By Tiyese Monjeza:
If people were allowed to add more symbols to the State’s three common symbols— that is, national anthem, national currency and national flag— Malawians would not have hesitated to add public demonstrations to them.
What comes to mind are the demonstrations Malawians conducted in protest against results of the May 21 2019 presidential election.
Without doubt, the demonstrators contributed to the re-administration of the presidential election, this time on June 23 2020.
The courts— starting with the High Court, then the High Court sitting as a Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal— ordered a rerun of the elections and the result is the current administration: The Tonse Alliance.
However, there is a dark side to demonstrations, though constitutionally sanctioned.
In Zomba, for example, demonstrators vandalised property.
Motorists bore the brunt of the demonstrations, too, as multitudes of demonstrators used to disrupt traffic on public roads, prompting motorists to use alternative roads away from the roads where the demonstrators marched.
The problem is that Zomba has fewer alternative roads than cities such as Blantyre and Lilongwe.
When the M3 Road, which motorists from Liwonde and Blantyre motorists use, is closed, there is no reliable bypass road.
The demonstrators gather at City Boundary, a distance of six kilometres from the district council offices, where they normally deliver their petition.
During a recent demonstration, held by concerned citizens in Zomba on Friday last week, where the grouping was protesting the rising cost of living, demonstrators also filled the M3 Road, thereby disrupting traffic.
The demonstrators departed from City Boundary at 9:14am and arrived at the district council offices at 13:12am, meaning that the road was closed for four hours.
There were longs queues of vehicles.
Owen Banda, a businessman who sells fish at Limbe Market, who was travelling from Mangochi to Blantyre, could not hide his displeasure at the blockage of the road.
“It normally takes me around four hours to travel from Mangochi to Blantyre but, every time there are demonstrations in Zomba, it takes me around eight hours to reach home. This inconvenience means I fail to conduct my business on that day,’ Banda said.
Joseph Makwinja, a taxi driver who operates between Chinamwali and Zomba City, said the tendency of blocking the road compromises business.
“I make around K15,000 daily but, with these demonstrations, the route I use for conducting my business becomes impassable. I end going home with less K5,000,” Makwinja says.
Andrew Phombeya, a shop owner in Zomba City, says, on days of public demonstrations, the central business area is almost empty and customers do buy merchandise.
In an interview, lead organiser of the recent demonstrations, Oliver Nakoma, said police should take the blame for failing to direct demonstrators to be using a single lane of the road, to allow vehicles pass through the other lane.
“During the demonstrations’ preparatory meeting, we were requested to provide 100 marshals, which we did.
“However, I believe the police could do well when it comes to enforcing traffic laws,” Nakoma said.
Eastern Region Police spokesperson Joseph Sauka said traffic laws recommend that those in a procession use a single lane of the road to avoid disrupting traffic flow.
“There are incidences where traffic officers may permit the use of both lanes, in incidences that there is a large number of people who could not fit on a single lane.
“The demonstrators normally write to the District Commissioner’s office indicating the route they would prefer to use during demonstration and we, as police, are only notified. So, we have no say on which routes demonstrators should use,” Sauka says.
From the look of things, demonstrations, though good, have a downside.