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“Do you think you can challenge our President? If you continue to do this work you will die a slow and painful death. You will be a sacrificial lamb for all those working against the Government.”
Thankfully none of us in Ireland will ever have to face phone calls like Benedicto Kondowe, received last month.
Benedicto’s organisation is called CSCQBE (Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education) and with support from Trócaire, it campaigns for more investment in education in Malawi. It recently called for political and economic reform in the country, focusing on issues such as fuel and foreign exchange shortages and corruption.
The Government of Malawi’s rejection of their proposals led to a National Vigil on the 20th July, which became two days of protests in every regional capital in the country, with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets demanding reform. The Government responded by instructing police to fire live ammunition on protesters, killing 20 people and leaving hundreds injured.
But the backlash did not stop there. The Government then turned its attention to the leaders of local organisations, charities and community groups. Agents and supporters of the ruling party burnt down their offices and houses, beat up some individuals and made threatening phone calls to others.
The organisers of the July demonstrations were accused of treason. All involved in the attacks have acted with impunity – even though they were reported to police, police have not prosecuted.
Worried about his safety, Trócaire invited Benedicto to Ireland to meet TDs, Government officials, and Trade unions and other international NGOs. Benedicto’s powerful and urgent testimony has prompted policymakers in Ireland to call for the Malawian Government to stop its assault on civil society.
Despite Benedicto’s efforts, so far there has been very little international media interest in the events in Malawi and certainly very little if any diplomatic intervention.
What next? At the political level no one is too sure. The evidence from other African countries and even the Arab Spring is that Presidents and ruling parties are slow to fall on their own swords. Malawi is referred to as the “new Zimbabwe” by diplomats – this could be a difficult and contested few months.
Meanwhile back in Malawi Benedicto faces assaults on his reputation and his person. The latest slur from the ruling party was that he had gone to Ireland to collect money for another Vigil and that another civil society leader, Undule Mwakasungula, had run away. And while the proposed Vigil in September did not go ahead because of safety fears, a massive stay away strike over three days has demonstrated the widespread demand for reform.
Trócaire12 April 2021
Leigh Brady08 April 2021
Trócaire31 March 2021