Malawi’s president has lashed out at anti-government demonstrators as two days of protests have left at least 10 people dead in unprecedented levels of unrest in the southern African country.
Reports from Agence France-Presse have put the number of deaths at 18.
Hospital officials and activists said on Thursday the victims had been shot with live ammunition, and that at least 44 others in the northern city of Mzuzu alone were being treated for gunshot wounds.
President Bingu wa Mutharika vowed to “ensure peace using any measure I can think of” as protesters gathered for a second day in the impoverished state roiled by fuel shortages and price hikes.
“If you break shops and banks will you have fuel? You demonstrated yesterday and throughout the night until today, but is there fuel today because of the demonstrations?” he asked.
“I think God will do something to help us, will bless us, because these people are not being led by God, they are being led by Satan,” the president said.
Dying at the ‘hands of police’
Mutharika first came to power in a 2004 election, and he was re-elected in May 2009. The state has enjoyed relative peace and stability in the past decade but tensions have been growing this year over worsening fuel shortages. High unemployment alongside a deteriorating economic situation also threaten to reverse development gains made in the early years of Mutharika’s presidency.
On Wednesday, protesters attacked businesses belonging to the president’s political allies. Looters in the capital of Lilongwe had targeted shops belonging to ruling party officials, witnesses said.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said eight journalists were beaten by police during Wednesday’s protests, and a female radio reporter was seriously wounded.
Amnesty researcher Simeon Mawanza said the president’s regime is becoming increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices.
“The tension there won’t die down just because of yesterday’s events,” he said. “It could intensify, as people died at the hands of police.”
The situation was tense but calm on Thursday amid a heavy military and police deployment on the streets in the country’s two main cities.
Tim Hughes, a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the unrest is wholly uncharacteristic of Malawi.
“Certainly since democracy in 1994 — while there’s been sporadic outbursts of inter-party violence — there’s never been a violent protest like this on the streets,” he said.
“This form of public protest, taking on the state, expressing this degree of frustration — it’s a new phenomenon,” he said.
Hughes believes the wave of protests is spurred by a sharp decline in the Malawian economy.
“Global factors have kicked in,” he said. “The country is now running short of scarce foreign exchange, and imports such as fuel are limited.”
Foreign donors are also now becoming sceptical and cautious of a possible democratic reversal in the country, resulting in the severing of diplomatic ties, and a cut back in aid, Hughes added.
Former ruler Britain already has indefinitely suspended aid to the country, citing concerns about economic management and a crackdown on human rights.
On Thursday, Britain’s Minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, said the situation was “worrying” and appealed to Mutharika to rein in security forces and loyalists.
“The ongoing violence and reprisals by elements connected to President Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party underline the concern that the UK has expressed about the state of democratic governance and human rights in Malawi,” he said in a statement. “The rights of free assembly and expression guaranteed under the Malawian Constitution must be respected. The UK utterly condemns the threatening behaviour of machete-wielding DPP activists and the violent attacks on demonstrators and the media.”
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon also expressed concern.
“He is saddened by the loss of life and reiterates his call for all differences to be resolved through peaceful means,” UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky said in New York.
Elections are not due again in Malawi until 2014, and Mutharika is barred from seeking a third term.
Mutharika, a 77-year-old former World Bank economist, had won widespread praise from international institutions and donor governments for pushing through economic reforms and clamping down on corruption. But he also has alienated many former allies including his predecessor, whom he accused of plotting to assassinate him.
Malawi, which gained independence from Britain in 1964, is among the world’s least developed nations and UNAids estimates there are 920 000 people living with HIV/AIDS here.
Madonna, who has adopted two children from the country and plans to build schools there, said on Wednesday she hoped Malawi would find a peaceful way out of its troubles.
“I am deeply concerned about the violence today in Malawi, especially the devastating impact on Malawi’s children,” the star said. “Malawi must find a peaceful solution to these problems that allows donors to have confidence that their money will be used efficiently.” — Sapa-AP