BLANTYRE, Malawi—A court in Malawi blocked activists protesting the results of the presidential election, which took place earlier this year, from shutting down airports and the country’s land borders for five days.
The Malawi Supreme Court on Aug. 27 also banned the group from holding any protests for 14 days, during which time, they must meet with government officials to discuss alleged violence during protests that have affected the country for months.
Since the electoral body announced the results in May, tens of thousands of people have protested against alleged mismanagement of the voting, with the results rigged in favor of the incumbent president.
The opposition has said the use of correction fluid to alter the results, the alleged intimidation of opposition election monitors, and the incorrect reconciliation of the votes were some methods that the government used to “fraudulently” alter the outcome. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court is hearing the case.
With 38.5 percent of the votes, former law professor Peter Mutharika, 78, was declared winner in the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system, ahead of former Baptist preacher and now opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera, who drew 35.4 percent of the votes.
Saulos Chilima, who was Mutharika’s vice president but later established a new party to challenge his former boss, got 20.3 percent of the votes.
Reacting to the news of the planned border and airports demonstrations, President Mutharika on Aug. 21 ordered the security forces to crack down on those planning to take part using “all the necessary force.”
“Without borders, there is no Malawi. Undermining our borders is undermining the very existence and sovereignty of our country. Invading borders is the greatest threat anyone can pose upon our country. I will, therefore, have no choice but to take all measures necessary to ensure and protect the sovereignty and integrity of our nation,” Mutharika said during a speech, according to a transcript published by the Maravi Post.
“As the commander-in-chief, I am directing the MDF [Malawi Defense Force] and the police to protect our borders and airports with all the necessary force to ensure that the integrity of our borders is not compromised even for a single minute.”
On Aug. 23, the High Court granted an injunction to the county’s revenue authority that restricts people from protesting at the borders and airports, saying that doing so would jeopardize the economy.
In response, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), a group of several rights activists in the country, said they would hold three days of mass protests beginning Aug. 28.
The Malawi government issued a statement on Aug. 27 saying it has stopped granting permission for all demonstrations in the country, as “all the recent demonstrations have turned out to be riotous despite assurances by the organizers they would be peaceful.”
“Government is convinced that conveners of these demonstrations deliberately abuse the right to demonstrate to achieve other ulterior agendas,” Mark Botomani, minister of information, civic education, and communications technology, said in the statement.
In a press conference held Aug. 26 and aired on local broadcaster Times Television, officials from HRDC said they are doing everything possible to hold demonstrations at the borders and the airports despite the threats from the government.
“What is so painful is that people are using our own taxes to pay lawyers who are working on the injunctions at the court. They cannot say let us discuss yet another branch of the government is going to the court,” said Timothy Mtambo, chairperson for the group.
“We were supposed to shut down airports and border posts [but] people who pretend to love this country have gone to court to stop citizens from exercising their rights,” said Mtambo, who is also the executive director for Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a local charity.
“We’re saddened that government has declared war on its citizens … even the president threatened the citizens. That is an unconstitutional decree to ask men in uniform to attack people. We are peaceful citizens, we are not armed.”
Mtambo said that “no amount of threats” will stop the people from seeking accountability and transparency, adding that they postponed the protests because of their respect for the court orders.
Recently, the UK government issued a foreign travel advice notice to its nationals who are in the southeastern African nation about the demonstrations.
“If you’re in Malawi, avoid large crowds or demonstrations, monitor this travel advice and local media for updates and keep any local and international travel plans under review,” read the statement in part.
In mid-August, the residence of the leading human rights activist was petrol-bombed, an action believed to be linked to his role in organizing the mass protests. A week earlier, an office belonging to the vice leader of the opposition was also attacked.
The arson attack was directed at Mtambo’s car and inside the compound of his house, resulting in damage to the car; no injuries were reported. The human rights activists say they believe the attacks were carried out by people belonging to the ruling party.
The government is meanwhile accusing the human rights activists of looting and damage during the previous protests, saying the cost, which runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars, should be borne by the activists.
Legal experts have previously said that demonstrating is a constitutional right, and people only need to notify the police and city councils.