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Covid-19: A unifying nucleus against Peter Mutharika?

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Peter Mutharika

On Thursday, April 16 2020, thousands of Malawians in strategic townships and cities took to the streets to protest against then-president Peter Mutharika’s decision to declare a lockdown without cushioning underprivileged and poor households.

Mutharika said a nationwide lockdown was a necessary measure to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in a country whose health system has generally been dysfunctional and infrastructure dilapidated to the core.

It should be noted, however, that this was not the first time for Malawians to go onto the streets to protest for one reason or the other.

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Ten months earlier, the citizens had descended onto the streets either to demand the resignation or removal of Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) chairperson Jane Ansah and her cohort of commissioners for mismanaging the May 2019 presidential election.

At one time, Malawians also thronged the streets to demand the resignation of Mutharika himself for alleged complicity in the manipulation of the presidential election results in his favour.

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

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It was undoubtedly the first time in the recent history of Malawian politics that people from the Lhomwe-belt districts of Chiradzulu, Thyolo, Mulanje and Phalombe could defy the directive of Mutharika whom they fondly call “adadi” – meaning “our dad”.

Apparently, the Southern Region has largely been perceived a stronghold of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which Mutharika leads. Previously, the people in this region gave Mutharika unflinching support since he assumed the presidency in 2014.

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

But when Mutharika announced a 21-day lockdown effective the midnight of Saturday 18 April 2020, the people from the so-called Lhomwe belt voluntarily joined other Malawians to protest the impending lockdown, which did not put in place measures to cushion the poor and most vulnerable.

In the announcement televised on 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 did 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 the spread of the 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 kilometres away from Goliati Village where Mutharika was born and raised, disgruntled vendors smashed government offices and damaged property worth K10 million, according to the council authorities.

Chairperson of 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 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 president of the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives in Malawi, Dorothy Ngoma, questioned Mutharika’s rationale behind declaring a lockdown before telling citizens how government intended to cushion the poor.

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

“Much as I would really love to see this lockdown materialise, 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 streets protesting, I would definitely join them to protest,” Ngoma added.

Political analyst Vincent Kondowe said the protests could have been avoided if authorities had consulted the public o the planned lockdown.

“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 a 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 lives below the poverty threshold, a lockdown was impractical if measures were 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 lives of Malawians. All we are saying is different stakeholders such as religious leaders and civil society organisations should come together and digest this issue and come up with a 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,” Trapence said.

UTM described the lockdown as a tactic by the Democratic Progressive Party to delay the presidential election which was initially scheduled for July 2, because of the nullification of the May2019 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 election,” UTM Secretary General Patricia Kaliati said.

“Poverty levels in Malawi are so high. Most 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, High Court judge, Kenyatta Nyirenda, granted HRDC an order restraining Mutharika and his government from proceeding with the lockdown pending a judicial review to take place within seven days.

This angered then-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 a 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 was also government spokesperson.

A few days earlier, Botomani had 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.

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.

Nyirenda said the laws on the declaration of state of national disaster were archaic and could not 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 a legal basis.

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

Now with the DPP performing miserably in the districts perceived to be its strongholds in the just-ended fresh presidential election, should we say Malawians were punishing Mutharika for the impromptu declaration of a lockdown?

Should we conclude that Covid-19 became a unifying nucleus against Mutharika?

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