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.