Updated: Dec 30, 2019
Scenes of Malawi’s young women and (mainly) men looting places of business, performed in the name of a political grievance around the Malawi Electoral Commission’s (MEC) handling of the 21 May tripartite elections, have become the new symbol of the country’s decay on a number of levels. The idea that the alleged sins committed by Jane Ansah, a supreme court judge and Chair of MEC, can be correlated with the display of shoes in a Bata Store seems a bit far-fetched. The harsh reality of it is that it may not be.
Yet this has been exactly the parallel effect of the post-election demonstrations that civil society organizations in Malawi have led, organizing alongside purportedly the most hurt opposition Parties, the Malawi Congress (MCP) and the United Transformation Movement (UTM). With more demonstrations planned under sworn devotion to stop only when Mrs. Ansah steps down means it’s easy prediction that you’re a foregone conclusion if you’re a business owner without enough locks and reinforcement steel.
It’s not right to promote the accusation, as some quarters of government would like us to believe, that Gift Trapence et al are in the wrong. Already Mr. Trapence, along with Rev. MacDonald Sembereka and others, have started paying the price for sins committed in other realms as their opposition provokes hell-bent digging of skeletons in order to divert attention by the government.
Importantly, the emergence of free-for-all rioting that is terrorizing business communities across the country is especially not helping. But neither is Inspector General Rodney Jose right when he, instead of condemning violence and promising to secure our cities and towns from looters – in other words, to do his job, raises a hand against those exercising their democratic right to demonstrate. By forgetting where he draws his salary from, Mr. Jose uses the podium the public has entrusted him with to denounce the wrong problem, actions tantamount to oppression as much as they expose the collapse of Malawian institutions.
However, the failure of institutions such as MEC and the Malawi Police Service (MPS) are only the tip of a much bigger problem. Those freeriding on the back of the demonstrations embody the manifestation of the deep social and economic inequalities we wrote about in our 2017 Independence Day article (click here to read it). By the dawn of 2016, inequality was gaping wider in Malawi as wealth and resources concentrated in the hands of fewer people. It is admissible that flaws of the electoral process can signify the manner in which political figures have used public office to enrich themselves on taxpayers’ money. To many, then, this makes wealth in Malawi to symbolize two things: our great socio-economic divide and the unlawful individual accumulation of economic resources. The poor will thus mostly look at the rich, even those legitimately wealthy, with a great deal of contempt and may be willing to take the law into their own hands when authorities – such as Mr. Jose – appear to ostensibly protect the interests of the rich against those of the few.
The example of the recent unrest in Hong Kong is perhaps a demonstration of the distinction between the composition of demonstrators there and those in Malawi today. Fighting an extradition law, the demonstrations, which involved over a million people at a point, have generally been peaceful. Even when they turned violent and disruptive, the rioting affected mainly government buildings and direct confrontations with the police. Not private businesses. To a degree, it is easy to grasp the purpose in the Hong Kong demonstrations, where inequality and a political grievance could not be conflated by those seeking justice.
In Malawi, we are likely suffering another compounding factor: our endless supply of unemployed youth. While we pride ourselves for being a young nation, many of our youth are inadequately trained and inadvertently must compete in highly labour-intensive industries that are unable to absorb the ever-growing flux of unskilled youth. Our article on the subject (click here for the article) finds 13.6% youth unemployment in Malawi is not only high but makes it easy for our young people to fall prey to hooliganism that renders itself commonplace in politics. But as Habiba Osman wrote almost three years ago (click here for article), the youth have grievances too, and prime among them is the economic system’s failure to absorb them into employment that secures a dignified future.
Based on the foregoing, a political economy that denies such a future for many young people will likely lead to a clash between the youths and the system that perpetuates their oppression. At this website, we strongly believe the blurred lines between perceived political notoriety and elusive wealth for the masses – perpetrated by the enrichment of political elites – will appear to the aggrieved as if it were the same thing. The anger of the youth at the affluence that is likely to circumvent them and the hesitance of those in power to deliver their promises create a venomous discontent that will be translated onto a People’s supermarket with as much violent potency as it would on any political leader who stands in the way of progress they would encounter, Mrs. Ansah being one of such in this case. A tight job market that is youth unfriendly means not only will youth from Kawale, Biwi, Mbayani and Katoto turn out to a rather violent street fest, but so will those from Area 10, Area 3, Namiwawa and Kaning’ina. It also means that the young graduate who spends a year at home before they land a job is just as persuasive a catapult for ‘geology’ aimed at the MPS as their less enlightened counterpart.
At the time we went to press with this article, demonstrations were still being planned. For they have devoted: until Jane Ansah stands down! A court injunction obtained by the government that demands demonstrators, under the leadership of the Human Rights Defenders’ Coalition (HRDC), pay up MK2 billion as insurance against anticipated looting…a gimmick to derail the adamant, looming demonstrations, even at the cost of its undemocratic deportment. But while every act of violence must be condemned, it is not the role of government to prohibit the full exercise of people’s rights through the fundamental freedom to gather and demonstrate. At the same time, it is Mr. Jose’s responsibility to maintain peace while filtering the crime from the authentic chanter.
In spite of the concurrent exercise of responsibility by all parties to the discourse around the just ended elections, the government of Peter Mutharika must not stay oblivious to the fact it has contributed to the current state of social and economic inequality that may be rooted in the disgruntedness of the marchers of the 2019 post-election demonstrations. Gauging by the fact that the demonstrations and riots are not sparing the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) neighbourhoods, taking away more rights of the oppressed will only fuel the very chaos – and Mr. Mutharika's eventual downfall – they are trying very hard to prevent.