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Protesters Give Malawi Government 100-Day Ultimatum

FILE - Malawi's President Peter Mutharika meets with reporters at the conclusion of the US-Africa Summit at the Institute of Peace in Washington.
FILE - Malawi's President Peter Mutharika meets with reporters at the conclusion of the US-Africa Summit at the Institute of Peace in Washington.

Malawi-based civil society groups on Tuesday presented government officials with a petition seeking redress of bad leadership and financial problems that have caused government employees to strike.

Issued along with a 100-day deadline to respond to their concerns the petition outlines a range topics, from unfair election laws to misallocation of charitable funding by the National Aids Commission (NAC).

Protesters say the local organizations that accepted portions of an NAC grant estimated at $100,000 — Beautify Malawi (Beam), which belongs to first lady Gertrude Mutharika; Mulhako wa alhomwe, a cultural group; and the National Intelligence Bureau — are not linked to AIDS activities.

All three groups have refused to refund the money, saying they did not force the NAC to give it to them. But rights groups are calling funds a handout to organizations closely aligned with the country's ruling party leadership.

A spokesman for the organizers of Tuesday's protests, Timothy Mtambo of the Centre for Human Rights Rehabilitation, told reporters that along with refunding the money, the demonstrators want to jumpstart a national a dialogue about fair governance.

“We want the government to set up a platform of dialogue of all of us," he said. "We have always wanted to engage the government so we want that to be done. We have also said clearly that we want to see serious progress on all issues raised in the petition within 100 days."

Mtambo says topics outlined in the petition include reform of some electoral laws and a moratorium on the airing of "ruling party propaganda" by the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation.

They also want government to fire board members of National AIDS Commission within three weeks for “failing to discharge their duties by careless disbursement of money meant for HIV/AIDS activities.”

Mtambo also rights groups will take unspecified action should government fail to address the concerns within 100 days.

The mere proposal of street demonstrations initially received stiff opposition from government officials, and some NGOs expressed concern that they could result in the destruction of property and deaths like the 2011 anti-government protests in which 20 protesters were killed by police.

But Mtambo says Malawi police behaved professionally during Tuesday's rally.

“The police have conducted themselves in a very professional manner and I would like to advise them to continue because they are in their offices to promote and protect human and people’s lives.”

In the capital, Lilongwe, the protesters sang anti-government slogans as they peacefully marched to the city council offices to present their petition. A report by the Johannesburg-headquartered Mail & Guardian said the protest drew "scores" of protesters.

Similar peaceful demonstrations also took place in northern city of Mzuzu and Karonga district in northern Malawi.

Public officers who received the petitions assured the protesters they would deliver them to the office of the president and Cabinet in time for action.