New president sacks police chief over academic freedom violation

Malawi’s new President Joyce Banda has sacked the police chief who was at the centre of academic freedom protests last year. And she has instituted an inquest into the death of a student leader who was critical of the government of the late president, Bingu wa Mutharika.

Banda was sworn in as the Southern African country’s new president following Mutharika's death this month following cardiac arrest.

The new president, an educator and gender activist, was Mutharika’s deputy. But the two had a fall-out after Mutharika announced plans for his younger brother Peter to succeed him in 2014, and last year she formed her own People’s Party.

One of Banda’s first actions after taking over power was to sack Malawi’s police general, Peter Mukhito, who last year summoned University of Malawi political scientist Dr Blessings Chinsinga to account for a comment he made during a lecture.

The police chief’s action triggered academic freedom protests that disrupted lecturers for a year. Mutharika supported Mukhito, saying that he had not violated the academic’s rights.

Banda also announced that an inquest would be held into the death of University of Malawi student activist Robert Chasowa.

Mutharika had refused student demands for an investigation after Chasowa was found dead on campus on 24 September last year with a deep cut on his head. Police ruled the death as suicide.

“As a mother, I feel for my fellow mother who doesn’t know what killed her son. I understand how painful it is and I will make sure we find out who killed our son,” news media quoted the new president as saying last week.

Chasowa’s funeral was attended by thousands of students and lecturers, some of whom wore cloths around their mouths to symbolise the silencing of academic voices.

The student leader had been chair of the activist group Youth for Democracy, which published a weekly pro-democracy newsletter circulated at the university, and co-wrote and performed a play critical of the government.

Banda – Malawi’s first and Africa’s second woman president – also announced that she would normalise relations with Western countries and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Their soured relations with Mutharika resulted in a donor funding freeze.

Banda said she had had several telephone conversations with Western leaders and diplomats. She had asked US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to unfreeze aid.

In December 2010, University World News reported that Mzuzu University had suspended 100 nursing students after the government withdrew funding because of the flight of donors. The government also stopped scholarships for students studying in Christian Health Association of Malawi colleges across the country.

Banda pledged “to restore the rule of law and democratic principles in our country, respect for human rights and freedoms as guaranteed by our constitution and democratic good governance. My starting point is to make sure Malawi has a programme with the IMF”.

The new president’s efforts are likely to bring relief to a struggling higher education sector. Her actions also fulfill some of the demands made by a wide spectrum of society that Mutharika scoffed at.

Last month, the Malawi Public Affairs Committee – a civil society organisation comprising religious groups, lawyers, students and trade unions among others – called for protection of academic freedom and an inquest into Chasowa’s death following a two-day conference that demanded far-reaching democratic reform.