Looting in Malawi & UK: similarities and differences
When Malawi found itself dealing with violence between protesters and police over a two-day march in July, commentators were quick to jump to the suggestion that the “Arab Spring” had finally reached Southern Africa. The assumption was that the people of Malawi were rising up against the same kind of dictator as Mubarak in Egypt and news crews got amped up to cover the unfolding story.
What really happened, to the disappointment of the news crews, was two days of protest followed by almost a month of calm, with an ultimatum to the government to respond to the protestors’ demands or face further mass action.
Much of the coverage of the protests focused on looting, police violence and the destruction of property, not unlike the coverage of the recent riots in British cities. As with the UK, the protests were accompanied by looting by some individuals, often disenfranchised youth.
The difference between the two situations, however, is stark. The UK, at least based on reports, seems to be experiencing the inevitable outcome of squeezing social benefits and opportunities for disenfranchised youth at a time when economic conditions mean that jobs are harder to come by and inequality is both more obvious and more strongly resented. John Stupart gives an overview of the London Riots here and an explanation of what might be going on.
In Malawi, in contrast, the looting that did take place was a very small fringe at the edges of an otherwise legitimate protest. So legitimate, in fact, that permission was obtained from the police for the marches – although this was retracted and then given again on the day, causing some confusion. This was certainly not a mob of out of control youth – the protests were organised by an umbrella body of civil society organisations, the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), with the support of opposition political parties and church groups. The reason for the protests, and the demands of government, were clear and reasonable, if not easily obtainable. Civil society is concerned about high food prices, fuel and medicine shortages and bills recently signed into law that give government the right to curtail freedom of speech and prevent the courts from granting interdicts against government agents. Food, fuel, medicines and democratic governance.
Of course, the political situation is somewhat tense. Part of the reason for the high food prices and shortages that triggered protests has been a withdrawal of foreign aid by funders including the UK and Germany. The USA has also withdrawn support in response to police crackdowns on the July 20 protests. The Malawian government has tried to deflect concerns about the impact of this drop in foreign aid but they have been unable to convince their people that the loss of 40 per cent of government funds will not be devastating. One of the causes of high food prices is VAT of over 16 per cent on items as basic as meat and oil. Fuel has also been strictly rationed in response to forex shortages (although the government continues to deny that this is the reason).
The underlying concern, however, is the impact of reduced foreign aid on the fertilizer subsidy programme that has been driving economic growth and keeping most of the 60 per cent of Malawians who live on less than $2 a day going.
When looting and destruction of property did take place in Malawi, it was directed at ruling party offices and businesses owned by foreigners, who are generally believed to be exacerbating the forex crisis by sending money home. Of course, the looting and violence was condemned by the organisers of the mass action and are not considered by most protesters or really anyone else in Malawi to be a legitimate form of political action, any more than the killing of 19 people is an acceptable government response. But it may be helpful to remember that looting, especially at the fringes of more legitimate forms of expressing frustration and concern, is not necessarily random and criminal – sometimes there is a point.