the President Mutharika's increasingly authoritative tendencies and the subsequent withdrawal of British aid to the country.

Protest organisers told members of the press (AFP), that they believed they had sent the government a powerful message about their grievances.

What this soft form of protest can achieve is yet to be seen. However the fact that more and more Malawians are voicing their views on social and political issues both on the web and through political action, certainly points towards a subtle and yet very pronounced move towards political reform.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.