The High Court in Malawi's business city of Blantyre ruled yesterday in favour of university lecturers arguing that they cannot be forced back into lecture rooms “infested with spies”. This is contrary to the view of their employer, the University Council, which wanted them back to class or out of job for striking.
The two-month old stand-off between the universty lecturers and their employer has led to the closure of the University of Malawi's main colleges: the Polytechnic and Chancellor College. Global Voices ran a story in March 2011 about classroom spies and academic freedom in Malawi.
But no one would have known that things were so bad if one blogger, Boniface Dulani, had not written a post titled “Mutharika's dictatorship hits a new low: Unima's Blessings Chinsinga summoned by Inspector General of Police” on February 12, 2011, two days before Valentine's Day.
The post was about Malawian lecturer Blessings Chinsinga who was summoned to appear before the Inspector General of Malawi Police to respond to allegations that he has been inciting students to demonstrate against the government.
The mainstream media got wind of this story much later that day and followed up the development. Mainstream media published the story the following day or later.
On 12 February, Dulani, a political science lecturer but currently studying in the United States wrote:
Now it has just come to my attention that my good friend and occasional contributor to this blog, Blessings Chinsinga, was this morning (12 February, 2011) summoned to appear before the Inspector General of Malawi Police to respond to allegations that he has been inciting students to demonstrate against the government.
Needless to say I am so mad to hear this story and enraged that the Bingu government is sinking so low as to threaten University academics with serious yet unfounded accusations. In any case, the right to demonstrate is enshrined under Section 38 of the Malawi Constitution so it should be no crime to even contemplate organizing one (as indeed is happening with the Monday demonstration organized by HRCC and others). To his credit, Blessings, is taking a more philosophical and reflective approach to this sad episode. I can only hope this does not silence him and other critics who courageously speak in defence of Malawi's hard-won democracy.
Even after being summoned by the Police, Blessings Chisinga, did not succumb to intimidation. He wrote a guest post about the poverty of ideas:
Ideas are at the heart of progress in any sphere of endeavour. Without ideas, the world would virtually come to a standstill. However, ideas have to be competitive in order to steer progress. Any attempt to ‘monotholize’ ideas is disastrous. Even at an individual level, such an attempt can only result in stagnation, if not retrogression.
This reminds me of what one of our Reverends at Zomba CCAP used to say in most of his sermons and I quote “each individual is a walking civil war”. In other words, an individual is a bundle of contradictions which in the final analysis in an epitome of progress. To sin or not sin, one engages in some kind of debate. Rarely is sin not a product of rather protracted debates in our minds.
Ideas are particularly powerful in the world of politics. The evolution of political systems from monarchies through autocracies to democracies is a product of an open contestation of ideas.
University lecturers demanded an apology from the Inspector General of Polics. The Inspector General of Police (IG), Pater Mukhito, refused to apologize to the lecturers and assure them of academic freedom. The issue was further amplified when Mukhito's boss who also happens to be the Chancellor of the University of Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika advised the IG not to apologize. Instead he ordered the lecturers back to the lecture rooms.
In a twist of events, through injuctions, the courts have been the saving ground for the university community while other colleges joined the protests in solidarity with the Chancellor College academic staff.
Recently the international community has not only condemned the action by the university authorities but also called for academic freedom in Malawi. This included students from Martin Luther University in Germany. Meanwhile many other academic institutions have issued a rallying call for support towards academic freedom in Malawi.
While most bloggers seem to support the academic staff, one Mzati Nkoloksa has a different view:
National development is like nature, like a basket of items. There is education, which Professor Chinsinga offers. There is national security which Mr. Mukhito is performing. There is agriculture, which most of us are doing. No single item is more important than the other because we are all working towards national development.
If one element in our national development basket says it cannot listen to anyone, it can speak only, we have a challenge to overcome. Those of us teaching in the universities should begin to accept that we are one part of national development and we need to remain in dialogue: we need to speak and listen, not just speak.
The story about the academic freedom has put President Mutharika is some bad light with the academic community with some likening his reign to the days of Malawi's first president Kamuzu Banda when lecturers were arrested or forced to leave the country for making statements that did not please the government.
Just like what Dulani wrote in conclusion on 12 February, the university community has refused to keep silent and now it might be the government that may have to listen and obey. Dulani says, “…we will not be silenced”:
In my view, the lecture room is the academic's sanctum – one needs to be free to speak and provide concrete, relevant and contemporary examples – preferably local ones – without the fear of being summoned bto appear before the Police. I have to say that inspite his ineptitude, the former President, Bakili Muluzi never resorted to such grotesque tactics to silence us. And we will not be silenced.