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Mwakasungula (left), Trapence (right)
Malawi government threatens pro-LGBT groups, activists over foreign aid withdrawals

in MALAWI, 22/04/2011

Threats to Malawi's foreign aid over its treatment of LGBT people are leading to attacks on civil society rganisations. This week Malawi's Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Dr. George Chaponda said that recent withdrawals of foreign aid by various countries were the fault of two NGO leaders: Human Rights Consultative Commitee (HRCC) chairperson Undule Mwakasungula and executive director of Centre for Development of People (CEDEP) Gift Trapence. Both organisations actively support LGBT rights.

“The country is suffering because of the conduct of some leaders of the civil society. Those people are not patriotic. Some donors have withdrawn their aid and everybody is suffering. More than half of salaries for Ministry of Health come from the donors,” he said.

Chaponda's comments followed the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) broadcasting a claim by the Minister of Information and Civic Education Symon Vuwa Kaunda to have "discovered" that Danish groups were funding the NGOs with US$700,000 "to propagate same sex rights in the country for a period of three years."

In an MBC editorial comment, read by the station’s news analyst Mzati Mkolokosa, MBC called on Malawians to 'fight against such activists' saying they are 'not patriotic'. 

“They don’t know how much our forefathers suffered to get ourselves decolonized. We are not yet free up to date, yet someone wants to sell us back to the colonialists. Perhaps they haven’t studied global politics and need to be decolonized themselves. But let’s fight against them before they succeed in handing us over to the colonialists,” MBC said.

Chaponda said that his 'discovery' vindicated what the country’s President Bingu wa Mutharika has said: that some NGOs are "being used by external forces to destabilize the government."

“These are the people who are being used as agents from the government’s enemies,” Chaponda said.

Maravi Post columnist Raphael Tentani says that this follows Ntaba claiming that the HRCC was "operating illegally."

"All this was because Mwakasungula and Company had the audacity of reporting President Bingu wa Mutharika and his DPP-led government to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Geneva, Switzerland. The rights body had quite a bagful of worries they wanted the world to be aware of. These included the recent call to arms to "protect me in the streets", the auctioning of freedom with some bizarre price tag on the right to peaceful assembly and discrimination against minority groups, notably gays and lesbians."

At a mass public rally of his Democratic Progressive Party in March Mutharika said that he had been "patient for the last seven years from insults by critics" and that it was the ruling party's duty to "beat up" those who insulted him.

A previous head of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), Mabvuto Bamusi, recently claimed that he resigned because he "could not be party to a campaign for homosexuality by the NGOs."

“Must we be bought by money coming from donors just to advance the gay agenda? We risk receiving money from donors so that we can be campaigning for gay rights,” he said.

Wrote Tentani:

"The NGO types who were hired or cajoled to attack their own friends tactfully avoided the other issues and zeroed in only on the homosexual issues. They clang to the usual stance that same-sex relationships were alien to Malawi's cultural and religious beliefs. They accused their colleagues of championing the gay rights to get the all-important funding from donors. Listening to them one felt like HRCC was advocating that all of us must become gay forthwith."

Bamusi is alleged to have been offered a diplomatic posting by the government.

Last year Police raided CEDEP's office and claimed to have discovered "pornographic films."  in reality HIV/Aids prevention material. This led to loud news headlines such as “POLICE HUNT FOR PROMINENT GAYS.”

A police spokesman Davie Chingwalu told AFP at the time:

"At this hide-out, we discovered pornographic films, files and information about gay meetings. Our initial findings are that this office was patronised by a lot of prominent people and we immediately launched the probe to track down the gays."

CEDEP had previously been forced to close another office after two workers were arrested.

Trapence said the repression was stopping their HIV prevention efforts and they'd discontinued a survey.

“The MSM community can’t access testing because they’ve been driven underground," Trapence said. "They are afraid of the police - and the media reports are increasing the threat. They have been publishing statements by the police saying that they have a list of gay people, and that they will arrest all of them,” he said.

'Residents' in the capital, Lilongwe, said they would organise a protest against a media education workshop on LGBT issues organised by CHRR and Cedep and taking place this week.

Mwakasungula received an anonymous phone call last month telling him he would be “slaughtered.” Days later a group of youth armed with knives and petrol broke into the CHRR office demanding that the security guard take them to Mwakasungula’s house. When he gave them the wrong directions, he was beaten and thrown from the car.

The threats and attack followed the President inviting civil society leaders to his State residence to warn them that he would mobilise his political party members to stop any civil society demonstrations aimed at any dissenting views from him or his government.

“President Mutharika will retire in three years and is working hard to protect his image by creating a fertile ground for his brother Peter Mutharika to stand in the next elections,” says Simekinala Kaluzi of Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP) Malawi.

“He will not tolerate any critical voices and wants the media and civil society to only say good things about him and his Government," Kaluzi added. "Since his re-election in 2009 we have seen a serious shrinking of space for freedom of expression and association.”

The naming and targeting of particular people whose organisations are supported by foreign governments or other funders echoes the experience in Uganda and Cameroon, where similar activists have received death threats, and raises concerns for their security. As well the Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata has also been politically attacked over alledged links to foreign governments over LGBT rights. Zambian LGBTI group Friends of Rainka says the resulting atmosphere has led to attacks on gays and was because the Zambian government is unpopular and they "will use anything, and risk innocent nationals in their quest to gain the churches' and ultimately the Zambian vote. It so happens that this time around, it's the gays."

The apparent scapegoating and lack of security for Malawian NGOs and their leaders is in sharp contrast to a bizarre government back-down over a threat this week to expel the British High Commissioner. Fergus Cochrane-Dyet had called Mutharika "autocratic" in a leaked diplomatic note. The expulsion was reportedly withdrawn because it was not 'technically communicated within 48 hours'.

The government has been under pressure from churches. In a communiqué issued last week by the Ethics Peace and Justice Commission (EPJC) of the EAM, an umbrella body for 56 Evangelical denominations and 48 Christian Organizations, the church says it has noted with concern “undue pressure” by the international community on Malawi by "combining issues of governance and gay rights."

Echoing arguments used in international bodies by anti-gay actors such as the Islamic Conference, the communiqué says that "United States of America’s 20% of its states have legalized homosexuality and that states like California have moved within as late as 2009 to repeal pro-gay marriage laws."

It claimed that Malawi is in a “socio- economic war" with foreign interests that are advocating for gay rights “with an agenda of shifting the society towards an internationally harmonised code of behaviour that readily embraces deviant behaviour.”

In February Bishop Joseph Bvumbwe, head of the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC), said:

"It is morally wrong and unacceptable for any rich countries or donor agencies to use their financial muscle to push for the so called gay marriages in Malawi."

CEDEP's Dunker Kamba told Behind The Mask that the government's recent criminalisation of lesbians was "just coming in from the government to show its people that it is not succumbing to the international pressure."

Germany, Denmark and other countries have cut their aid to Malawi citing a poor governance record. Human rights concerns cited by them are not just LGBT, others include a new law that allows a minister to ban a publication thought to be "against the public interest" and a US$10,00 deposit for a demonstration permit. The US government-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) suspended an agreement with Malawi on funding of new electricity infrastructure earlier this year only in part because of concerns over the new anti-lesbian law. And the funding was reinstated following an agreement which involved the MCC making it clear to the government that:

"Criminally punishing lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals under laws will prompt MCC to initiate the investigation required for suspension or termination of the Compact".

Reacting to the MCC agreement, President Mutharika said his pardoning of a 'gay' couple convicted last year and the absence of political prisoners underscored his government's commitment to human rights.

The growing threat to aid to countries like Malawi with poor LGBT human rights records was underlined last week by a letter from US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to gay Democrat Congressman Barney Frank. It followed bipartisan support in Frank's Congressional Financial committee for new rules which would deny aid to countries which suppress LGBT human rights. Geitner confirmed that his Department “will continue to instruct the US Executive Directors at each of the [Multilateral Development Banks] MDBs to seek to channel MDB resources away from those countries whose governments engage in a pattern of gross violations of human rights.”

Malawian blogger and broadcaster Kondwani Munthali points out "while Zimbabwe could last after telling off Western donors, Malawi cannot afford the luxury."

"Britain is now looking for places to cut its budget" Menthali wrote. "It has removed many country's from its direct support. Malawi survived this chop not because we are bright, but out of our poverty statistics and the loyalty the British have to the people of Malawi."

"Sometimes, death wish is never a wish, but after making a lot of reversals over some controversial decisions, I would ask those responsible for policy decisions to take a deeper reflection on matters before emotions carry them forward."

 

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