Malawi: How COVID-19 Crisis United Malawians Against Mutharika

Dr Lazarus Chakwera, Malawi's new president.

On Thursday, April 16 2020, thousands of disgruntled Malawians in strategic townships and cities took to the streets to protest against President Peter Mutharika's decision to declare on a lockdown without cushioning underprivileged and poor families.

Mutharika said a nationwide lockdown was a necessary measure to control the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in a country whose health system is in a very sorry state and infrastructure dilapidated to the core.

Of course, this was not the first time for Malawians to go onto the streets. For the past 10 months or so, they citizens have been going onto the streets either to demand Mutharika's resignation for complicity in presidential vote mismanagement by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) in May 2019 or another reason.

They have also been on the streets to push for the removal of MEC chairperson Jane Ansah and her cohort of Commissioners for manipulating the presidential election results in favour of Mutharika.

However, the April 16 2020 widespread protests were quite unprecedented to the extent that some Malawians, including the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) and Church and Society Programme of the Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP Church, called them 'the second Malawi's democratic revolution'.

It was undoubtedly the first time in the recent history of Malawian politics that people from the Southern Region's Lhomwe-belt districts of Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Thyolo, Mulanje, Mangochi and Zomba could defy the directive of Mutharika whom they fondly call "adad" - meaning "our dad".

Apparently, Southern Region is also the perceived stronghold for Mutharika's governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). People in this region have continuously given Mutharika - a Lhomwe by tribe - unflinching support since he assumed the presidency in 2014.

They have relentlessly backed his questionable and controversial decisions on matters affecting the whole country.

However, when Mutharika announced a 21-day lockdown effective the midnight of Saturday 18 April 2020, the Lhomwes voluntarily joined other Malawians of other tribes in denouncing the lockdown that did not take care of the needs and requirements for them to survive.

In the announcement televised on the state-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), Mutharika said the lockdown would end on Saturday May 9, 2020, at midnight and could be extended further if the situation does not improve.

Among others, the lockdown would see the shutting down of all non-essential businesses and services for three weeks, including large markets where street vendors make a living while smaller markets would only be allowed to operate from 6am to 2pm.

Mutharika urged Malawians to comply with the measures, saying the lockdown is "for the good of our country".

But it is the unexpected that happened! A wave of protests, some of them violent, hit some parts of the country as informal business sector players, most of them vendors, took to the streets to demonstrate against the 21-day lockdown to tackle spread of coronavirus.

They argued that the nationwide lockdown would eventually make them starve to death.

For two days, the protesters marched on the streets while chanting anti-Mutharika songs.

In Luchenza Municipality, which is 27.7 kilometres away from Goliati Village where Mutharika was born and grew up, disgruntled Lhomwes smashed government offices and damaged property worth K10 million, according to the council authorities.

Chairperson of the Mangochi Market Vendors Association, Madalitso Kalipinde, demanded that government should provide them with food supplies first before effecting the lockdown.

"We want government to provide us with upkeep money to survive on during the 21 days because we cannot afford to stay home without food," said Kalipinde.

"Most of us rely on daily earnings to provide for our families and without going out to sell our merchandise we cannot survive," he added.

The protesters ended their march by delivering a petition to the Mangochi Town Council Chief Executive Officer Abubakar Nkhoma.

Nkhoma said he would forward it to the Office of the President and Cabinet through the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development for action.

Former National Organization of Nurses and Midwives in Malawi (NONM) president, Dorothy Ngoma, questioned Mutharika's rationale behind declaring a lockdown before telling citizens how government intends to cushion the poor.

Ngoma feared that the lockdown will likely create food shortages and child malnutrition among poor families.

"Much as I would really love to see this lockdown materialize, but as we do that, the children are going to die," she said.

"What are we going to do? We have few cases yes, but the government hasn't put any packages to make sure that they don't die. I am not surprised and if they were in the street protesting, I would definitely join them to protest," Ngoma added.

A political analyst Vincent Kondowe said the protests could have been avoided if authorities had consulted with the public.

"They could have taken an effort to reach out to the people and could have taken a participatory and consultative process, maybe through the chiefs, and explore locally-based solutions," Kondowe said.

The public outcry prompted the HRDC leadership to drag the Malawi Government to court, arguing it was inhumane and lack of seriousness for the government to declare a lockdown without spelling measures to save the poor from starvation.

Trapence said government was supposed to come up with health and safety measures to ensure that the pandemic is not spreading to a lot people in the country instead of pushing for lockdown as a solution to end the spread of the coronavirus.

He argued that being one of the poorest countries on the continent where more than half of the population live below the poverty threshold, lockdown was impractical if measures are not put in place to cushion poor families.

"Our message is simple, we are not accepting this issue of lockdown unless government comes up with proper measures to protect the lives of Malawians. All we are saying is different stakeholders such as religious leaders, civil Society Organizations (CSOs) should come together digest this issue and come up with proper solution. Government should allow health experts to intervene on this issue, otherwise we will be accusing the government of risking the lives of people," said Trapence.

UTM party described the lockdown as a tactic by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to delay presidential polls scheduled for July 2, because of the nullification of the May 21, 2019, vote.

"If at all they have passion for the people, they would have looked at what to do to give the people. It only shows that this is election fever. They are shivering because of the fresh elections," UTM Secretary General Patricia Kaliati said.

"Poverty level in Malawi is so high. Most of the people work hand to mouth. People will die because of hunger and not COVID-19," she added.

And two days before the lockdown could take effect, Judge of the High Court of Malawi, Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda, granted HRDC an order restraining President Mutharika and his government from proceeding with the lockdown pending a judicial review to take place within seven days.

This angered the Minister of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology, Mark Botomani, who said government was dismayed by Nyirenda's decision to issue a court order blocking coronavirus nationwide lockdown.

"We did not expect that in the prevailing circumstances we would have a judge that would grant such kind of injunction. The lockdown measure is basically to protect the lives of people," said Botomani, who is also government spokesperson.

A few days earlier, Botomani blasted judge Nyirenda for issuing a court order that led to the release of four Chinese nationals who had been quarantined on arrival at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA).

This was after the judge had questioned laws under which Mutharika used to declare Malawi a state of national disaster in the face of Covid-19.

Judge Nyirenda said the laws on the declaration of state of national disaster are archaic and cannot be applied in 2020.

"Honestly, the very thought of declaring a state of disaster without even bothering to tell Malawians the law under which the declaration is made is taking Malawians for granted. The framers of our Constitution knew pretty well that Malawi would, at some point face disasters. They, accordingly, put in place constitutional provisions for handling such disasters," he said.

This, in effect, meant that any attempt by Mutharika and his government to declare a lockdown had been defeated as it lacked legal basis.

The verdict excited the disgruntled Malawians who accused government of plotting to starve them to death under the guise of lockdown to prevent spread of Covid-19 pandemic.

And as Mutharika exits government following his miserable performance in the June 23 fresh presidential election, should we conclude that his ill-informed and ill-prepared decision to lockdown the country over Covid-19 contributed to his failure to retain his seat?

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