Malawi To Review “Bad” Laws
December 9th, 2011
Malawi’s Nyassa Times has this as the lede:
President Bingu wa Mutharika has bowed down to pressure by ordering that Malawi Law Commission to review some of the repressive laws including a ban on homosexual acts, Justice Minister Ephraim Chiume has said.
Chiume said provisions of the penal code concerning “indecent practices and unnatural acts” would be reviewed.
“In view of the sentiments from the general public and in response to public opinion regarding certain laws, the government wishes to announce to the Malawi nation that it is submitting the relevant laws and provisions of laws to the Law Commission for review,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine that “sentiments from the general public” are responsible for the government’s announcement. Malawi society, like much of Africa, is both very religious and deeply conservative when it comes to sexual matters, and it is also deeply homophobic as a result. This may explain why it’s the anti-gay law which is the focus of Nyassa Times’s coverage which includes a provocative (for Africa) photo of two men kissing. Buried deeper in the article is this:
The President has ordered the law commission to review some of the laws that were enacted recently including Section 46 of the penal code and Local Courts Act in view of concerns from the general public…” reads the statement in part the release.
However, the press release did not indicate time frame for the review and when it will commence.
Other laws that have ignited a public outcry are the Local Courts Act, which empowered traditional leaders to administer justice beyond their jurisdiction; the Injunctions Bill which restrains Malawians from getting temporary reprieve from courts against government; and the Local Government Act, which empowers the President to call for Local Government Elections “in consultation with the Malawi Electoral Commission”.
That doesn’t tell the whole story either. What Nyassa Times doesn’t fully describe is another law, which was reported this way by Kenya’s Daily Nation (which is owned by the same media company that publishes Uganda’s independent Daily Monitor):
The country’s Justice minister Ephraim Mganda Chiume said that some of the laws set for review include Section 46 of the penal code that empowers the Information minister to ban newspapers.
So here’s the broader context. Up to now, Mutharika had begun to emulate the tactics of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe through strict police crackdowns on demonstrations and opposition groups as well as measures to muzzle the press. Mutharika has even parroted Mugabe’s rhetoric describing gay people as “worse than dogs.” Earlier this year, a Wikileaks cable revealed that the British ambassador warned his London superiors that Malawi’s President was becoming increasingly autocratic and intolerant of criticism. Mutharika responded by proving the ambassador’s point and expelled him. Britain then began cutting aid to Malawi as a result in July 2011.
Which puts Malawi in a particularly precarious position now that the U.S. has announced that the protection of human rights for LGBT people would now become a foreign policy priority. It’s unclear whether Mutharika’s latest move was a direct response to the U.S. announcement or whether it has been coming anyway in an effort to restore British aid. Discussions over the suspension of British foreign aid have been building for several months. And with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that treatment of LGBT people would affect how Britain directs its foreign aid, the discussions over Malawi’s statutes criminalizing homosexuality were likely already on the table. Now that Malawi is scrambling to get back into the good graces of one major foreign donor, the impoverished nation can ill afford to alienate another.