Since the beginning of the year 2011, the world has witnessed a lot of demonstration demanding governments in the Arab region to change. Successful demonstrations in Tunisia prompted other countries like Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algeria to stage their own protests to demand various issues including regime change. These have had mixed results but none so far reaches the extent of the Tunisian protest dubbed “Jasmine Revolution”. There is talk going on in the social media circles of staging similar protests here in Malawi. There are several reasons I think this kind of protests cannot work here in Malawi.
We already have democracy
One of the main reasons that have prompted popular protests in the Arab world is lack of democratic governments. People are demanding governments that tolerate other people’s views, that promote freedom of speech and that are transparent. Malawi went through this process in the early 90’s when we chose multiparty democracy over a one party system of government. Following an example of Egypt is like going back to 1992. We now change governments through the ballot every five years. We have better forums to fight for our concerns. Many NGO’s, civil society organization, religious groups and political parties are fighting for our cause. A good example is how we rejected the infamous third term and the open term bills through our own parliament. This is not the case with Egypt which has been on a state of emergency for 25 years.
Cultural, geographical and religious differences
It was very easy for Egypt, Yemen and Jordan to follow the example of Tunisia because of their geographical, cultural and religious similarities. Malawi is far much different from these Arab region countries. We are much more divided in tribes than Tunisians or Egyptians. To stage a national wide popular protest will not be easy in a Malawian setup. This is why the recent demonstrations called by the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) to protest the pension’s bill were poorly patronized. Being an umbrella body of all the country’s trade unions, MCTU is better placed to mobilize people but it failed to do so when it had an opportunity.
Another good example is between 2004 and 2009 when the ruling Democratic Progressive Party was a minority in parliament. The opposition used its numerical strength to suffocate the government to the extent of holding the passing of the national budget. When the civil society called on Malawians to camp at parliament to protest the opposition’s behavior, only a few people turned up. This was the most critical moment of the Malawi nation, but most people could still not be convinced to leave their homes and camp at Parliament. They only showed their anger in the 2009 General Elections by voting for the DPP with an overwhelming majority.
Tunisian protests followed the death of a university graduate who set himself on fire after the police refused him to continue selling vegetables without a permit. Who can set himelf on fire in Malawi? We have had similar police crackdowns on street vendors, minibus touts and beggars but not one person thought of setting himself on fire. Even if one sets himself on fire, how many Malawians will be convinced that time has come to protest? Most of us are afraid to stand for other people’s rights or freedoms. The presence of the police at the protest scares away people. We just can’t stand to be tear gassed or to see a person next to us shot or killed by the police.
Internet Access and Illiteracy
The protests going on in North Africa and the Middle East are being organized, reported and glorified on the internet through popular social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. A good number of Malawians have no access to the internet and even those that have access rarely use these sites. It would not be easy to mobilize masses through these mediums as only a few people will turn up. Last year Mozambique had a successful demonstration to protest rising food prices which was organized through sending short message service (SMS). This is another way that works but it cannot work in Malawi because SMS is very expensive. A majority of Malawians live on less than a dollar a day and would rather spend the money on food than to send a demonstration SMS.
Illiteracy levels in Malawi are very high. It is always an uphill task to convince an illiterate person to do a thing. That is why our political parties capitalize on our illiteracy to gain cheap votes. Fancy, simple things like names of presidential candidates. People will just tick on the first person on the ballot paper that’s why every candidate wants to be on top alphabetically.
We have our own problems like the fuel crisis, shortage of forex and lack of employment and we need them addressed but taking the Egypt way is not possible. We just have to use the existing structures to initiate change. Even if we are so much tired of a particular government, there are ways to register our concerns while waiting to vote it out in a General Election.