Blantyre, Malawi – Heavily-armed anti-riot police officers Tuesday used teargas to break up a students’ demonstration at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi in the eastern city of Zomba, after they defied President Bingu wa Mutharika’s order not to hold any demonstrations. Several students, including Chancellor College Student Union president Lonjezo Sithole, were also arrested, according to Eastern Region police spokesman Nicholas Gondwa.
The students’ demonstrations were being held in solidarity with the lecturers’ stand to abandon classes, after Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito recently summoned associate professor Blessings Chinsinga over an example he used in one of his classes.
Dr. Chinsinga was interrogated by the police chief after he reportedly drew a parallel between Malawi’s current fuel crisis and the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled the governments of both countries.
The lecturers resolved to abandon classes because, according to Chancellor College Academic Staff Union president Jessie Kabwila-Kapasuka, Mukhito’s action was tantamount to interference in their academic freedom.
They have since demanded an apology from the police chief and assurances of unfettered academic freedom before they can resume classes.
Mukhito has so far refused to apologise since, according to him, academic freedom must be balanced with issues of national security.
Last Sunday President Mutharika, without directly referring to the current Chancellor College standoff, urged university students to avoid street demonstrations that may affect their education.
But after holding meetings at the weekend, the students resolved to demonstrate in solidarity with their lecturers. They said any interference in their lecturers’ academic freedom will affect the quality of their education.
But Zomba District Commissioner Daniel Phiri denied them permission, saying ‘your last demonstration was not peaceful’.
The Mutharika administration is increasingly being criticised over persistent fuel crisis and concerns over deteriorating governance.
Police recently disrupted planned demonstrations by civil society leaders and artists.
On Sunday, President Mutharika effectively banned street protests when he ordered that anyone seeking to hold demonstrations must post a 2 million Malawi Kwacha (about US$13,000) bond as insurance on property that may get damaged should the demonstrations go haywire.
But the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations (CONGOMA) has since described such a bond as illegal, saying Mutharika’s directive is not supported by any law.