The small southern African state of Malawi has been in the grips of an unprecedented wave of unrest since Wednesday, July 20, when security forces clashed with protesters demonstrating against President Bingu Mutharika’s regime. According to our Observer, the citizens of Malawi are ready for an ‘Arab Spring’ of their own.
According to the health ministry, 18 people were killed in the July 20 riots. Police said 275 people were arrested, mostly in the capital Lilongwe, where soldiers patrolled the largely empty streets on Friday. Ten people were killed in the northern cities of Karonga and Mzuzu, where protesters demanded Mutharika’s resignation and ransacked his Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) offices on Wednesday. Eight more people were killed in Lilongwe and the economic capital Blantyre, in the south of the country. The killings have raised global condemnation, with rights groups calling for a full investigation into the deaths. The United States and Britain have called on both the protesters and the government to show restraint.
Protests in Blantyre on July 20. Photo: @wizaj.
Such unrest is almost unheard of in impoverished Malawi, which was ruled for decades by the iron-fisted Hastings Banda after independence in 1964. President Bingu Mutharika, in power since 2004, has presided over six years of high-paced, largely aid-funded growth. In recent years, however, the country’s economic development has been marred by chronic fuel shortages.
In a speech on national television Thursday, the president rejected calls to step down, but promised to open consultations with the opposition. Critics have accused Mutharika of developing authoritarian tendencies and “turning into a dictator”, a concerned echoed by Malawi’s former colonial power and biggest donor, the United Kingdom. Last April, the leaking of a British diplomatic cable that characterised Mutharika as an ‘autocratic president who doesn’t accept criticism’ put a strain on relations between the two countries. The cable led to the expulsion of Britain’s ambassador to Lilongwe, and in response, Britain suspended aid worth 383 million euros over the next four years.