Malawi’s new president has wasted no time in firing the country’s police chief in a move described by observers as the start of a “clean-up” of the old guard.
Human rights groups welcomed the decision by Malawian President Joyce Banda, who succeeded former Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika on Saturday after his death from a heart attack.
Police Inspector-General Peter Mukhito, who was appointed by Mutharika two years ago, was accused of instilling a climate of fear involving arbitrary arrests and the shooting dead of 19 people during anti-government protests last year. He was replaced by Lot Dzonzi a day after Banda was sworn in as southern Africa’s first female head of state and only the second on the continent in modern times.
Wapona Kita, a human rights lawyer who has represented Banda in the past, said: “This is what we have been waiting for. We have been looking for a police that are effective and close to the constitution and the respect of human rights.”
Under Mutharika and Mukhito, “we were in a nation of fear. We were not sure what was going to happen each day when we woke up. There were a number of arbitrary arrests and a sustained oppression of human rights,” Kita said.
Kita said he had lunch with Banda after she became president and was left optimistic about the future.
“The human rights climate will definitely improve. There’s a great atmosphere of being free in our country. People can speak their minds and that’s what we were looking forward to,” Kita said.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation executive director Undule Mwakasungula echoed his sentiments.
“We had been very worried about the way Peter Mukhito conducted himself,” he said. “He was influenced by politicians and ended up compromising his professionalism. We believe Lot Dzonzi will bring back the old face of the police. We want a police of the people, not a police of the politicians.”
The decisive action represents a positive start for Banda, Mwakasungula said. In July last year, demonstrations over economic and governance issues turned violent, leaving 19 people dead. An investigation by the Malawian human rights commission found that police used live bullets to quell the unrest.
Mike Chipalasa, a spokesman for the commission, said: “From our report, police admitted to killing these people using live bullets. The police image nosedived with these killings and it will take a miracle to restore their image.”
Chipalasa alleged that police also had a hand in the death of Robert Chasowa, a student activist who was found dead at a university campus in Blantyre. Police initially claimed Chasowa had killed himself, but the authenticity of his alleged suicide notes has been questioned.