By Gwinyayi Dzinesa
Malawi’s announcement that it had cancelled plans to host the African Union (AU) summit next month sent shockwaves across the continent with allegations of defiance levelled against the government of Malawi. On closer scrutiny, it is clear that Malawi’s decision not to host the continental meeting is rooted in at least two major dynamics.
First, it was a decision based on principle informed by the imperative to uphold its international obligations. Second, faced with the dilemma of hosting the AU summit and losing economic aid, Malawi redefined its priorities and allowed its national self-interest to take the upper hand.
Lilongwe clearly argued that it took the momentous decision because the continental body insisted on inviting Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir to attend the summit. Malawi saw this insistence as going against the country’s commitment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Notwithstanding Malawi’s obligations to the AU, soon after becoming Malawi’s president, following President Bingu wa Mutharika’s death in April, Joyce Banda had publicly warned that Lilongwe would cooperate with the ICC and arrest the Sudanese leader were he to set foot on Malawian soil. Banda, among her many other identities, is a women’s rights activist, educationist and politician. Her ascendance to Malawi’s presidency was seen by some as being representative of a larger struggle in the country between those supporting a good governance and human rights agenda (largely civil society) and those who were aligned to the increasingly autocratic modus operandi of the late Mutharika.
Banda’s administration initiated early moves to rehabilitate Malawi’s battered reputation for the promotion and protection of human rights. For example, she summarily fired Malawi’s police chief who was criticised for presiding over human rights violations, including mishandling anti-government riots resulting in the death of 19 protesters in July last year, and launched a formal enquiry into the shootings. Malawi’s parliament has also repealed an amendment to section 46 of the country’s Penal Code that allowed the Minister of Information to ban all publications that were deemed not to be in the public interest. Banda’s government is also expected to revoke Malawi’s homophobic legislation.
Against this backdrop, inviting al-Bashir, an alleged international war criminal, could have been seen as condoning international human rights abuses running contrary to Lilongwe’s good governance and human rights political trajectory. Malawi’s human rights groups have predictably backed the government’s bold and principled decision to stand with the victims of the Darfur conflict.