Dealing with Malawi

2011-08-02 00:00

A WEEK ago, 19 Malawian protesters were killed in a confrontation between protesters and Malawian armed forces sent to suppress uprisings sparked by fuel and food shortages in this highly indebted country. In a country that has not experienced serious violent conflict before, this was a tragedy.

Donor countries have cut off aid and started calling for President Bingu wa Mutharika to account for the deaths and violence. South Africa has called for res­traint and a political dialogue. How do we explain this difference in approach to the carnage in Malawi? Is it about the oft-stated dictum that the West is intolerant of human rights abuse, while Africa and South Africa are reluctant to hold African dictators to account?

It is certainly much more complex than this, yet this continues to be the dominant way in which different responses by African states and Western states on African crises are described. There is an underlying assumption that states are motivated by values. In this regard, the values that underpin foreign policy stances of Western states are generally those of protection and promotion of human rights, good governance and democracy. On the other hand, the values that African states act on are mainly solidarity among leaders to insulate each other from being held accountable for violations of human rights.

The moral superiority of the West is thus assumed as a fact. The West is assumed to be correct in its responses to objectionable occurrences in Africa. This is how recent public debates assess the West's responses to crises in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire and Libya. For this reason, further actions by Western nations, including the unilateral imposition of sanctions, military action, support for rebels and megaphone diplomacy, are seen as justifiable means to a noble end. Criticism of excesses and warnings about dire unintended consequences are summarily dismissed or excluded from public discourses.

By the same token, African states' actions, when they do not follow the Western nations' stances, are deemed automatically to be a collusion between evil-doers. Hence, the predictable push for diplomatic and political solutions involving lengthy negotiations and dialogue is seen as a ploy to help culprits escape scrutiny and justice. The outcomes of the African response, which often includes an inclusive political agreement, a transitional government of national unity and a restorative justice mechanism like a truth commission, are also viewed with suspicion. For this reason, the unity government in Zimbabwe has not received the necessary support. It may fail due to this and such failure would be used as evidence of the moral deficit of the African approach.

In Malawi, problems started a while ago. In fact, after his election in 2004, Wa Mutharika's dictatorial tendencies undermined his party's cohesion, leading to his expulsion. He formed his own Democratic Progress Party through which he won a second presidential term in 2009 with strong Western backing due to his public embrace of neoliberal economic policies. Since then, he has isolated opponents within and outside his party as he prepares the way for his younger brother to win the next presidential elections in 2014. In the process, allegations of human-rights violations, the muzzling of the media and harassment of opponents have increased.

So, the fuel and food shortages only acted as sparks for the explosion of public anger. No wonder the protests have raised issues about the state of Malawian democracy. The demands include a change of leadership and the strengthening of democracy. Wa Mutharika has confirmed the allegations about his dictatorial behaviour by sending troops to shoot at protesters.

The West suddenly wants to wash its hands of him. It has cut off lots of aid and will most probably take the government down as its meagre economy collapses. The aim now is to see a force among protesters that might take over after an engineered regime change.

Africans worry that such a move does not build a democracy, but may lead to the rise of another Wa Mutharika, a dictator wearing democratic garb for purposes of assuming power. They prefer an inclusive political dialogue through which all those who are interested in rebuilding Malawian democracy would find space. While they should have started this before Western intervention, it is important to note the commitment to home-grown democracy.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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