Treason charges against Malawian opposition leaders reveal that old political tricks die hard

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As the politically charged dust settles over a largely unimpressed Malawi that is being taken for granted by its president, it is time to revisit the matters that have dominated, captivated and yes, even confounded Malawi and her observers in the past week.

Following largely political and emotional rather than legal opinions from ruling party sympathisers, the Malawian taxpayer once again had no choice but to look in despair as President Joyce Banda ignored the advice of her government’s legal experts and foolishly laid yet again the foundations for yet another day of large government compensation pay-outs. Clearly, the president’s obsession with 2014 elections, and her hell-bent desire to silence and eliminate her opponents long before the ballot day arrives knows no bounds.

As well written as the Singini report may be, there is a lot that is missing in the report to support criminal convictions. There is even less basis to support the idea of arresting of only certain individuals and not others if any arrests are deemed appropriate at all. In the government’s analysis, there is no justification in the report for charging former minister of justice, Ephraim Mganda Chiume with treason. It should therefore follow that there is certainly no justification for charging anyone else with treason. These then are simply political arrests for imaginary offences based on conjecture and the popular emotion of a largely politically partisan crowd rather than offences based in law and legal process. This is the reason the legal experts at capital hill advised the president that there were no offences and no basis to arrest anyone.

But President Joyce Banda prides herself for being an accomplished guerrilla politician and would have it no other way than to use the report to effect a political blow at the opposition.
And so although there are more pressing non-political matters and recommendations made in the report that are very important and need to be addressed with urgency by the government, now that money and power have gone to her head, President Joyce Banda focuses only on the political capital that the report may provide and which will consolidate her power.

Those that have read the report with the objectivity and the care it deserves will have to agree that the political crisis that is discussed in the report exposes an urgent need for the Malawian constitution to be reviewed to ensure that such controversies do not even arise in similar situations in the future. As the Inquiry Report pointed out, the death on a president while in office was an unprecedented even in Malawian history and everything that happened reflected the fact that the nation and the government had never before considered that that such an even could occur. Even the President herself, who was then vice president, behaved tentatively and was almost complicit in some of the matters that would be considered as constituting an offence. Such was the bewilderment and the tenseness that was caused by the death of President Mutharika.

The report also recommends some important steps to be taken with regard to the medical care afforded to presidents and top-level government officials. The logical expectation was an immediate announcement from the government that to avoid the kind of tragedy that befell Bingu to befall any other sitting president in the future, government would do all in its power to build a state of the art military hospital as recommended by the report.

It is rather disappointing, although not surprising, that the very first thing the Joyce Banda government has focused on as far as the report is concerned is the political content. To the Mandasi-seller-and-proud president, this was always the main interest in instituting the commission of inquiry, not to prevent the public and medical tragedy exposed in the report from re-occurring in the future.

The fact that Joyce Banda here wants to hide behind the legal system while silencing political opponents is re-enforced by the behavior of the government prosecution team after the arrests. The fact that the charges proffered when the politicians were arrested and those that they were actually charged with during trial are completely different is a strong indicator of the turmoil and uncertainty in the government ranks regarding the matter. Additionally, it is quite telling that the government dillied this way and dallied that way, ensuring maximum persecution of those arrested by forcing them to spend three unnecessary nights in prison cells. Emotional statements by uninformed individuals advocating the denial of bail apparently because of the seriousness of the charges need to be seen in the context of those making them and be decidedly ignored.

Although it is possible in some very exceptional cases, for a person to be placed under house arrest before trial as was argued by the prosecution, with restrictions on who they can associate with; this is usually done in authoritarian states and almost always as a political tactic to silence political opponents. The practice has led to international criticism that this type of detention breaches the suspect’s human rights and should have no place in modern Malawian politics. What is clear is that the Joyce Banda government tried to implement this internationally deplorable and politically motivated tactic to stifle dissent and reign in political challengers. The fact that it was done in previous regimes is no justification for it to be done now, if this government continues to claim that it is different from its predecessors.

Critical observers need to be reminded, however, that in the excitement brought about by political arrests, dubious treason charges and bail applications, it should still be remembered that the prices of fuel, sugar and of a bag maize have continued to rise. Malawians are still dying in hospitals because of lack of medicines and drugs, and the economic situation in the country continues to worsen.

President Joyce Banda has prioritized political arrests, which couldn’t matter less to Malawians suffering under the yoke of her cluelessness, instead of directing her energies to resolving the country’s economic hardships. As important as the course of justice may be to have it run its course, Malawians cannot eat selfish political arrests that are unlikely to end in convictions. It becomes clear then, that when it is a matter of her political mandate being put to question such as the case of her own resignation letter, which she later rescinded, Joyce Banda will act decisively and offer millions to those that will assist her rectify the situation and bring the phantom “forger” to book. When it is a matter of securing her political future by old tactics such as imprisoning political rivals to effect electoral disadvantage, Joyce Banda will demand swift action, even against the advice of experts telling her that the case has no merit whatsoever.

In the final analysis, the treason case against opposition leaders in Malawi is Joyce Banda’s weak and feeble attempt to divert people’s attention from her desperate loss of focus and direction and her failure to respond effectively to the economic suffering she has brought upon Malawians because of her ill-advised policies. These arrests demonstrate that in Africa, old political tricks of simply silencing your political opponents are still alive and well.

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