One Malawi, two worlds

We hope Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika is feeling better today after ridding his chest of pent-up frustrations in front of a large and adoring audience—because that is what the public lecture turned out to be. And he was in good company.

Some participants clapped. Others nodded their heads in agreement. More laughed uproariously at presidential quips and wise-cracks they thought were funny. A few were seen on MBC television being lectured to sleep.

The guests were in a world of their own, different from the one anti-government demonstrators outside the palatial gates lived in.

From the comfort and warmth of the New State House in Lilongwe, the President lectured us on the meaning of independence, sovereignty, self-reliance, his achievements and other topics. He talked about his version of governance and trashed most internationally ratified definitions of governance. Mutharika was especially brilliant at regurgitating to Malawians what they already know—from economic policy to blaming everyone but himself for the problems affecting the country.

The only blemish on the fiery defence of his leadership style and policies was the reality check on whatever development progress the President said Malawi has achieved: electricity went out, prompting Mutharika to joke—we assume—that someone was trying to sabotage the function. About 10 minutes passed before power was restored and the President picked up the pieces.

But as the mostly rich and influential audience that was holed up at the New State House schmoozed, oblivious to the goings on across the country and listening to an abstract lecture, blood was spilling on the streets of Malawi’s cities and towns where people were protesting the very policies and leadership style Mutharika was defending within the comfort of his tax-payer-funded home and egged on by a clique of collective individuals that are benefitting from a system gone bad.

Indeed, as the Commander-in-Chief was presiding over the function, his police officers were engaged in running battles with protesters, some of whom damaged and looted property. We condemn the violence and looting. These were supposed to be peaceful expressions of dissatisfaction, not cooking pots for violence. We also condemn police’s heavy-handedness, especially with reports that some of them shot at and beat up protestors, journalists and civil society leaders.

But we heap most of the blame for the damages to life and property on the DPP-led government because of its conduct prior to the demonstrations. First, the administration, for several months, kept blocking the mass protests. This heightened tensions and bottled up emotions that appear to have boiled over on Wednesday.

Second, a day before the demonstrations, panga-wielding DPP functionaries in party branded cars stormed Blantyre, threatening demonstrators with violence. The ruling party, we submit, had set up the mood and created a fertile ground for the orgy of violence.

Then, on the eve of demonstrations, the High Court in Lilongwe granted one Chiza Mbekeani an injunction stopping demonstrations. To a frustrated people, even if the potential for peaceful demonstrations was there, the Judiciary’s move was the last straw and may have ignited the fire.

The bottom-line is that the ruling elite are so caught up in a power bubble that they live in a world of their own, out of touch with the real world where life is a daily struggle.

To save the country, the President must reconcile these two worlds. Lectures, not even a million of them, can improve the current situation. Only sound policies, derived from a genuine national consultative process, can.

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