The impossible is becoming a reality in Malawi, the unthinkable has become a fact. Sanctioned and supervised by the country’s police service, methodical violence, unjustifiable repression, and systematic promotion of hooliganism and thuggery is becoming entrenched in a country where after the democratic dispensation in 1994, it was least likely to do so. Nothing is so opposed to modern Malawian culture.
At the dawn of democracy, speech, contact and dialogue were still circulating freely in the streets as the light and blood of communication. Today, blood is flowing in highways and police cellars where so many men and women have fallen without knowing why: repression and sanctioned hooliganism are imposing fear and dumb and terrifying rumours.
Yesterday, the intelligence, subtlety and the manifold resources of human relationships were enough to solve or cope with our problems. Today, relationships are shattered by the suppression of all discussion. It appears the police are now only at the service of those that praise and benefit from the regime.
This police brutality seems to be taking some Malawians by surprise, in the way in which horror suddenly strikes out of a morning sky which seemed to be dawning like any other. Brutality strikes them before they have time to realize that it was possible. And the police may be maiming for a very long time a sort of national Malawian genius in the way in which they are also maiming Malawi’s economic and social future. But perhaps it needs not come as a surprise to those that have been observing the country’s descent into governance oblivion. Malawi has for so long now been dancing with danger in the form of uncontrolled tribalism and patronage, and it was only a matter of time before this dangerous dance partner began to show his true colours.
For so long now, we as a people have been encouraging the idea of placing tribe and district of origin in a place of importance among our politics and governance to the effect that now it has taken centre stage. What we are seeing in the responses to the current governance and political crisis is a direct result of people identifying themselves as Lhomwe, or Chewa, or Ngoni first before identifying themselves as Malawians.
Furthermore, the country is now at a stage where its political or legal framework, indeed its entire governance framework can no longer be relied upon to serve or save it from a descent into chaos. It is time to re-consider and perhaps draw inspiration from other lands where such crises have occurred.
In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful protest and prayer in the People Power movement. The Marcos regime folded on the fourth day.
In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands.
Earlier this year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance.
In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.
There are, of course, many ethical reasons to use nonviolent strategies. Compelling research now confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way. Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, researchers have found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, it has been shown that it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.
The dynamic process of conflict, in which protest becomes revolutionary, involves a sequence of patterned encounters between growing social forces and the power of the state. In order for change through people power to take place, however, it is important to bear in mind that protest at first does not usually make an exclusive claim to the state, and thus rarely develops into a revolutionary situation. In the beginning it may appear as legitimate opposition to the authority by a small group of people. Protest becomes illegitimate and thus revolutionary when the authority interprets its demands as a threat and a challenge to its monopoly of power. The conflict between protesters and authorities becomes revolutionary when sovereignty – the state’s absolute monopoly on coercive force and the right to exercise that force – is increasingly challenged and rendered ineffective. Meanwhile the choices available to challengers and authority become more and more limited, excluding the options of conciliation and negotiation, while the political conflict becomes more and more unlimited.
Waves of protest can grow rapidly; they may become revolutionary in response to violent coercion as defiance against authority develops into massive demand for institutional change. Claims can escalate into more basic demands, and the basis of support also can expand through waves of protest. Such forces of political upheaval can produce a transfer of power, including a change of leadership and regime.
A regime becomes weak when the relationship between norms, principles, and rules appears to be increasingly incoherent and contradictory, or when actual practice becomes increasingly inconsistent with the principles and norms. It becomes weaker and may even fall if the challenge to the ruling elites is supported by not only a substantial segment of the citizens but also by some of the ruling elites, and if the authority becomes unable or unwilling to suppress this challenge. Regime change is a change in the principles and norms that govern the rules and procedures.
There are politicians in our midst who are currently locked in a legal challenge of the May presidential election results. The essence of this article is a message to these politicians to realise that the political future of Malawi cannot and should not be left at the mercy of a governance system upon which the executive seems to have absolute and unlimited power. It is important to realise that as the nation descends into chaos, as the police are set upon their own citizens to exercise violence and protect ruling party cadets, the court case may not necessarily deliver as you hope, and that revolution may be the only way. It is important for you therefore to support the protests. Make no mistake about it, my fellow Malawians. The protests are a more promising channel for change.