Who protests? Apparently no one…

Well, the protest study is no more. The protests were planned for August 17 about a month ago, and up until the 16th everything was a go. The civil society organizers had decided to hold a 48 hour vigil instead of march in the four largest cities in Malawi.

Our study began on August 15th, as planned, and our team conducted 300 interviews in three cities on the 15th and 16th. In the late morning of the 16th, we got word that the civil society organizers were canceling the vigils. Because the papers had already been printed that day, word of the cancellation spread by radio and word of mouth.

On the morning of the 17th, we decided to send the teams to the vigil meeting points, in case Malawians took it upon themselves to take to the streets, with or without “civil society.” They did not – the cities were eerily quite, with most shop owners having removed all their merchandise, boarded up their stores, and left town. From what our teams reported, the only people moving about were the police and the military.

The civil society organizers gave two reasons for the cancellation (or, postponement, it’s not clear). First, a private citizen had petitioned the high court in Blantyre to issue an injunction against the protests, and the organizers claimed that they want to see the results of the case. This same practice is what had led to so much confusion on July 20th, when an injunction against protests was granted but later struck down. The injunction against the August 17th protests was not granted, and this was known by the late afternoon of the 16th. Second, a UN envoy arrived and the country, and the organizers decided to give discussion with government, moderated by the UN, a chance.

Rumors were circulating that in fact the organizers were bought off, or that they were told they would be held legally liable for any damage to property during the protests/vigils. But, today’s paper gave a different “real reason the vigils were cancelled”. Apparently, on the 14th and 15th, top police officials met with the civil society organizers and informed them that the country had run out of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. They warned the organizers that if vigils took place, and there was any violence or looting, that they would have to option but to fire live ammunition at civilians.

I don’t know what I believe. If the last reason is indeed the true one, then I am relieved that no one was hurt or killed by taking to the streets. If the organizers believe that the government is truly ready to negotiate, then again I am glad they called it off.

What I can say is that the government does not deliver on some of the demands made on July 20th, then I am afraid that civil society will have lost their leadership with the people. The one round of data collection that we did get to complete suggests that people were ready to take the streets. Having the protests called off in the eleventh hour, without any concessions from the government, will make people less likely to trust the organizers if they try to mobilize again.

In sum, I was slightly relieved that no protests occurred (though, the Chancellor College students did protest and did get teargassed on the 18th, while protesting the firing of four lecturers and the de facto closing of the university). But mostly I am disappointed. Of course, because the amazing research opportunity has slipped away, but also because I feel like, once again, the “power of the people” to stand up to unresponsive government has been shown to be weak and fleeting.

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