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Merchants cried on the streets of Blantyre. On September 19, some gently asked passersby for charity while other simply buried their faces in their hands. Behind them, smoke still rose from the city’s central market. Just hours earlier, much of it was destroyed in a fire set in the middle of the night.
Only two days ahead of nationwide vigils in honour of the 20 people who died in protests on July 20. Emotions in Malawi were already running high. Now, a suspicious fire has gutted the downtown market of the country’s commercial hub.
Worse, the incident happened just hours after two other fires in Lilongwe, the nation’s capital. All in the same night, fires destroyed Blantyre Market, a section of Tsoka Market, and the home of Salim Bagus, a senior member of the opposition People’s Party.
Speculation ran rampant while tension built ahead of the demonstrations scheduled for Wednesday, September 21.
In the end, the vigils never took place. The night before they were meant to, local radio stations broadcast said the protests would go forward. But the next morning, the newspapers read that the demonstrations had been cancelled.
Civil society had made an eleventh-hour decision to cancel the demonstrations and instead instructed people to remain at home for three days.
So on a day when the people hoped to show resolve and keep pressure on a government that is increasingly under criticism for poor governance and an ailing economy, there was mostly just confusion.
A day later, the streets were empty, with civil society leaders maintaining that their calls for people to stay away from work were a success.
“It is time to pray for our country and re-energise ourselves,” said Voice Mhone, spokesperson for civil society dialogue team currently engaged in United Nations-facilitated talks with Malawian president, Bingu wa Mutharika.
But average Malawians reported that they remained at home simply out of fear and confusion.
“Our office said we shouldn’t come to work,” said David Nyahoda, a financial auditor working in Blantyre. “The last time, the protests ended up violent. So this time, we stayed home. It was a matter of safety.”
Stuart Palmer, executive director for CURE International Malawi, said the hospital he works at failed to open on Wednesday out of a similar sense of caution.
“It was nearly impossible to read the situation in advance and I did not want to put any of our staff at risk,” he explained. “We would dearly like to have been working here and around the country as normal, but after the events in July I guess we are just more cautious now.”
Civil society leaders maintain their plans were followed. But evidence is building that cracks are emerging in the umbrella group, of more than 100 organisations, that maintained a united front through the chaotic events of July 20.
Ahead of September 21, several key groups publicly pulled out of the vigils. Those included the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, a popular faith-based group in Malawi, as well as Malawi Watch and the Institute for Policy Interaction, both run by outspoken critics of the Mutharika government.
Meanwhile, in Mzuzu, one civil society group made clear its intent to begin a new round of protests against the government.
In a press conference held on September 21, CCAP Livingstonia Synod Church and Society director Moses Mkandawire announced the launch of a “red campaign”, which asks people to wear a piece of red clothing every Wednesday, as they go about their usual business.
Wednesday, he said, was chosen in remembrance of the people who died on that during the July protests.
“We want to do things concurrently, vigils, red campaign, and dialogue can take place at the same time,” Mkandawire maintained. “What we want is to put pressure so that key resolutions made at the dialogue table are respected and implemented.”
It has left many people in the streets quite angry.
“We wanted to take action on September 21,” one reporter for a Malawi newspaper said. “Civil society has taken us for granted and let us down.”
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