Former academic freedom leader arrested for treason

Former academic and activist Dr Jessie Kabwila – who led academic freedom protests against Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika four years ago, when he was higher education minister – was arrested on treason charges last Monday.

Now an opposition member of parliament, she was released on bail.

Kabwila said she had been accused of trying to overthrow Mutharika based on a WhatsApp conversation with other legislators in which they allegedly talked of ‘regime change’.

“I have been charged with treason not sedition. It’s laughable to use archaic oppressive laws to punish the opposition,” she told Malawi’s Nyasa Times.

Kabwila, who earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Binghamton University in the US, where she served as president of the Graduate Student Organisation from 2008-09, became a senior lecturer at the University of Malawi.

She wanted to stay in the job but was forced to resign after she led academic freedom protests that saw two of Malawi’s major universities being closed for several months in 2011.

At the time she was acting president of the Academic Staff Union at Chancellor College, a college of the University of Malawi.

After exiting academia she became a full-time politician, an MP and spokesperson for the opposition Malawi Congress Party. The party’s legal advisor, former University of Malawi student Peter Louis Chakhwantha, was arrested with her.

The 2011 protests were sparked by a decision by Peter Mukhito, who was then inspector general of police, to interrogate Dr Blessings Chinsinga, an associate political science professor, after he drew parallels between Malawi’s fuel crisis and popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring.

As higher education minister at a time when his brother Bingu wa Mutharika was president, Peter Mutharika fired Kabwila and other lecturers who were behind the protests. They were later reinstated but pressured to resign. Mutharika became president in 2014 in polls that brought Kabwila to parliament as an opposition legislator.