27 July, 2013

Of Activism and Emancipatory Citizenship in Malawi

by George A. Mhango

Barely two years after Malawi experienced gruesome killings of civilians during a national protest on 20th July 2011, it is important to reflect on what has become of the demands that were pressed on the government by the citizens. In the first place, it was clear that the motive behind the nationwide protests was to get the attention of government regarding the deepening inequalities perpetrated by poor governance and deteriorating terms of trade. Malawians were tired of an authoritarian regime that sacrificed the lives of its people for selfish gains.

The July 20 protests of 2011 (Photo: Travis Lupick)

For a brief background, between 2009 and 2012, Malawi experienced significant deterioration in its economy which led to shortage of foreign exchange, fuel, essential health care and basic food stuffs. Given this context, the role of civil society activism became instrumental in building an environment where citizens would exercise their agency in order to get the ear of their government. Hence it was no surprise that waves of protests manifested countrywide, the climax of which was the July 20 protests that claimed lives of 20 citizens. Of course the protesters had a very solid base which was reflected in the ‘20 point’ petition that they presented to the Mutharika-led government in July 2011. The petition simply demanded serous governance reforms some of which had an implication on the country’s legal framework, especially the manner in which the executive arm of government wielded power and resources.

Just a week ago, civil society organizations (CSOs) organized a memorial ceremony for those that lost their lives during these protests. What was striking to note, however, was that the enthusiasm that was shown by the civil society in 2011 seemed missing in the reflections and speeches coming from the CSO leaders. One wonders whether this symbolized a sense of satisfaction with the much called for reforms by the government – it is becoming clear that Malawians have been deserted by the civil society which has graduated from activism to praise singing for the government. Forgotten is the fact that the ‘20 point’ petition that was advanced on behalf of Malawians remains unanswered by the government. It is ironical how the same activists that once fought for the plight of the masses are being palm-oiled by the government, consequently closing a very important political space for citizenship. Or is it time for radical citizenship to mobilize from the grassroots?

One thing that the civil society should realize is that Malawians have yet to recover from the post-2009 economic burdens most of which were self-created by the government. This makes their demands still valid. But it is unfortunate that most activists are using the civil society as a channel for achieving political ambitions at the expense of the citizens. Oh civil society, when will you stand for the rights of innocent Malawians?

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