MALAWI

Malawi citizens revolt against their ‘plundering’ president

 The small southern African state of Malawi has been in the grips of an unprecedented wave of unrest since Wednesday, July 20, as 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.

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July 20, in the city of Mzuzu. @nyirendac

  

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.

 

"The Arab Spring has showed us that it is possible to overthrow a dictator, if you fight for freedom"

'Wizaj' (not his real name) is a student Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

 

On Wednesday I joined the protest march that went to the business district of the city. The demonstrators were quite agitated. Security forces interfered very early on, firing tear gas at the crowd. We responded by throwing stones at them. They began beating people with their truncheons. That’s what happened to the man in the photo (below). I took his picture after he was knocked unconscious. We led him to a quiet street and he eventually came to, but there were many other injured protesters to rescue so I couldn’t stay by his side. I don’t how he’s doing.

 

 Lilongwe, July 20. Photo: @wizaj

 

On Thursday, looting and rioting replaced the protests. I could hear the shooting from my house. A friend of mine told me he saw that police were firing live rounds. The situation took a turn for the worse in the afternoon, when people began breaking shop windows and throwing hard objects at police stations. Apparently the same thing happened in Lilongwe.

 

 Looting on July 20 in Lilongwe. @wizaj

 

We’re all angry against Bingu [Mutharika]. The president violated our civil liberties with the Injunctions law (a law that bans citizens from protesting against government policies). He’s ruining Malawi and plundering the country’s fuel reserves because of his massive and unjustified spending. He’s also gotten us into a terrible diplomatic mess with the UK, and refuses to apologise. Because of him, aids groups in the country are desperately short of funds.

 

The president’s speech won’t change anything. On the contrary, it only made people even more furious. I’m convinced that this is just the beginning. The Arab Spring has showed us that it is possible to overthrow a dictator, if you fight for freedom.”

 

 

 

 

These photos were taken in central Blantyre on July 20. They were sent by one of FRANCE 24's Observers.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.