At least 18 people have died in violent anti-government protests across Malawi Wednesday and Thursday with unconfirmed reports of further casualties. President Bingu wa Mutharika said he is willing to speak to civil society groups and opposition parties about their concerns.
In an address to Malawians broadcast on national radio Thursday, Mutharika condemned the protests, but appealed for calm and said it is time to take part in dialogue with his opponents and find solutions. The president was reacting to countrywide protests that erupted into violence in some areas.
The protests began with organized demonstrations Wednesday, but continued in a random way Thursday, often resulting in looting and other destructive behavior.
The president’s address failed to win favor, with many Malawians venting their anger and frustration on social networking sites on the Internet. Kalako, a Malawian in the capital who uses only one name, says that President Mutharika glossed over important issues.
“He has called for peace, that is very good; he has called for dialogue, that is very good," said Kalako. "But, like I say, the kind of dialogue that we want is not the kind of dialogue he did yesterday in a so-called public lecture, where [he] is talking about things that are not concerning the current concerns. But people are worried about the economy right now, and not about independence, or not. So personally I feel the president has not adequately addressed the needs or the concerns that are being raised by the protestors.”
Independent observers and activists say violence resulted in areas, such as the capital, Lilongwe, because police responded too harshly to peaceful demonstrators. Undule Mwakasungure, chairman of Malawi's Human Rights Consultative Committee, and one of the organizers of Wednesday’s protest, says that police acted aggressively against demonstrators.
“The unprofessional conduct of the police; where the police started to push people out of the central [assembly] points while people were still waiting to hear from civil society leaders on what would be the next move, so in that process people became violent, and the police also started throwing tear gas,” said Mwakasungure.
Mwakasungure said President Mutharika's government has been passing laws that curtail democratic rights, that stifle dissent and free speech, and that this has resulted in anger building up over a lengthy period.
“The country is going through hardships in terms of the economy, but also we are seeing so many challenges in terms of our promotion of our democratic principles. We have seen the government passing undemocratic bills, the government suppressing the freedom of the press, the government threatening human rights defenders, the government suppressing the voice of Malawians,” said Mwakasungure.
In addition, six years of economic growth has been slowed by the global recession, causing fuel and foreign exchange shortages that have added to frustration and anger among Malawians.
Donor countries also have reduced funding over governance issues and in the case of Britain, a serious diplomatic row. This will deeply affect the ability of the government to provide essential social services because 40 percent of the overall budget is donor funded.
The army has been deployed in parts of Lilongwe and police are out in full force, patrolling, manning roadblocks, and clearing barricades and debris from the streets.
Calls to the government spokesperson, the president’s office and other government departments for this story were not answered.