CIVICUS Interview with Billy Mayaya

Billy Mayaya, Programme Manager, Church and Society (CCAP Nkohma Synod), the human Rights and advocacy department of the Presbyterian Church in Malawi spoke to CIVICUS about the current political situation in the country and the targeted threats  civil society members. Billy is also the Chairperson of the Civil and Political Rights Committee of the Malawi Human Rights Commission and Board Member of the Human Rights Consultative Committee

The environment for civil society in Malawi appears to be deteriorating for the past few months. Could you tell us a little bit about the current situation and your recent arrest with four other colleagues?
There is an incremental movement towards shrinking civil society space in Malawi, the dynamics of which were prompted by the current ruling party’s landslide victory in 2009. The Democratic Progressive Party viewed this as licence to rule without the consensus of the people that voted them into power for a second term. Concerned with the increasing levels of impunity, civil society as a collective began to demand transparency,accountability and observance of the rule of law. In response, the position of government was to maintain a more hard-line approach. This was evidenced by the level of vitriol directed to civil society concerns. Civil society organisations and select individuals were publicly targeted at presidential functions as being agents of foreign governments bent on damaging Malawi's profile abroad. Civil society organisations were branded a security risk and threatened with deregistration. As a response, the Government has enacted legislation meant to further shrink the space for civil society. Chief among these is the NGO Act 2000 which cautions NGO not to engage in political activities a veiled reference to advocacy.

Currently, the political and economic situation is worsening by the day. Fuel and forex shortages are negatively affecting Malawi’s already fragile socio-political status. Civil servants spend months on end without being paid. Local government elections have not been held since the year 2000 thus depriving ordinary citizens of their right to develop at the local level. Civil society drew a 20 point petition demanding among other things that the President explain his ill gotten wealth and desalarise the First Lady’s salary of 10000 dollars a month for charitable work. If these issues were not addressed, we warned that we would organise nationwide demonstrations to show our displeasure. In July, peaceful demonstrations were held. The government responded by shooting 20 people dead. We condemned this act of wanton savagery in the strongest terms and insisted that we would not be deterred to hold more demonstrations until the demands in the petition were adequately addressed.

We saw an opportunity to demonstrate at the COMESA Heads of State meeting which was to be held in Lilongwe in mid October. On the day of our arrest, we carried a banner that read NO TO DICACTORSHIP! WE DEMAND GOOD POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC GOVERNANCE! BINGU IS A DICTATOR! We were also nauseated by the presence of President Omar al Bashir of North Sudan, currently wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur. After demonstrating, we were promptly arrested by undercover police and denied police bail, which is guaranteed by Malawi’s Republican Constitution after 48 hours. We were kept in custody for six days. After a court appearance, we were charged with conducting an illegal demonstration as well as sedition. We are currently out on bail and will appear in court on the 25 November 2011.

How are civil society members coping with the onslaught to protect themselves from harm?
Civil society remains extremely concerned with the verbal and physical attacks on its members. Some have had their offices torched; others have had their house petrol bombed. A university student Robert Chasowa was hacked to death over his activism. Threats from anonymous callers are the order of the day. We have reported our concerns to the police. To say that we are in a state of panic and apprehension is an understatement. We are trying our best to control our movements as well as those of our colleagues as well as family members.

How can the political impasse in the country be resolved?

The observance of the rule of law and commitment by the government to the constitutional order is certainly key to resolving the political impasse. In addition, Malawi cannot ignore the important role development partners play in forging the country’s political and economic agenda. Lastly, civil society have a complementary role to play in consolidating Malawi’s hard won democracy and thus impeding their role by closing the space in which CSOs operate will only serve to exacerbate the impasse. The watchdog role of civil society must be viewed in a positive light.

What should African and international civil society be doing to support colleagues in Malawi?
There is need for our African counterparts to show solidarity by exerting pressure on the Malawi government to commit to international protocols, regional governance instruments and more importantly the local constitutional frameworks. We are heartened by the Annual Civil Society Space reporting being spearheaded by CIVICUS but this must be coupled by a campaign to name and shame governments that enact retrogressive legislation that puts a stranglehold on civil society actors. In Malawi, the NGO Act and the Police Act are cases in point which must be legally challenged. There is need to move towards greater collaboration and monitoring of civil society in Malawi as a way of building capacity in awareness raising techniques on the plight currently facing CSOs. In the long term, at the international level, it is time to lobby for the creation of the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Civil Society and in the short term there is need to provide support to Human Rights Defenders so that they continue to work in an enabling environment.