SPECIAL REPORT: Police Disperse Demo Against Third Presidential Term

Nov 18, 2002 03:00 AM EST

LIMBE, Malawi -- Malawi's parliament ended its three-week sitting on a lacklustre note on November 1 after the much-talked about Bill seeking to extend the presidential term failed to take off.

Instead the limelight was stolen by a demonstration which turned violent as police dispersed critics demonstrating against the Bill which sought to pave the way for President Bakili Muluzi to stand for a third term of office in 2004.

The controversial Bill seeks to amend the Constitution to lift restrictions on the terms of office of the president. But government representatives could not shed light on whether the Bill would be tabled or not in future.

The Minister of Justice and Attorney General Henry Phoya was quoted by the newspapers as saying the decision to come up with the new Bill came from the public. It would be tabled if the people wanted, he said.

While parliament was winding up its three-week business in the capital, Lilongwe, there were ugly scenes in the commercial hub, Blantyre, where violence interrupted a planned public demonstration against proposals by the government to lift constitutional restrictions on the terms of office of the president.

At least three people were reported injured from knife wounds allegedly inflicted by youth wing members of the ruling United Democratic Front known as Young Democrats.

Among the injured was a high ranking official of the National Democratic Alliance NDA whose leader, Brown Mpinganjira, has vowed to oust the Muluzi regime. An official, Mike Mezalumo, was seriously injured on the eye and had to go for surgery.

The protest on the morning of November 1 was organized by the Forum for the Defense of the Constitution and attracted thousands of people opposed to the extension of the two five-year presidential tenure

The demonstration ended in disarray shortly after commencement from the old Town Hall in Blantyre, when the police opened fire and tossed teargas to disperse a looming clash between the marchers and groups of armed government supporters who had gathered at the clock tower, a kilometer away.

The organizers of the demonstrations blame the police for favoring the violent attackers instead of protecting the peaceful demonstrators who were licensed to hold the demonstration. There was however a wide range of views expressed by the public against the police action, which they say, was instructed "from above".

On the day of the riots, President Muluzi was attending a Muslim gathering known as Ijtima in a predominantly Muslim district of Nkhatakota. In his address to the Muslim faithful, he described as "nonsense" the pre-occupation by some leaders with the subject of presidential term.

Muluzi congratulated organizers of the annual event for focusing on AIDS pandemic instead of the controversial Bill. He censured Opposition leaders who he did not name for trying "to use religion to divide Malawians".

One of the organizers of the protests, Harold Williams, of the Forum for the Defense of the Constitution, an umbrella body of civic, religious and opposition groups, says they intend to take the police to court because the law enforcers did not respect the people's constitutional right.

The forum, whose aim is to stop the government from adopting the proposed constitutional amendment Bill, complained that heavily armed paramilitary police used gunfire and teargas to disperse demonstrators.

By Hamilton Vokhiwa