Blantyre, Malawi (PANA) – No fewer than five students, including a student leader, were arrested Wednesday when police used teargas to disperse rioting students of a constituent college of the University of Malawi.
The students were protesting their lecturers’ decision to resume classes before Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito assured them of academic freedom.
Lecturers at the Blantyre-based college, two weeks ago, joined in solidarity, their colleagues at the Chancellor College, the Zomba-based constituent college, who have been boycotting classes protesting the police chief’s summoning of one of their members over a classroom example he had given.
However, while the Chancellor College lecturers are continuing with the class boycott, those at the Polytechnic Monday resolved to resume teaching under protest.
But this did not go down well with the student community, who feel betrayed.
“We held an impromptu assembly and resolved not to go back to class until Mr. Mukhito apologises and assures us of academic freedom,” said Bright Mhango, spokesman of the Polytechnic Students Union, adding “we were disappointed with our lecturers’ decision to go to class before resolving this issue.”
Mhango said some students Tuesday decided to take the protest further by raiding the Senior Common Room, where lecturers relax and helped themselves to the beer.
The man who runs the Senior Common Room, estimated that he lost stocks and equipment worth more than 300,000 Malawi Kwacha (about US$ 2,000).
Tension returned to the campus Wednesday morning when the students congregated on the quadrangle, singing protest songs and making bonfires from used tyres.
“We were surprised to see the police invading the campus and started firing teargas on us,” said Mhango, noting that “this angered us.”
The students engaged the police with stones but the police out-gunned them and forced them to retreat to their hostels.
“They even fired the teargas in the hostels, even in women hostels,” said Robert Mgala, the PSU Secretary General, querying: “Where did they expect us to run to.”
Mgala said PSU president Evance Morra was arrested alongside five others as he tried to negotiate with the police.
“How do they expect to resolve this if they are arresting our leaders?” he said.
Police spokesman, Dave Chingwalu, however, said the five were arrested when the students invaded the highway and started pelting vehicles with stones, alleging “they even attacked our vehicle.”
The stand-off started at Chancellor College, when Mukhito, the Inspector General of Police, summoned Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, a political science associate professor, for reportedly saying in class that crises like Malawi’s persistent fuel crisis can lead to insurrections that have toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt.
One or some of the students reported him to the police chief, thereby angering the lecturers who are demanding an apology and assurances of academic freedom.
The police chief has since put his foot down, saying academic freedom must be balanced with state security.