Talking Blues: The day Malawi Police almost played with fire

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A revolution can be defined as a radical change in the established order. Revolutions typically happen when dissatisfied citizens conclude that government institutions have failed or no longer serve their intended purpose. As a result, people take matters into their own hands, and when they do, there is no telling how it will end.

While we are talking revolutions, a quick look at attempted and successful revolutions will help set the scene.

In April 1989, popular Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Hu Yaobang died. Before his ousting from the Communist party, he promoted economic and political reform. Two days after his death, on 17 April, several hundred students marched to Tiananmen Square and laid a wreath at the Monument to the People’s Revolutionary Heroes.

They demanded greater freedom of speech, economic freedoms and curbs on corruption. These demands irked hardliners in the Communist Party. The protesters were estimated to be up to one million at peak.

At first, the government took no direct action against the protesters as party officials haggled on what to do. Some were backing concessions; others wanted a harder line. The hardliners prevailed, and martial law was declared in Beijing in the last two weeks of May. On 3 to 4 June, troops came, opened fire, crushed and arrested protesters. At the end of June 1989, while the Chinese government said 200 civilians and several dozen security personnel had died, independent sources said 10,000 had died.

Here in Malawi, in March 1992, Catholic Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter criticizing the then ruling MCP for corruption, poverty and lack of democratic governance. Demonstrations and strikes by urban workers and university students quickly followed. MCP’s tool for suppression of public dissent was the paramilitary Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP), which increasingly became arrogant and violent. One particular act of violence proved catastrophic.

On 1 December 1993, MYP cadres shot and killed two soldiers at a pub in Mzuzu.

The matter was reported to Moyale Barracks (Mzuzu) and further conveyed to the Headquarters (Lilongwe). Soldiers, tense and anxious, keenly waited for direction from the army leadership.

This happened during the weekend, and the Army Commander was at a wedding in Zomba. After being briefed about the deaths, he responded that he would see what to do when he reported to the office on Monday.

It was a mistake. Rightly or wrongly, soldiers deduced that he was either afraid to confront Dr Kamuzu Banda or simply didn’t care.

Soldiers continued with the vigil and were on standby awaiting orders. After waiting for forty-eight hours, emotions exploded. Led by junior officers, they took matters into their own hands and thus commenced ‘Operation Bwezani’.

You all know how that ended.

In Tunisia, on 17 December 2010, a young man called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a municipal office in central Tunisia. Bouazizi, who supported his family by selling fruits, was driven to the limits by local officials who repeatedly demanded bribes and confiscated his merchandise.

After authorities refused to hear his complaint, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself alight.

His plight symbolized the injustice and economic hardship afflicting many Tunisians and inspired nationwide protests against corruption, high unemployment, poverty, and political repression.

The Jasmine Revolution, as it came to be called, forced Pres. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to step down in January 2011. It also inspired the Arab Spring.

According to Karl Marx, history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce, meaning when history repeats itself again, people’s refusal to learn is comical.

The amusing aspect is best illustrated by former President Peter Mutharika, who lost power in the February 2020 revolution for the same arrogance that saw the DPP lose popularity between 2009 and 2012.

This previous week could have birthed the first major protests against President Lazarus Chakwera’s government. We will never know how it would have ended, but the stage was set for a revolution.

The genesis is Zunneth Sattar’s arrest in October 2021 by British law enforcement on corruption allegations. The syndicate implicated in the Sattar’s sag has been very busy trying to kill the local version of the investigations in the hope of defeating justice.

Justice, in their eyes, is Madam Martha Chizuma, the ACB Czarina loved and revered by millions and yet hated to death by a handful of corrupt low-lives and scum of the earth deemed worthy of public office by President Chakwera.

In a move started by a little known Frighton Phompho, a Court Order to investigate and authenticate the leaked audio linked to Madam Chizuma was obtained.

In the height of supreme irony, execution of the order was delegated to the most corrupt institution in Malawi (as per Afrobarometer), the Malawi Police Service, which summoned Madam Chizuma for interrogation last Friday.

The general public quickly rallied and unanimously resolved that Madam Chizuma “would not walk alone” to the Police Headquarters. In the mother of all escorts, they would accompany her. The implications were not lost on the Police, and a wise decision was made to “postpone” the interrogation. The postponement has since been overtaken by events because the High Court issued a stay order later in the day and ordered a review of the Mzuzu Magistrate’s Court Order.

There are a few things I want to highlight. The day chosen by the Police was remarkable in three aspects. First, Chizuma would have been locked up the whole weekend if they were to detain her. The implication is that Malawi, at least Lilongwe, would have been burning weekend long.

Second, the State President was out in Mozambique, and third, the Vice President was flying to the USA. The implication is that the chaos would have gone unchecked.

Were the masses escorting Madam Chizuma to run riot, the Inspector General (IG) would have either had his hands tied or could have issued orders beyond his power in dealing with the riot. For the IG, both were lose-lose situations where he would be damned if he acted and damned if he did not.

More crucially, as in China in 1989, as with Operation Bwezani in 1992 and the Jasmine Revolution (Tunisia) in 2010, there is no way of predicting the triggers of mass riots and revolutions. However, public dissatisfaction and corruption have always played a significant role.

Given that:

  • Malawians have had enough of corruption,
  • the promise to end corruption is perhaps the only job they expected President Chakwera to deliver on given his background, and that
  • President Chakwera has not impressed vis-à-vis the Sattar mess;

Interfering with Madam Chizuma when the ACB has concluded investigations could have been the last straw because, whereas the overwhelming majority of Malawians trust Madam Chizuma, their opinions of the President, the Attorney General, and the Director of Public Prosecutions are now very low.

Why?

Because these three men don’t seem to understand that President Chakwera’s social contract is premised on ending corruption and that despite the President’s seeming change of mind on ending corruption, it remains Malawians’ number one agenda. This view, as per the recent Afrobarometer report, is shared by 58% of MCP supporters.

As things are, anything foolish can  trigger a disaster, as it almost happened on Friday.

President Chakwera should never forget that revolutions are triggered by seemingly unremarkable events and must tread carefully if he is to govern up to the next General Election.

After all, you can’t play with fire and not get burnt! Hands off Martha, hands off the ACB. Ignore this warning at your own peril.

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