'A police vehicle was burnt to ashes': Malawi protests turn violent

Hundreds of thousands of people in cities across Malawi (left) demonstrated against the electoral comission head, with protests in Lilongwe (centre and right) turning violent.
Hundreds of thousands of people in cities across Malawi (left) demonstrated against the electoral comission head, with protests in Lilongwe (centre and right) turning violent.


Protests calling for electoral accountability in Malawi turned violent on Tuesday as police clashed with demonstrators, cars were torched and stores were looted. Two FRANCE 24 Observers in Malawi attended the protests in the capital city of Lilongwe, and the country’s second city Blantyre.

Organisers at the Human Rights Defenders Coalition called it the “One Million March." Tuesday’s demonstrations saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets of Malawi to call for the resignation of Electoral Commission chairwoman Jane Ansah, according to estimates from local journalists.

The country’s May election saw President Peter Mutharika win a second term against rivals including his former vice president. But the opposition claims the election was rigged and that voting sheets were altered with typewriter correction fluid.

Tuesday's protests began peacefully but later turned violent. Videos posted in WhatsApp groups such as AIH Malawi show protesters clashing with police, cars being torched and shops looted.

A video from AIH Malawi shows protesters in Lilongwe attacking a police vehicle and picking up non-lethal guns left by officers.

Chance J Gondwe, who works as an accountant and attended the protest in Lilongwe, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team:

Before the violence people were singing and dancing and walking around. Then police started blocking people and then when they blocked the people they started using tear gas. And that is when the people started reacting.

The bad protesters they have done a lot of damage. Some of the shops have been destroyed and the products in those shops have been looted. A police vehicle was burnt to ashes. Completely destroyed by fire.

They were going into different shops, filling stations, looting almost everywhere … when a shop was opened, then you saw a number of people going into that shop and trying to take products.

Although there was limited violence in areas where the army was present, Gondwe said that groups of protesters left the main demonstration and attacked stores on other streets.

Human Rights Defenders Coalition chairman Timothy Mtambo, whose protests are also supported by the leaders of the two major opposition parties Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima, has distanced himself from the violence and said that some protesters were provoked by police.

A video sent to AIH Malawi shows surveillance footage of protesters breaking into a supermarket in Lilongwe.

Protests across the country

Daniel Mughogho, who edits the AIH Malawi channel and website, told the FRANCE 24 Observers that the protests highlight people’s feelings about law enforcement. He attended the protests in Blantyre, Malawi’s second-largest city, and said that when demonstrations were blocked by army soldiers there were no serious clashes or violence.

Protesters don’t stop for police officers. They believe that the officers are influenced by the politicians … and in defence of the government. So you can see the difference when the army is there because there are no instances of attacking the army.

[In Lilongwe] you have notices about where (protesters) are marching, where they are going and which roads they are using. And you find that along the way or near to it these are the stores that have been attacked. I feel like people have taken advantage and taken the opportunity while these people were marching to go and attack places.

Mtambo has suggested that protests calling for the resignation of Ansah could grow in the coming weeks, and that they could target critical infrastructure such as airports and border crossing points.

Protesters in Blantyre, the second largest city in Malawi, did not have the same violence clashes when they were blocked by soldiers.

“People are more interested in following the proceedings than protests”

However, other developments could decide Malawi’s political future. Court proceedings for the opposition’s challenge to the election results began Thursday in Lilongwe and will determine whether Mutharika’s re-election will hold.

Mughogho said that the court case, which is expected to run until the last week of August, could keep protesters off the streets.

From the part of civil society I feel that because elections could resume that possibility, people are more interested in following the proceedings than protests.

Because for most people, despite marching on the part of civil society, the important part now is about the elections. So people want to hear whether they will be a re-run before they go ahead.

Article written by Christopher Brennan (@CKozalBrennan)