When The Right To Demonstrate Is Supreme, The Economy Will Suffer

By Akwete Aaron SANDE

Former newspaper publisher and veteran journalist AKWETE SANDE is one of the media freedom fighters to emerge in the post one-party era in 1993.  Sande has witnessed many mass demonstrations aiming to press for political change. Some of the demos—he argues—achieved their purpose, but many others ended tragically. In the wake of recent demonstrations disputing the May 21, 2019 elections outcome, the veteran journalist wakes up from his deep reverie to write again. 

On the eerie morning of August 6, 2019, High Court Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda ruled against stopping mass demonstrations aiming to unseat Malawi Electoral Commission Chair Justice Jane Ansah. Unbeknown to him, the very reason by the Attorney General for seeking to curtail the protests—all along disguised as “peaceful’—was to unfold in full view of everyone as pictures and videos went viral of Malawi’s administrative capital, Lilongwe set “on fire” by violent protestors.

A 2017 study by the Havard University and cited by Quartz found that the precise reason protests can influence change is because they are politically charged. Size matters says the study, but only when the crowd is “politically activated”.

Since May 21, 2019 Malawi is experiencing “politically activated” mass demonstrations on the pretext that opposition parties, galvanized by the boisterous Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) are disputing the outcome of the May 21, 2019 Tripartite Election which ushered a second term of office for incumbent President Arthur Peter Mutharika. The poll also gave the ruling DPP a slight majority of Members of Parliament and Local Councilors.

Unfortunately, the demonstrations are more violent than their intent to peacefully push for what they demand.

Parallel to the demonstrations are underway, the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and UTM which came second and distant third, respectively, has moved the Constitutional Court to annul the election results. The opposition argues that the poll was marred by rigging in form of the use of correction fluid “Tippex” on some results sheet, and poor management of the vote counting process. They want the chair of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) Justice Jane Ansah, SC, Phd, to resign. But the learned judge unbudgingly refuses to go away, insisting she run the May poll by the book. In court, MEC and President APM are the respondents. HRDC is not a party in the substantive court case being heard in Lilongwe before an ensemble of five judges.

Government, through the Attorney General and other sections of society have been urging the protesters to exercise patience and restraint while the Constitutional Court discharges its duties. Opposition and its newly-found partner, HRDC led by Timothy Mtambo and gay rights activist Gift Trapence are having none of it, refusing to lend ears to reason. Try as it is, government is moving the High Court to seek sanity and restore peace and economic stability.

But going by Justice Nyirenda’s ruling today, the expanded wave of violent demonstrations has been emboldened by more oxygen.

Meanwhile Malawi continues to burn.

Disguised as peaceful supporters of the pursuit for electoral justice, the demonstrators are dispensing violence by burning government and other public structures.  Police stations, houses, various government departmental offices, schools, health centres and just about everything demonstrators come across, is being turned upside down. Even some roads in Central Malawi have been dug up by hoe. Private business has not been spared, and the Malawi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) of Chancellor Kaferepanjira has been forced to postpone the annual trade and investment marketing show-piece, the Malawi international trade fair. However, MCCCI is non-committal to quantify the economic loss to the country in wake of the debilitating protests. Business has generally slowed down with poor sales. Small and medium traders have seen their businesses being disrupted. Banks like FDH and Standard Bank have seen their branches and ATMs being broken and pelted by stones. Retail shops such as Bata, PEP and electronics shops have been ransacked and looted. Institutions and innocent citizens alike, have seen their vehicles being stoned and damaged. Claims against this damage are said to be nearing a billion Malawi Kwacha, and Kenyatta may as well brace up for another class-action suit against HRDC.

On Tuesday, hours after the Kenyatta ruling, the demonstrators burnt a Police anti-riot vehicle and attempted to set Police residential units near Lilongwe Community Centre, on fire.

So will violence, looting, arson solve Electoral Impasse?

While the Malawi Constitution gives people a right to demonstrate, the bargain should be that such a right neither deprives nor infringes the rights of others. No citizen should be above the law or choose to act outside the law and expect to get away with it as it seems to be the case now. Impunity should not be allowed to prevail if we expect equality.

No one right should be superior, nor inferior in relation to the other. Yet legal precedent in Malawi seems indifferent to equal rights. And is the law.

While Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale argued on the side of wholesome treatment of rights, Justice Kenyatta on August 6, 2019 over-ruled him siding with the violent demonstrators. KK as he is fervently known in legal circles had submitted that while the Malawi Constitution gives people the right to demonstrate, those enjoying such a constitutionally granted privilege must also respect the rights of others to economic activity, and retention of property, among others. He argued that it was high time the courts re-examined the precedent, in the light of the destabilization and anarchy being caused by the so-called “peaceful” demonstrator. But in his ruling of Civil Cause No.556 of 2019, Kenyatta failed to find escape, and concluded that; “…The courts have held with an almost crusading zeal, in favour of protecting the right to demonstrate,” dealing a hammer blow to equal rights.

Beyond Jane Ansah, Malawi needs a Political Solution

The answer to the Jane Ansah question, seems to lie in a far-reaching political resolution rather than violent demonstrations. Provoked by Police or not, demonstrators have no right to cause anarchy as at present. Their barbarism now makes it increasingly difficult for them to achieve their goal via demonstrations. All the while Jane Ansah refuses to step aside. Many also argue that even if she were to, the damage has already been done. Her resignation does not seem to be the immediate solution to the substantive query of rigging which remains the subject of the Court’s determination. Many also see the current electoral problems as being beyond her, and more of a complex but inherent political or regime problem rooted in tribal and regional lines.

Expecting that JA’s resignation or her removal by the President would be a permanent solution to the current impasse, is to say the least, missing the target. In absence of electoral reforms such as repeal of “First Past the Post” rule, and reaffirmation to a truly unemotional and unbiased constitutional order, it is naïve to guarantee that the current violence will not repeat in future elections. All of us, including the opposition must not be naïve to collective responsibility. With many election officers admitting that the rigorous results management system preferred for the May 21, 2019 election was difficult to master, it would be unrealistic not to expect an occurrence of some irregularities or errors. Nobody can vouch if indeed this is the reason Tippex was deployed on Form 60 and other papers. This is the work cut out for the Constitutional Court sitting in Lilongwe, and is beyond us for now.

Ostensibly, MEC adopted the now dreaded new tallying system to stir clear of irregularities and hoping it was going to be impervious to rigging or manipulation.  And yet for passive knowledge, it is clear that MEC did not bring the disputed results system singularly. Everyone was there. We were all party to the same process that we now desperately seek redress over through the courts. This should bring to question the real motive behind the current carefully disguised violence, which appears to be more of an appetite for political reform or regime change than electoral justice. There is no question about the “occulta rerum agendarum ordinem” of the current violent actions.

Collateral Damage:
A repeat of the Malawian’s resolve, with unlikely outcomes

“When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,” so goes the saying.

In time of oppression, and when the feeling is strong, Malawians, including their judicial systems tend to have little regard for peace and economic instability. This is evidenced by the uncompromising wave of violent protests since eruption of the election results dispute in May. Although Police, City Councils and other agents have tried to stop the demonstrators, the courts have backed them throughout.

The Malawian’s resolve for change is nothing new. However, the question remains if it will achieve the intended result this time around. Here, history is not exactly on the demonstrators’ side, as the law might be.

In 1915, the country’s nationalist hero John Chilembwe led a poorly armed uprising against the British settler colonialists in Blantyre and surrounding plantation areas. The feeling was strong. That they had been oppressed for far too long; giving out brutal labour in plantations and homes of the whites, in exchange for a pittance and racial abuse. Although Chilembwe and his subjects knew they were ill-prepared for the battle, they pressed on. The feeling was strong. They even attempted to steal armory and gun powder from the enemy with some success. At first, and like the May 2019 demonstrators, they seemed to be succeeding. But as they advanced into “enemy territory” with poor tactics and crude weapons, many were killed or permanently displaced from their families. Chilembwe himself fled and ended up in an unmarked grave. Many surviving families or associates of his “wars” also felt short-changed for fighting in a battle they were doomed to lose.

Let’s go back to 1993. Over 40 people were killed by the forces in clashes during demonstrations demanding change of government from the one-party dictatorship of Hastings Banda. Nobody likes to talk about this, but some of us were there and we saw first-hand what happened. Fast-forward to July 20, 2011, over 20 people were killed across the country as an overwhelmed Police resorted to use bullets after teargas had failed to do the job during demonstrations against former later President Bingu wa Mutharika. How long Police will hold on to their fire from this point on is another matter for the security experts to debate on.

Unlike in 1915, 1993 and 2011 when human sacrifices were offered in exchange for expressing a point, no shooting or fatality has occurred in the 2019 violent protests. The Police and Army continue to exercise restraint, but this will not take away the collateral damage to the economy.

2 Responses to "When The Right To Demonstrate Is Supreme, The Economy Will Suffer"

  1. Citizen   August 7, 2019 at 6:03 am

    Let’s try to suggest ways on how violence can be avoided without necessarily banning demonstrations. Based on what happened on 6th August in Mzuzu and Blantyre, it’s possible to have violence free demos.Your wordy narration suggests that the only way to stop the damage is by banning demonstrations. That’s dangerous. Lilongwe demos were violent because Police tried to stop people from demonstrating despite the High court ruling. Who instructed our professional police to do that ? That person should be very insensitive to our current situation and Ihope a lesson has been learnt. It’s very unfortunate that property has been damaged just because of that careless instruction.

    Reply
  2. Hamilton Fombe   August 7, 2019 at 7:47 pm

    “In 1915, the country’s nationalist hero John Chilembwe led a poorly armed uprising against the British settler colonialists in Blantyre and surrounding plantation areas. The feeling was strong. That they had been oppressed for far too long; giving out brutal labour in plantations and homes of the whites, in exchange for a pittance and racial abuse. Although Chilembwe and his subjects knew they were ill-prepared for the battle, they pressed on. The feeling was strong. They even attempted to steal armory and gun powder from the enemy with some success. At first, and like the May 2019 demonstrators, they seemed to be succeeding”. This is exactly what is happening now, people are oppressed far too long in the modern-day. What John Chilembwe did and felt then is exactly Malawians feel today. The one tribe is being favoured against the rest in the country, You can see Ministerial position, CIVO, the selection to secondary school and tertiary education opportunities, job opportunity the list is endless. That is the modern-day oppression. However, demonstrations currently in Malawi are for Jane Ansha to resign, that is the focus.

    Reply

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