MALAWI: Collapsed dialogue, campuses stay closed

Students in Malawi have embarked on a vigil to force the authorities to open campuses that were closed in April, as dialogue efforts launched in June have so far failed to yield results. The vigil is the latest twist in the academic freedom saga that started in February and continues in what many report to be an increasingly autocratic climate.

Human rights activists, diplomats and academics contend that President wa Mutharika's rule is becoming increasingly autocratic.

As previously reported, the academic freedom saga kicked off in February when a police inspector quizzed a political science lecturer over remarks made during a lecture. The academic had drawn parallels between revolts in North Africa and the Arab world, and problems in Malawi. University staff staged protests, claiming academic freedom was under threat.

Lecturers, who have also accused the authorities of planting spies in lecture rooms, have since continued to demand academic freedoms, while Mutharika has accused academics of attempting to topple his government.

University campuses remain closed, with dialogue attempts having so far yielded nothing. This is despite high hopes in early July that differences could be ironed out and institutions would reopen as scheduled.

University World News previously reported that 19 people were killed in July during violent demonstrations.

The University of Malawi's main constituent college, Chancellor College (Chanco), also fired four leading lecturers: Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, Franz Amin, Garton Kamchedzera and Blessings Chinsinga (the academic who was quizzed by the police). But according to a story on the Capital FM website, a court order has since "halted the sacking". The labour dispute is before the courts.

In an emailed response to University World News Kabwila-Kapasula, who is also the acting president of the Chanco Academic Staff Union, said talks had collapsed because Mutharika, who is chancellor of the University of Malawi, wanted to exclude some union leaders from attending mediation meetings.

"The union decided that it would not attend a meeting [when] its leadership and choice of representation was being barred and dictated," Kabwila-Kapasula told University World News.

"We have not agreed to go back to class because the fears that took us out of class have not been addressed," she said.

Last week the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Malawi, His Grace Bishop Joseph Mukasa Zuza, appealed to Mutharika to stop the "storm".

Opinion articles also flooded Malawi's press, condemning the president over the university impasse.

In one such article Ananiya Alick Ponje said the saga underlined the dangers of having politicians running universities. He said politicians employed stubbornness and pride in matters that would otherwise be cleared without much ado, simply to show they have power.

"Mutharika should do some soul-searching and understand that the greatest of all leaders is he who is willing to follow his people. He holds the key to the resumption of normal teaching and learning at Chanco, and if he himself doesn't do anything, all other parties involved might just be struggling in vain."

Ponje continued: "He should consider the plight of the students who are at the receiving end of the impasse; he should prioritise those poor parents in remote areas who are spending the last penny they had on their sons and daughters who have not been to class fully since February. He should take into account numerous voices of reason that have pleaded with him to normalise things at Chanco."

Last week, during an address to open an agricultural show, the Malawian president said he was not stupid and threatened to go to war if necessary amid the upheavals in Malawi.

"Now, therefore, if you don't want dialogue, tell me any day. We can go to war, if that's what you want..." he threatened.

"I thus simply wanted you to know that in tolerating all this, I am not afraid, and neither am I stupid. If you continue speaking nonsense aimed at disturbing the peace and disrupting the progress we have made, you will face the music. Oh yes! I'll deal with you," Mutharika said.