By Wisdom Chimgwede:
When two experienced magistrates unanimously say “we have failed the people of Likoma”, it tells you that justice has been denied to the over 13,000 inhabitants of the stunning island district.
The old saying that justice delayed is justice denied is a norm here where cases are dropped mid-way, because people – largely vulnerable communities – fail to finance the process which should ideally be free of charge.
“Justice is expensive for the people of Likoma,” says Magistrate Fordwatch Mkandawire who is barely a month old on the island where he is delivering justice from a borrowed shelter because the 1964 traditional court building collapsed a long time ago.
“Most litigants, particularly women, end up dropping cases because they can’t afford to ferry, accommodate and feed witnesses on the mainland where the majority of their cases are taken,” echoes Magistrate George Ligowe who has been trying Likoma cases in Nkhata Bay.
It is not easy, he adds, because that also affects cases from the lakeshore district itself.
This sad start to telling a story of access to justice for Likoma inhabitants is a sharp contrast to the beautiful sceneries you enjoy from a boat on Lake Malawi as you approach Chizumulu and Likoma (Likoma district) islands where hills, rocks, trees and the waters sing sweet melodies inviting visitors to sample their natural elegance.
But, if your mission is to understand how people access justice here, the beauty ends with just those sceneries and the fact that Likoma inhabitants are as warmhearted as Malawians elsewhere.
“You can take it to police but you will end up dropping it mid-way if the case goes to Nkhata Bay because you can’t afford to ferry witnesses,” says Group Village Headwoman (GVH) Chalunda.
Her counterpart, GVH Chiwokore, calls that this challenge has affected women and children more than anyone on the island district.
“Cases of defilement, property grabbing and domestic violence end up in reconciliation which is not justice at all,” she bemoans.
“We definitely need a courthouse. Currently, the magistrate is working from a council hall. That is not a courthouse,” she adds.
In fact, Magistrate Mkandawire acknowledges that at times, his scheduled cases have clashed with council meetings leading to cancellation of hearings, delaying and denying justice to the islanders.
This is perhaps why Registrar of the High Court, Agnes Patemba says “the need for a courthouse on Likoma is urgent.”
“We are very appreciative of the support we are getting from the European Union through Chilungamo Programme to refurbish the courthouse on Likoma,” she says.
If domestic violence invites you to check how the Police Victim Support Unit works in the island district, the results are more disappointment. The unit is just a room enough for three officers, without counselling space, denying victims privacy as cases are handled under a mango tree.
“We don’t even have a victim shelter. One day we had to request a chief to keep a victim over night because she couldn’t return home after being heavily beaten by her husband,” says Officer In-charge George Botso.
Botso and his officers echoed the stories of how expensive it is to take suspects to the mainland due to lack of a courthouse on Likoma. At times, he says, this costs the impoverished police unit close to a million kwacha in a month.
When told that Judiciary, with support from the EU funded Chilungamo Programme will be refurbishingthe Likoma courthouse to the tune of K55 million, Botso said: “That is just a start to the long awaited relief.”
“We don’t have cells here and even with a court building, we’ll still be spending money ferrying convicts to Nkhata Bay because there is no prison here,” he emphasised.
Both Police Inspector General George Kainja and Prisons Chief Commissioner Wandika Phiri, acknowledge the importance of doing their part as Likoma welcomes a courthouse.
“The need to improve service delivery on Likoma is urgent. As a police service for the people, we’ll ensure that our service delivery on Likoma improves to ensure justice for the vulnerable,” Kainja said.
He appreciates that with the EU support, they are already improving VSU structures in some districts in the country.
On her part, Phiri says the department “recognises the importance of our presence on Likoma to ensure that inhabitants of the Island do not have to travel through the lake to Nkhata Bay for custody.”
“It’s costly and unfair because convicts are taken far from their relatives. We’ll do everything possible in our powers working with stakeholders like Chilungamo Programme,” Phiri says, adding that the service would also consider other means of reforming offenders, such as community service.
The delayed justice to Likoma inhabitants is a story you hear from everyone including District Commissioner Eric Nema and Member of Parliament Christopher Songwe who agree that access to justice on the island does not echo the beauty you see as you approach the district.
The €48,000,000 Chilungamo Programme is supporting the Judiciary to refurbish courthouses in Mwanza, Mulanje, Nanyumbu, Mchinji, Nkhotakota (work done), Chitipa, Balaka (underway), Rumphi, Dowa and Likoma (next), with the aim of bridging the justice gap for vulnerable communities.
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