Malawi Northern Region MapCentre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and Centre for Development of People (Cedep) have learnt with great shock the government’s decision [through the district commissioner ] to “bar” a certain local grouping called Karonga Youth for Justice and Development from holding a demonstration citing the reasons behind such demonstrations as being invalid.

The grouping is said to have submitted a notification letter to the district commissioner of their planned demonstrations in favour of federalism scheduled for 28th September 2014. We at CHRR and CEDEP view such a decision as not only retrogressive but also a complete departure from the democratic path which Malawians chose to pursue since 1993. Such decisions are clearly a reminiscent of the old DPP which used to derive satisfaction on tramping on the citizens’ freedoms of assembly and expression as evident in the build-up and during the July 20 demonstrations. The new DPP should seriously guard against this.

 

The right to hold peaceful demonstration, freedom of assembly and expression are clearly spelt out in both the Republican constitution under the bill of rights chapter 4 as well as in other prominent international human rights instruments which Malawi is party to including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). As such, it is incumbent upon the government let alone any government official to embrace such fundamental human rights and freedom, and vigilantly work towards the protection and promotion of such.

Determination of the validity of issues or reasons behind one’s proposed demonstration should never be used as a scapegoat to bar the citizens from freely and peacefully exercising such fundamental freedom. It’s up to the government and the general public to appreciate the validity of such after the concerned groupings have presented their petitions through a peaceful demonstration, as amongst several other existing ways they would consider employing in order to bring their grievances to the attention of those in authority and the general public.

After all the very determination of what is valid or not is subjective – especially in a Malawi context where there is no clear legal framework informing such determinations. Such determinations have hence been at the discretion of a few politicians, government officials who have often abused such “privilege” by amongst other things standing in the way of any demonstration proposal which is perceived to be in conflict with their perceived self-interests. It is therefore in this regard that we at CHRR and Cedep fault government’s decision [through the district commissioner] to shoot down the Karonga demonstrations premised on the “invalidity” of the reasons behind the proposed demonstrations.

We at CHRR and Cedep are further concerned with and surprised by government’s perennial tactic of mobilising traditional leaders to suppress any calls for federalism – as observed recently. While it is government’s obligation to foster unity in the country, the recent government meetings with chiefs have only managed to sow seeds of suspicion in the public about their government. Why is government rushing into “manipulating” chiefs to oppose the pro-federalism movement? Why is it that government is not willing to allow the public to soberly debate over the matter towards an informed decision on the matter – and instead it has opted for the “demonization” of the system [through chiefs] as one way of silencing the proponents of the system? We at CHRR and Cedep strongly believe that the Malawi government, just like any democratic government, has the obligation to provide a conducive environment for its citizens to freely, soberly and rationally engage with each other on various matters or issues of national concern, and the current debate on federalism is no exception.

Government should ensure that both the proponents and opponents of federalism enjoy the freedom of expression on the matter, and where they find it necessary, depending on need, should be allowed to demonstrate freely and peacefully. Government should refrain from taking steps which would be viewed as targeting one group or the other.

It is only through the provision of a conducive platform for constructive public engagement on the matter that the public can be well-informed about the merits and demerits of federalism, and in turn explore as to whether federal system provides a better alternative to the current system or not in as far as fostering national development is concerned. Government should strive to ensure that its citizens’ overall position on the matter should be informed by facts about the proposed system rather than speculation, distortion of facts deliberately aimed at manipulating the minds of the populace. The debate on federalism should be put in its right framework where it leans more on the administrative aspects than on the tribal or regionalist concerns [ as is the case in the current debate] with the public examining as to whether such devolving of powers can best facilitate effective management of public resources and in turn foster national development or not.

In the same breath, we at CHRR and Cedep, as indicated in our joint 100 days assessment of President Peter Mutharika in office, the Malawi government to go beyond preaching the gospel of national unity, as a reaction to federalism calls, to examining the root cause behind such calls and exploring viable policy alternatives and best practices the government can implement as a post-100 days agenda to enhance national unity, development and enhance “equitable distribution of development” across the country in the best interest of all Malawians. Instead of concentrating on its perennial tactic of using chiefs to combat the pro-federalism movement, government of Malawi should further do some soul searching as to why such calls for federalism are becoming more louder now than ever before at a period where the country is just coming from a controversial election and from cabinet and public appointments characterised by nepotism. Why now? All this calls for a critical, sober reflection on the matter not only on the part of government but also the entire country.

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