Malawi President Peter Mutharika has warned of unspecified action against the leaders of violent protests following his narrow recent election victory.
Mutharika, whose legitimacy is being challenged by key opposition leaders, said during the country’s 55th Independence Day celebration in Blantyre on Saturday that he has learned the protests have nothing to do with election results, but are aimed at toppling his government. The protests organizers dispute this and say they cannot be intimidated.
The celebrations started with a morning of prayer, with religious leaders appealing for the return of peace and unity to a country now torn by political violence.
Malawi has faced street protests, which in many cases turned violent, since the Malawi Elections Commission announced on May 27 that President Mutharika had been re-elected.
The MEC declared Mutharika the winner with 39 percent of the vote, and said opposition Malawi Congress Party leader Lazarus Chakwera was a close second with 35 percent.
Vice President Saulos Chilima’s opposition United Transformation Movement Party came in third with 20 percent.
Chakwera and Chilima are challenging the election results in court, alleging ballot-stuffing and the use of a popular correction fluid to alter ballots.
Both opposition leaders shunned Mutharika’s Independence Day speech, in which he called for peace.
“This is the day we must raise our flags of patriotism,” said Mutharika. “This is a day everyone must show how we love this country. Malawi is the only country that we have. If we destroy this country, as we are currently doing, we have destroyed ourselves.”
However Mutharika had harsh words for the organizers of the protests. He said he knows that opposition leaders want to use the protests to unseat him because they lost the election “big time.”
“Let me assure them that they will take over this government over my dead body. They will never, never take over this country. Let me warn them,” he said.
Mutharika said his government will soon hold accountable those who are leading the violent protests.
Gift Trapence is the deputy chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Forum, a civil society group organizing the protests.
“We are not targeting unseating the government. But our issue is with Dr. Jane Ansah, who failed to manage the election,” said Trapence.
Trapence said the protests will continue until Ansah resigns.
“You cannot be intimidated because for us to do demonstration is in our [Malawi] constitution. So, for us to be intimidated because people were exercising their rights, that’s something regrettable,” he said.
Political commentator Vincent Kondowe said Mutharika could have used the occasion to call for peace talks with the opposition leaders.
“I think the president coult have gone further and reach out to the opposition and probably call for dialogue and then thereafter, moving forward peacefully. Because what it means now, where the tempers are already very high, it sparks more violent protests, on the side of opposition,” said Kondowe.
The protesters said Friday that they would hold another protest in Blantyre on Monday should Ansah fail to resign by before then.