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Malawi Authorities Close Two Colleges Over Teacher Boycott

Chancellor College Academic Staff Union acting president Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula of Malawi (center)

The registrar of the University of Malawi has ordered the indefinite closure of Chancellor College and Polytechnic campuses, two constituent colleges of the University of Malawi, for not carrying out their duties to teach.

The lecturers have been boycotting classes since February 12 to protest what they say is the infringement on their academic freedom by the Inspector General of Police, Peter Mukhito.

Mukhito had reportedly summoned an associate political science professor for a lecture delivered which drew parallels between Malawi's current fuel crisis and the uprisings that toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian governments.

The lecturers have been demanding an apology and an assurance that their academic freedom will not be infringed on again.

President Bingu wa Mutharika reportedly defended Mukhito’s actions, saying that he, as commander-in-chief of Malawi Police Services, cannot apologize to what he called a “mere lecturer.” An announcement by the registrar said beginning Wednesday [April 6], all employees will have to surrender university property and leave the premises by 1700 hours.

Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, acting president of the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union, says the lockout is illegal and the academic staff union is meeting Tuesday to decide the way forward.

“We actually believe that this is an illegal lockout and we are surprised that it looks like our counsel is bent on doing this in contempt of the court,” she says.

Kabwila-Kapasula says the registrar’s decision to order the closure of the two colleges is in defiance of a court order.

“Again, it’s unfortunate because today [Monday] we went for a judgment for an application that the university counsel made so as to set aside the injunction we took so that the order that was given by the president of the country not to take effect and, in that judgment, which went in our favor, the judge made clear that we were not on strike,” she says.

No Malawian government or school officials were available for immediate comment but, in a statement, University of Malawi registrar Benedict Wokomaatani reportedly said the lecturers have failed to carry out their duty to teach.

“On behalf of the University of Malawi Council, I write to inform you that following the abscondment of teaching by Chancellor College and Polytechnic academic staff, the disturbances of other activities at the two campuses by both staff and students, and the sending away of students on 1st April after the colleges were closed down, it has been decided that the two campuses should be completely shut down indefinitely from 6th April 2011,” Malunga reportedly said.

Kabwila-Kapasula says all the professors are doing is to protect their academic freedom as guaranteed under Malawi’s constitution.

She says the classroom has become hazardous to professors because the government has planted student spies to report on what the professors say.

“All we are doing is that we are refusing to work in a situation that is hazardous to us and all we are doing is not going where the threat has been registered. We are not going into classes where there are spies. And I think the term that they used is, ‘following the abscondment of teaching.’ We have not absconded our duty. All we are saying is that it’s not safe for us to get into the classroom,” Kabwila-Kapasula says.

She says the lecturers will meet Tuesday to review their options. Kabwila-Kapasula says options are opened.

“All we will say is that, to us, this is an illegal lockout and we are meeting in order for us to decide a way forward,” she says.

Kabwila-Kapasula says she does not plan to surrender university property as directed by the registrar’s closure statement.

“As far as I’m concerned, I am still an employee of the University of Malawi and I don’t see how an employer can say I don’t have access to my office unless they go ahead to say that you are no longer an employee,” Kabwila-Kapasula says.