Malawi: Confusion and Uncertainty Over August 17 Vigil

With hours to go before August 17, 2011, the day set aside for follow-up nation-wide demonstrations in Malawi, a cloud of uncertainty hovers over the country. Two different teams of organizers have given contradicting statements about the day, one team announcing a postponement, another team indicating they are going ahead. Online reactions range from relief to frustration, confusion to defiance.

The organizers of the 20 July demonstrations had given President Bingu wa Mutharika a deadline by which to answer their petition, after which they would take to the streets again. On Sunday, President wa Mutharika addressed the nation, discussing some of the issues raised in the petition.

The organizers met on the same day and announced that they had resolved to go ahead with the demonstrations because the president had not fully addressed the issues. On Tuesday morning, the organizers decided to postpone the demonstrations citing two reasons: there was a court injunction against the demonstrations and the UN Secretary General had sent emissaries to help mediate the situation.

Protest advertisement. Photo source: Rafiq Hajat Facebook page.

Protest advertisement. Photo source: Rafiq Hajat Facebook page.

By noon, a lunch hour news bulletin from Zodiak Broadcasting Station was quoting a Blantyre-based organizer, Rafiq Hajat, as contradicting the announcement of the postponement. Hajat was said to have indicated that Blantyre-based civil society organizations were in a meeting, and would make their own decision as to whether to proceed with the vigil or postpone it.

The president has spent the past two weeks talking to street vendors in the major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, pleading with them not to participate in the August 17 demonstrations. There were reports on Tuesday morning that the police were snatching copies of one of the dailies, carrying the news of MHRC report.

Fred Bvalani mentioned this in a tweet, quoting a post from Facebook:

I understand the police are going around Blantyre confiscating the ‘Nation’ newspaper via @daniso

On my timeline, the first suggestion that the vigil had been postponed appeared on the discussion forum Nyasanet at 8.44am Malawi time. It said:

Netters The rumour in town is that the vigil has been cancelled. Will update as soon as I get any more substantive updates.

It took 20 minutes for somebody to respond, not hiding their irritation:

Please come on the forum with concrete positions that rumours. I find this not only disturbing but morally wrong. Thanks

The original poster came back with a two-sentence response:

The reasons being given is that the police can not handle the demos because of their incapacitation in terms of handling riots. They say they will be tempted to use live bullets in the event that people go berserk

It became apparent that the postponement was not a rumour anymore when someone posted on Malawi Talk, another discussion forum, and reported that Zodiak Broadcasting Station were airing a live press conference from the Lilongwe organisers. One of the organizers posted an announcement on their Facebook wall, pleading with the public for their understanding:

Painfully, it is indeed true that we have POSTPONED – Not CANCELLED, the 17th and 18th August Virgil. full statement within the next 2 Hours. Your understanding will highly be appreciated at this time. Pepani fellow Malawians- we had to make a decision having weighed all situations- Pepani, we plead for your acceptance- It would have been worse and unstoppable!!! Pepani!!

The reaction on Facebook and Twitter was fast and furious. Someone asked one of the organizers on their Facebook wall:

tell us the truth Mr Hajat whats on the ground????????????

That question elicited a few responses which did not hide the frustrations, making allusions to whether the civil society leaders had sold out:

it shows that money has worked in tha elders pockets

That same person later added:

i cant wait they just fooled us ,,,,not us but themselves,,,ope we will hav forex 2moro

More reactions came on the same wall:

i read ur articles daily and thot u wre a genius!!
am speakng to u as part v e civil society…o rather a branch of corupt greedy selfish political men!

Another one added:

We thot cso were on our side. Nw w r hearing alot of stories on hw u hav bin gvn money 2 call off the demos!

Some frustrations were as a result of an aborted holiday:

we already declared holiday tomorow what should we do now

Other netizens didn't think much about the selling out suggestion. It would not be that easy for government to pay off the organizers, observed one netizen:

Even thou am disappointed with the cancellation but i still have a some trust and faith in CSO group. Lets see if the dialogue works and if it doesn't no one should blame the CSO for not trying of not going into talks. I think this can be the last strategy which Govt can use. I don't think they have given any money, they are not that weak. If it was one that would have been possible but a group i doubt. Am still behind you and people don't lose trust on the CSO group

A more reflective response came from a women's rights activist and attorney, Seodi,who wrote:

Im a little bit sad and a little bit relieved about cancelled demos. But Im also a little wiser; lives were lost on 20th July. Having just come back from Liberia, I took time to discuss with colleagues there about their war which started with demos. Many told me it wasnt worth it and that the best way to hold leaders accountable is through the ballot. I salute the civil society leadership for such bravery. Heros to many; foes to a few. It doesnt matter. The truth shall set us all free.

Another Malawian, Daniso, wondered why there were no alternative means of demonstrating being suggested:

If the vigil has been postponed (even before the injunction has been granted), can't we be doing something in the interim? Why can't we at specified times of each day be honking our horns, blowing our vuvuzelas and whistles, banking our pots and pans, ringing our church bells and otherwise making noise until the fruits of dialogue start bearing fruit?

On Twitter, a few Malawians were monitoring the live radio press conference, and tweeting it live. Austin Madinga quoted Undule Mwakasungura, one of the organizers:

#Malawi protests postponed to give a chance to dialogue facilitated by the UN who are in country currently, meeting Govt at 11am – Undule

Fred Bvalani confirmed:

17 August Vigil Postponed. …Live press briefing airing now on Zodiak.

Twitter reactions expressed similar frustrations as those on Facebook. Madalitso Mvula tweeted:

People in Mzimba wil go on with the demo, not vigil. Injunction, or no injunction. #redarmy angered in the North.

The person who had broken the news of the postponement on Nyasatimes came back in the afternoon to report that Blantyre-based civil society leaders had announced they would go ahead with the vigil:

Blantyre CSOs say tomorrow's vigil is still on because they were not consulted on the postponement. I believe we are going to hear a lot from these CSOs. Guess there is something fishy in all this.

Face of Malawi made an observation as to why the demonstrations were likely to go on, come Wednesday:

One thing press/media people forget is that the average Malawian has no internet, tv or radio. In his mind #17august is a go. #Malawi

As of now, it appears the news of the postponement has not done much to calm people's anxieties. It remains unclear what Wednesday August 17 will bring. Earlier on Tuesday, President Bingu wa Mutharika and religious leaders attended a National Day of Prayer. The sermon, delivered by Bishop Joseph Zuza attracted a lot of attention and reaction onFacebook and in online newspapers.

UPDATE: Tuesday August 16, 2011 – Evening news bulletins are now announcing that both groups of organizers have agreed on a postponement.

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