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Looters flee with their ware as riots sweep Malawi's commercial capital Blantyre in this 2004 file photo. President Bingu wa Mutharika has become increasingly intolerant of dissent. (Salim Henry/REUTERS/Salim Henry/REUTERS)
Looters flee with their ware as riots sweep Malawi's commercial capital Blantyre in this 2004 file photo. President Bingu wa Mutharika has become increasingly intolerant of dissent. (Salim Henry/REUTERS/Salim Henry/REUTERS)

Southern African countries losing grip on democratic gains Add to ...

The once-peaceful nation of Malawi, now haunted by political violence and crackdowns on dissent, has reached back into the colonial era to revive an old law that would imprison anyone who “insults” the president.

The government has announced that it will not tolerate any “impudence” by the media or civil society – and it threatens to jail anyone who disagrees. At the same time, Malawi’s police have been breaking up demonstrations and arresting human rights activists and opposition politicians.

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Malawi’s slide into authoritarianism is part of a disturbing trend in southern Africa. Three countries – Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia – are suffering a rollback of the democratic gains that they had achieved in recent years.

In Zimbabwe, where the long-time opposition party captured a share of government after winning a 2008 election, the rollback is well under way. In the latest setback for democracy, a court this week has convicted six activists for showing a video about the Arab Spring. They face up to 10 years in prison for “inciting violence” against the government – simply because they held a meeting to show a video of the street protests in Egypt and Tunisia last year.

The six activists, arrested more than a year ago on treason charges that were later reduced, say they were tortured by police who wanted them to confess that they were plotting the violent overthrow of President Robert Mugabe – a charge they deny.

In an even more disturbing sign, a Zimbabwean rights activist has disappeared and may have been abducted or murdered. The activist, Paul Chizuze, vanished on Feb. 8 in the city of Bulawayo and has not been seen since. He has worked for decades for many organizations in documenting human-rights abuses in Zimbabwe, and is a close ally of an opposition politician who is now the country’s education minister.

In Zambia, where the opposition won a much-praised election last year and moved into government in an impressively democratic handover of power, the latest signs have been worrisome. The new government has been harassing and arresting members of the former ruling party on corruption charges that often seem dubious. One former cabinet minister was arrested on allegations that he possessed stolen bicycles. Others have had their property seized.

Last week, the harassment took an ominous turn. A government agency, the Registrar of Societies, announced that the former ruling party would be stripped of its legal status – even though it is still the biggest opposition party with 53 seats in parliament. The party, the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, would be de-registered for failing to pay its annual fees, the registrar said. The opposition called it a “political witch hunt” and an “assault on democracy.”

But it is Malawi that seems to be suffering the most dramatic slide into autocracy. Until recently, it was seen as one of the most democratic and free nations in southern Africa, having thrown off the 33-year dictatorship of Hastings Banda in 1994 and moved into a successful multi-party system.

But the president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has become increasingly intolerant of dissent. He has lashed out at Western donors, civil society groups and the media. When street protests erupted last year, police killed at least 18 protestors, shooting some of them in the back as they fled.

Now the crackdown has intensified. Malawi’s leading human rights activist, John Kapito, was arrested on Sunday on charges of possessing “materials with seditious words” – apparently T-shirts. He was also accused of possessing U.S. dollars without proper documentation. This followed the arrest of another rights activist last month, the prominent lawyer and former attorney general Ralph Kasambara.

Also on Sunday, violence erupted when the police fired volleys of tear gas to break up an opposition rally. The police said the organizers did not have permission to hold a rally. After the police attacked, the protestors rioted, torching a police station and police vehicle.

Then today the police arrested a leading opposition figure, Austin Atupele Muluzi, the son of a former president, in connection with Sunday’s attempted opposition rally.

The president’s office made clear its views on dissent in an extraordinary statement earlier this month. It said it is monitoring “hostile” comments on the Internet and on radio shows, and it threatened to use a colonial-era law to impose a two-year prison sentence on anyone who “insults” the president.

Quoting the Bible, the government statement said “fathers and mothers” must be honored. And it said it would not tolerate any “impudence” against the president.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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