MALAWI: Court overrules president on lecturer strike

A Malawian court has invalidated President Bingu wa Mutharika's (pictured) order directing lecturers to end industrial action over alleged threats to academic freedoms, in a development that has seen the head of state accusing dons of plotting to topple his government through "academic anarchy".

Malawian lecturers have been on strike for close to a month, demanding an official police apology after the Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito summoned and quizzed political science lecturer Blessings Chinsinga.

The police chief questioned Chinsinga, of Chancellor College, about an example he offered during a lecture, allegedly drawing comparisons between Malawi's fuel and foreign currency shortages and popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Last weekend Mutharika, who is also chancellor of the University of Malawi and commander in chief of the Malawi Police Services, said the inspector general would not apologise as he was one of the "finest" policeman in Malawi.

The president issued an ultimatum ordering lecturers to return to work the following Monday, saying their actions violated students' rights to be in class.

Malawi academics say the country is slowly drifting back into dictatorship and accuse the state of planting spies in lecturer theatres. They defied the president's directive to end their strike, and instead went to court - resulting in the latest court victory.

On Tuesday Lucius Kwakwala, the lecturers' legal advisor, was quoted in the local media as saying that the lecturers had sued Mutharika, police chief Mukhito, Education Minister Peter Mutharika, Internal Affairs Minister Aaron Sangala and the university council to test the legality of the presidential decree.

Blantyre High Court judge Godfrey Mwase ruled in favour of the academics, Kwakwala told a press conference jointly held with the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union, the Polytechnic Students Union and the Chancellor College Students Union.

The education minister is Mutharika's young brother, and has indicated that he wants to run for president in 2014 when the incumbent is no longer ineligible to contest. But Peter Mutharika's chances are looking increasingly bleak, as he has failed to negotiate an end to the impasse between the academics and the state.

A church grouping, the Evangelical Association of Malawi, has offered to mediate.

"The Association is of the view that this state of affairs, if not quickly resolved amicably by the concerned parties, has the potential to significantly negatively impact on the welfare of students, besides heavily eroding the gains made by both our government and university colleges in our quest for better quality education," it said in a statement.

"We therefore want to appeal to all the concerned parties to seriously reconsider their positions and engage in a dialogue to resolve the crisis before the situation gets out of hand."

The Malawi University council, which employs the lecturers, demanded that they return to work last week or disciplinary action would be taken. The labour ministry also demanded that the industrial action ends, saying that it was illegal and had been undertaken without seeking mediation or informing the ministry.

In a recent petition to police, lecturers said they did not want Malawi to return to the repressive era of dictator Kamuzu Banda.

"We urge you not to remind us of the repressive and oppressive politically-driven police practices of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s that turned the University of Malawi into a reservoir for political detainees," the petition said. "The result was, among others, the massive brain drain that crippled the national university and has not been remedied."