The search for justice after Malawi killings

Recent protests across Malawi saw 19 people killed, but the government has blamed the victims for their deaths.

    On July 20, two days of nationwide unrest erupted across Malawi in protest against economic mismanagement and an increasingly authoritarian government [Travis Lupick]

    Ten days after 13-year-old John Mora was shot and killed in Blantyre, Malawi, the boy's grandparents said police had yet to pay their home a visit.

    If it were not for their own efforts, Mr and Mrs Semu maintain, it is unlikely they would even know the whereabouts of their orphaned grandson's corpse. 

    John disappeared on July 20, on the first of two days of nationwide unrest that saw a total of 19 people killed and more than 500 arrested. Ten days later, at the aging couple's home in Ndirande township, Mrs Semu sat on the floor quietly, often glancing just across the room to the spot where her grandson slept each night. Her eyes filled with tears as her husband recounted searching hospitals and mortuaries for any word of John's fate.

    His grandfather expressed outrage at President Bingu wa Mutharika's broad characterisation of the 19 civilians who were allegedly killed by state security forces last month. 

    "The government has called our son a thief," he protested. "But he was a good boy who went to church and Sunday school. You can go there and ask them; he was a good boy. So when the president says that he was killed because he was a thief, that takes something from us. That is taking something from our family."

    Since Mutharika was re-elected with his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) taking a majority of the seats in parliament in May 2009, his government has increasingly come under fire for what critics describe as an authoritarian leadership style and disastrous mismanagement of the southern African nation's economy.

    Demonstrations against President Mutharika and the DPP-led government in Blantyre, Malawi [Travis Lupick]

    Undule Mwakasungula, one of the organisers of the July 20 demonstrations, compare Malawi's current course with the path down which Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe has stumbled so far.

    "There are similarities in terms of their president and Bingu wa Mutharika," Mwakasungula said from hiding in South Africa. "They're both using a heavy hand in terms of their governance, in terms of how they want to rule. And also disregarding other branches of government - the judiciary, the legislature."

    Mutharika and his supporters have brushed aside such criticism and denounced international censure as "neocolonial interference in the country's domestic affairs".

    Lost in the middle are stories like John Mora's, whose death has barely received a murmur of attention from the local press. Officials at the school the young boy attended do indeed have fond memories of him.

    "Of all the time I knew him, he never caused us any problems," said Nelson Mkwatura, an official at Mora's school and a church elder for the Ndirance Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, where Mora was a member. "He was a very good boy and had a very bright future. Even at the Sunday school he went to, he was exemplary."

    Government silence on the killings

    Aside from claiming that an investigation was underway, several officials with the federal government and the Malawi Police Service (MPS) refused to comment on the specifics of Mora's case.

    "With the investigation ongoing, we cannot comment at this time," said Davie Chingwalu, spokesperson for the Southern Region MPS.

    Asked if live ammunition was used by police to quell riots that followed the July 20 demonstrations, Chingwalu was unequivocal in his response. "No, no, no," he protested, toeing a line the government has maintained since the first shots were fired. "We did not use live ammunition. We used rubber bullets. Only rubber."

    Mwaluka, a national spokesperson for the MPS, was more careful with his words. "In this case, it could be jumping the gun to say that," he cautioned. "The investigations will reveal exactly what is there. So let's wait until the investigations are complete."

    Such stonewalling has come to be expected from the government, Mr Semu argued.

    "From the time that I was alive," he said in earnest, "I've seen Dr Hastings Banda, Bakili Muluzi, and now Bingu wa Mutharika. But with Bingu, I've never seen anything like this. Not even under the federation government. I have never seen anything like Bingu. He does not listen." 

    Mr Semu's words echoed those of the demonstrators among which Mora died.

    According to pamphlets distributed during the protests, the gatherings were called out of concern for the president's increasingly autocratic tendencies and the government's mishandling of the economy.

    In recent months, Mutharika has overseen laws passed that regulate people's freedom of assembly, allow for the restriction of certain news publications, and ban injunctions against the government.

    Malaise in Malawi

    And all the while, Malawi's economy has crumbled.

    Foreign governments have recoiled from Mutharika's reportedly dictatorial tendencies, which have come to characterise his second term in office. Massive amounts of aid money have been withheld. A lack of foreign currency has led to chronic fuel shortages that have sent the prices of daily necessities soaring. When fuel is available, long queues quickly form around the few filling stations open for business. Even in the cities, power blackouts are now a near-daily occurrence. And, especially in rural areas, water is in increasingly short supply.

    According to the most recent Africa Economic Outlook report on Malawi, the country's rate of real GDP growth is forecast to fall from 7.6 per cent for the 2009 fiscal year to a flat six per cent for 2012. And that, at a time when the United Nations Human Development Index ranks Malawi 153 out of 169 listed nations.

    "Since the beginning of last year, things have spiralled out of control," remarked Cassim Chilumpa, who, until a very public falling out with Mutharika, was vice president. Chilumpa lamented the loss of life that followed the July 20 protests. "One of the reasons why the demonstrations were held was to highlight to government the importance of its observance of the constitution," he said. "And right at the top of the constitution is the right to life."

    Gift Trapence, another organiser of the July 20 demonstrations, expressed equal concern. "These were unarmed people who were shot by live bullets," he stated. "Those who authorised force, those who are responsible for those killings, we must hold them responsible, even if it means taking them to court at the ICC [International Criminal Court]." 

    And Reverend MacDonald Sembereka, a third July 20 organiser, described the government's crackdown as an attack on the country's future.

    "The people are in a situation where nothing is working, and in those situations, people look up to their father, the bigger person," Sembereka explained. "But when you have a father that is only taking care of himself and only feeding himself, than people will go and find another way to see that they are looked after."

    The DPP-led government seems to see things differently. Presidential spokesperson Hetherwick Ntaba argued that, despite claims that 19 people were killed by police during peaceful protests, the reality was "not so simple".

    "No person died in the appointed demonstration areas," he explained, noting that all fatalities occurred away from "permitted demonstration sites" and outside of discussed protest hours.

    "These deaths happened in places of looting and violence," Ntaba emphasised. "So it is wrong to say that these deaths are a result of police repressing demonstrators."

    MPS national spokesperson Willie Mwaluka declined to comment on the MPS's alleged killings of unarmed civilians. "The investigations are still underway," he implored. "So in terms of anything, we will be better placed if we can base that on the results."

    Despite such arguments and repeated claims made by the president that he has given civil society every opportunity for dialogue, support for Mutharika both at home and abroad has plummeted since the July 20 demonstrations.

    Downfall of Mutharika?

    In the past, Noel Mbowela, a political analyst at Malawi's Mzuzu University, often spoke in support of DPP policies. But he now says that there exists a real possibility that Mutharika's government could fall.

    A protester carries a sign reading: 'Malawians, we are tired' [Travis Lupick]

    "I would say at the moment, there is a 50-50 chance," Mbowela speculated. "He is becoming [more] unpopular by the day and he is not addressing the issues that people are worried about."

    Also killed in Ndirande township on July 20 was 31-year-old Joseph Lefani. Like John Mora, Lefani was, by all accounts, an honest worker who was not taking part in any looting when gunned down, allegedly by police.

    Lefani's relatives have not disputed claims that the young man was present at Ndirande market when a nearby store was looted. But family members insist that Lefani, a tyre fitter, was there protecting his business - and that is all.

    The stories that have since emerged from Ndirande market are of two civilians, very likely innocent of any crimes.

    "We don't expect the police to investigate," Mr Semu said in defeat. "We think that there was probably a cover-up. The police really tried to discourage us from doing an autopsy."

    Mr Semu maintained he holds no ill will towards the demonstrators. He and his wife agreed that the protesters were speaking on their behalf. "They were telling the president about the problems that people like us have," Mr Semu explained.

    Mrs Semu interjected. "This child could have grown up to be a responsible citizen," she said. "He could have taken care of us when we are old.

    "But he's gone now."

    Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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