There are some major protests being carried out across the country yesterday and today, as you may have seen on the news:
The tension was building tangibly Tuesday night: although there have apparently been several small-scale protests over the last 20 years, and only one (in 1993) got out of hand, there was no way of knowing which category this one would fall into. Went to bed wondering would await us the next morning!
This was actually a planned protest which had been publicly announced a few weeks ago. Several civil society groups are protesting over the high fuel prices and resulting shortages (you never go by a gas station without seeing a line 25 cars long), high food prices and suppression of civil liberties (apparently the president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has tried to ban demonstrations and civil society organizations). There was also mention of civil rights for homosexuals (being homosexual is currently illegal in Malawi) but that didn’t seem to be the driving force behind the protests. The groups who are pro-government also marched, and people seemed worried about their collision.
A few months ago, the president expelled Britain’s ambassador to Malawi after a leaked cable where the ambassador called the president “autocractic and intolerant of criticism”. In response, just the other day DFID (Britain’s version of USAID) announced it would cut about $30 million of its financial support to Malawi (but would still fund health and education programs). About 40% of Malawi’s budget comes from foreign aid, much of that from Britain. Many people here are looking at the president’s decisions incredulously. Apparently he was popular 5-10 years ago and got fairly re-elected, but since then has lost a lot of support.
Protests are happening in some parts of the capital city, Lilongwe; much of Blantyre, the commercial capital; Mzuzu and other places. The violence is both targeted (against the offices and businesses of pro-government supporters) and generalized (several grocery stores have been burned to the ground, and most banks smashed). Tear gas has been used by the police to enforce the official ban against demonstrating, cars were burned and shots have been fired in both directions, killing 10 and wounding 45 (as of noon on Thursday). Most non-government-owned news websites have been shut down so many of our updates are coming from Twitter and radio. Things got bad yesterday, then quieted down this morning, only to pick up again now. Our staff here went home early yesterday but right now we’re being advised not to leave the office because being out on the roads isn’t safe. Many businesses and non-profit offices have closed for the day, due in part to rumors that protestors are targeting any business that appears to be open. I’m worried for the staff who have to either drive through the rough areas or walk home. Not worried for my safety though because we’ll be avoiding going out as much as possible (more thankful for that gate and security guard now!).
While the protests have gotten out of hand and are resulting in needless violence, they seem like a symptom of underlying injustice in this country, where 75% of the population lives on less than $1 a day yet some foreign investments are being used to build things like a 5-star hotel. Extreme disparities of wealth and poverty can only co-exist for so long before the need for long-term solutions becomes apparent.