Hope for rule of law in Malawi

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I’d hoped that things might get better in Malawi when its diminutive, top-hat wearing, fly-whisk toting life president left the political stage in 1994. But I was wrong - in the second decade of the 21st century, the central African state still seems set on turning its back on the rule of law.

The country’s latest excesses have included sentencing two gay men to death - for being gay - and arresting and detaining a human rights lawyer who had complained to the police that some men had attacked his premises with firebombs.

More of that later. First, let’s go back to what Malawi used to be like under the nonagenarian life president. His Excellency Ngwazi doctor H. Kamuzu Banda, as he later styled himself, was born in central Africa, went to school in Scotland, trained as a medical doctor and practised as a GP in the north of England and London. He gave up all this to join the struggle for Nyasaland’s independence from the colonial yoke of British rule.

Nyasaland won its independence, becoming Malawi, and Banda - Hastings Banda, as he was then known - became its first prime minister. A couple of years later he became president, then life president, ruling the country as a one-party state from the mid-1960s until 1994.

Some of his edicts, which brooked no argument, were - frankly - bizarre.

Students at his ‘Eton of Africa’ secondary school, for example, studied Latin, Greek and Ancient History from day one - although as one of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi might have benefited more from students equipped to become engineers or doctors.

The country’s dress code was odd, too. Females from school age onwards were banned from wearing shorts or trousers, but had to wear a skirt or dress that fell to below the knees. There were no exceptions. The censors would set about foreign magazines, even Marie Claire or Woman, with a felt tip pen and draw long skirts on photos of female models showing their legs.

There was an index of banned books, as well. Black Beauty was on it, until some brave soul told someone in authority that it was actually about a girl and her black-coated pet horse. I know all this because I lived in Malawi during the mid-1980s, and loved the people and the lakes and mountains. It was, however, my first experience of living in a totalitarian state and I quickly developed the local tic of looking over my shoulder before saying anything remotely critical of the regime.

Telephones, we believed, were routinely tapped, and if you were talking indiscreetly in a public place you covered your mouth with a hand - special branch was rumoured to have trained all its officers to lip-read.

That was now more than 20 years ago and much of it was probably paranoia, so what about the brave new world of post-Banda Malawi? Sadly, not much seems to have changed. Just last week, human rights lawyer and former attorney general Ralph Kasambara was attacked, arrested and detained - and remains in detention despite having been granted bail.

According to a statement from the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA), Kasambara’s offices were attacked on 13 February by a group of men armed with petrol bombs. The lawyer’s security guard overcame them and took some of them to the police station, whereupon Kasambara and five of his people were arrested. The fire bombers had accused them of kidnap and of torturing them for refusing sexual favours.

The CLA statement says that Kasambara was bailed on 14 February and released the following day, only to be rearrested an hour later. He has now been transferred to a maximum security prison, while his lawyers have received notice that they are to be questioned by the anti-corruption bureau about their role in the bail proceedings.

The CLA says that as a member of the Commonwealth, Malawi is committed to the Commonwealth’s shared ‘fundamental values’, at the core of which is adherence to democratic principles, respect for the rule of law, good governance and human rights. Malawi’s constitution also holds that its citizens are innocent until proven guilty and that their detention must be reviewed in court.

The Law Society of England & Wales has also released a statement, with president John Wotton saying: ‘The Malawian government must ensure that court rulings in Kasambara’s case are properly respected, that bail is acknowledged and that he is released as a matter of urgency. Malawi, a democracy, with a constitution and a bill of rights, must adhere to the basic legal principles.’

Democracy and the rule of law are still quite raw in Europe - there are many among us who remember Hitler, Stalin and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Why should Africa embrace them any quicker than we managed? Maybe they also need to go through the bloodletting and genocide first... sad, though, because I had hoped that things might have got better in Malawi, at least.

Jonathan Rayner is a reporter at the Gazette

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