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Rallying for academic freedom across Malawi

Lecturers leaving the Chanco campus during their march to the ER Police in ZA published 22.3.2011 (1) Lecturers from Chancellor College in Malawi protest limits on academic freedom last month. Photo courtesy of the Daily Times archives. 

By Sarah Berman

It began with a lecture.

At Chancellor College in Zomba, political science professor Dr. Blessings Chinsinga told his public policy class that Malawi’s shortages of fuel and foreign currency could ignite political uprising. To make his point, Dr. Chinsinga drew matter-of-fact comparisons to the mass protests that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

Though such discussion of current events may seem commonplace during a university politics lecture, Dr. Chinsinga’s words have since sparked an unprecedented country-wide battle over academic freedom.

On the morning of February 12, 2011, Malawi’s Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito summoned Dr. Chinsinga for police interrogation. The associate professor was asked to respond to allegations that he was inciting students to demonstrate against the government.

Upon Dr. Chinsinga’s release, the academic community responded by staging a public protest on February 21. 

“The protest was very peaceful,” recalls president of the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union Jessie Kabwila-Kapsula. Dressed in graduation gowns—with mouths bound by handkerchiefs—lecturers paraded to the Zomba police station, where they presented a petition demanding the right to academic freedom assurance from police and government.

“On that day we got permission from police, and they actually escorted us to and from the station,” Kabwila-Kapsula says. “It was a very colourful, interesting time.”

Kabwila-Kapsula says the demonstration was important, particularly because Malawian academics in past decades feared arrest and violence. “In the 1970s and 80s, there were academics who were arrested and taken to prison because of what they wrote and said in class,” he says.

Faculty members at Chancellor College have refused to return to lecture halls until the police and government assure the free exchange ideas will continue in Malawian classrooms unhindered. Students showed support for their mentors by staging their own peaceful demonstrations.

But instead of backing the striking lecturers, the government chose to publicly speak out against the academic freedom protests.

President Bingu wa Mutharika denounced the Chancellor College demonstrations and demanded lecturers to return to class.

“If some teacher one day just wakes up, ignores the subject for that hour and comes and says, ‘you students, do you know that you can overthrow this government? And the way to overthrow this government is to follow what’s happening in Egypt’… Is this what we call academic freedom?” the President said.

Mutharika went on to characterize the university’s call for freedoms as “academic anarchy,” saying the Inspector General of police was tending to a matter of national security, and should not apologise for his actions.

The President did not respond to any of the lecturers’ concerns or demands.

Meanwhile, continuous campus protests have resulted in clashes between students and police, with teargas being used in residential areas on at least four occasions.

Academics at the Polytechnic Institute in Blantyre have since joined the sit-in, saying the call for academic freedom is a constitutional matter.

Six weeks into the conflict, lecturers have yet to reach an agreement with the government. “Up until this morning, there had been no effort to reach out to us formally,” Kabwila-Kapsula said. “We’ve asked the courts to interpret this as a constitutional matter.”

While no agreement has been reached, Kabwila-Kapsula says the university has been “showered in support” since the beginning of their demonstrations.

“I am very proud to be Malawian at this time,” says Kabwila-Kapsula. “This shows that we own our democracy, and can fight for our freedoms.” 

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