New hope for Malawi after sustained protests

Association

Following the court’s nullification of the May 2019 election results on 3rd March 2020, authorities under president Peter Mutharika’s regime embarked on a crackdown of dissenters and critics as the rerun, slated for 23rd June 2020, approached.

On 8th March 2020, activists Gift Trapence and Reverend McDonald Sembereka, who openly criticised and led national protests against the May 2019 elections, were arrested and detained in Lilongwe after they announced that they would march to State House. A warrant of arrest was also issued against a third activist, Timothy Mtambo. The three, who are linked to the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), a local Non-Governmental Organisation, had vowed to march to State House if President Mutharika continued to delay assent to new legislation that had been passed in parliament to dictate the conduct of the May 2020 elections rerun.

Mutharika responded by warning the activists that they would be dealt with if they marched to State House. 

Two days after the arrest of his colleagues, on 10th March, Timothy Mtambo presented himself to the police in Lilongwe as a video of crowds marching in solidarity with him made the rounds on social media.

A statement by the Office of the Inspector General of the Malawi Police claimed that the three were arrested for statements they made at a press conference on 6th March 2020 which read in part: “By inciting people to seal the State Residences on 25th March 2020, the three committed an offence under section 124 of the Penal Code.”

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa said:

“The arrests of Gift Trapence and Reverend McDonald Sembereka are deeply troubling, coming amidst the highly charged political environment ahead of the election rerun. Many human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, including by President Arthur Mutharika and senior leaders of his party… The authorities must stop threatening, harassing and intimidating human rights defenders and allow them to freely exercise their rights.”

More human rights groups condemned the harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrests of activists and dissenters and called for their immediate release. On 30th March 2020, HRDA wrote to the African Union imploring them to intervene and call on president Mutharika to respect the constitution and the rights of Malawian citizens. 

CIVICUS in collaboration with Malawian Human Rights Defenders Network (HRDN) also issued a statement calling on authorities to stop intimidating representatives of civil society, and to respect the rights of Malawian citizens to protest peacefully about issues affecting them.

Separately, members of the judiciary also suffered persecution after nullification of the 2019 elections. On 15th June 2020, the Southern Africa Chief Justices Forum denounced president Mutharika’s criticism of the judiciary for nullifying the May 2019 elections, which also saw Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda and Justice of Appeal Edward Twea sent on forced leave pending their retirement in 2021. The Justices Forum expressed concern that the executive’s notices to send the two judges on forced leave was an attempt to interfere with the independence of the judiciary which is guaranteed in the constitution of Malawi.

Eventually, in news that was celebrated and well received by the majority of Malawian voters, on 27th June 2020, Malawi’s opposition chief Lazarus Chakwera was declared the winner of the 23rd June 2020 election re-run after garnering 58.57% of the votes against Mutharika.

In separate developments, in March 2020, the NGO Board in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs began developing reporting regulations for NGOs. The regulations are intended to promote accountability and transparency within the sector, as the Board noted that many organisations had not been complying with reporting requirements under the NGO Act. The regulations are expected to expound further on the reporting requirements, and thus support NGOs to better understand their obligations under the Act.

Peaceful Assembly

As protesters continued to march in the streets in late 2019 and early 2020 over the disputed March 2019 election results, in a rare twist of events, the brutality and heavy handedness of authorities under Mutharika’s regime which was seen after the March 2019 elections saw the Malawian army stepping in to restore order and calm and protect demonstrators. Images emerged of Malawi army soldiers protecting opposition rally demonstrations.

The Malawi Defence Forces (MDF) commander Vincent Nundwe declared, while deploying the army in August 2019, that his “priority would be to ensure that Malawi is sovereign as well as peaceful”.

In separate developments, on 16th April 2020, it was reported that traders in Mangochi held protests to oppose a planned 21 day lock down to curb the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown, which was to begin on 18th April was challenged by sections of the population, mostly traders, who expressed concern that they would not be able to provide for their families during that period, arguing that it was unacceptable because the government had not made any plans to mitigate the effects on such families.

The following day on 17th April, the High Court in Malawi suspended the enforcement of the lockdown for seven days following a petition by HRDC who argued that more consultation was needed to mitigate the effects of the lockdown on poor and vulnerable groups in the country. 

Separately, two days after the Southern Africa Chief Justices Forum issued the statement condemning the government’s interference with the judiciary’s independence (see above on association section), on 17th June, lawyers in Malawi led the ‘hands off the judiciary’ protests calling for President Mutharika and the Executive to respect the independence of the judiciary.

Expression

In positive developments, Dr Chakwera announced during his inaugural speech that he would operationalise the Access to Information Act in efforts to end the practice of government secrecy and begin a new period of government transparency. Former President Mutharika assented to the law in February 2017, but it had remained non-operational as the commencement date was yet to be set by the Minister responsible.