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Malawi: Activists’ homes burn as unrest continues

By Travis Lupick
Posted on Tuesday, 13 September 2011 17:27

When Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika warned activists, “I will follow you to your hiding place and smoke you out,” the public was startled. But few took their leader’s threats literally.

That was before two lead organisers of July 20 demonstrations saw their properties burn in obvious acts of arson (bringing the total for the year to three). Now, people are asking, is Mutharika making good on his threat?

Shortly after midnight on August 11, a “petrol bomb” sailed through the window of Rev. MacDonald Sembereka’s home. Thankfully, no one was hurt. But the house was gutted by the blaze.

The attack came barely a month after a similar fire torched the office of the Institute for Policy Interaction. That NGO is headed by Rafik Hajat, another principle architect of the July 20 protests and one of Malawi’s most-outspoken critics of Mutharika and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“Certainly, these events are connected incidents,” a surprisingly-tranquil Sembereka told me the day after he lost his home. “It’s quite unfortunate that this is happening after the remarks from the head of state that he would smoke us out and declared war against us.”

Evidence of arson

In the hours before both incidents, suspicious characters were seen at IPI’s office and Sambereka’s residence, and empty cans of petrol were recovered from both locations. And the attacks followed a fire in March at the office of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation. CHRR’s director, Undule Mwakasungula, is just as much an enemy of Mutharika’s as Sembereka or Hajat.

In a separate conversation, Hajat echoed Sambereka’s somber sentiment. “These are attacks on human rights defenders in Malawi,” he said. “They are attacks on anybody possessing an alternative view who dares to express it and they are an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”

Activists are now publicly wondering who will be targeted next. And daily struggles continue.

On September 7, Mutharika appointed a fresh set of cabinet ministers. In doing so, he met one of civil society leaders’ 20 key demands; that the number of cabinet ministers be reduced to a practical limit. But included in the new cabinet, reduced in size from 42 to 32, is the president’s wife and brother, Peter, who is openly being groomed for succession. Notably absent from the list was Vice President Joyce Banda, who has languished in political exile since falling out of favour with Mutharika in December 2010.

In addition to this administration’s generally-poor governance, chronic fuel shortages have for months been one of average Malawians’ most-common complaints. A US$100 million loan secured by the government last month offered a brief respite, and for a time, petrol queues dissipated. But that money has been spent, and diesel is scarce.

Nationwide vigils announced

Worse, hospitals already struggling with frequent power outages and water shortages have been operating without essential drugs for two months now. In a nation where the official HIV/AIDS rate exceeds 10 percent, ARV drug supplies have dwindled to the point where patients are skipping doses to make the drugs last (an ineffectual tactic that can let the virus build immunity to the medication). Medical supplies are allegedly on the way, but many are already feeling the pains of a healthcare system buckling beneath the trials it is facing.

A UN-facilitated dialogue between the president’s office and civil society leaders is ongoing. But sources close to negotiations claim a stalemate set in faster than the talks could get off the ground. On September 10, it was reported that Mutharika was rejecting previously agreed-upon resolutions crucial to the talks’ continuation, and civil society leaders boycotted what was scheduled as a joint press conference.

Hajat, heading a newly-formed splinter group, has vowed that nationwide vigils scheduled for September 21 will go ahead. But the president has warned protesters to stay out of the streets. “Enough is enough,” he shouted in an emotional speech on Aug. 25. “If my opponents want war, so be it. I will take them head on. Let the country go on fire.”

In Malawi, daily life continues unabated. But an atmosphere of unrest persists.

Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick.

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