Malawi protests delayed to next month

Aug 17 (Reuters) – Some leading Malawi rights groups agreed to postpone mass protests against President Bingu wa Mutharika by up to a month, but shops and banks in the main cities were closed on Wednesday due to fears of further bloodshed. Civil society groups agreed to United Nations-facilitated mediation. However, they promised more protests if the president did not address the chronic poverty and fuel shortages affecting most of the southern African country’s 13 million people. The groups also signalled that they could go ahead with what they describe as a “vigil” if Mutharika did not listen to their demands. “Parties agreed that the vigil could be held within a period of four weeks,” read a joint statement issued by the groups, Mutharika loyalists and U.N. negotiators on Tuesday. Mutharika’s forces killed 19 people when they cracked down on rallies a month ago at a time when tensions were already rising between the president and foreign aid donors, costing the country close to $1 billion in badly needed aid funding. Civil rights groups want the president to declare his wealth, solve dollar and fuel shortages that have hit the economy and restore diplomatic relations with the country’s former colonial ruler and major aid donor, Britain. The groups had dropped a deadline previously set for Wednesday for Mutharika to start a dialogue, saying they wanted to await a court ruling on whether rallies would be legal. However, tension remained high on Wednesday. Police roamed the streets of Malawi’s main commercial city of Blantyre and the capital Lilongwe while businesses were closed. Some other opposition leaders have called for rallies, handing out leaflets seeking support for street protests similar to those which led to the overthrow of the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year. “It’s quiet this morning as people are not sure what to do. Some people believe that the reasons given for the postponement are not convincing. There’s a feeling of betrayal,” said Yusuf Mateyu, a minibus driver. The British government and leading global human rights groups have called on government forces to show restraint after Mutharika said there could be bloodshed if people took to the streets trying to force him to make sweeping reforms. Malawi police killed 19 unarmed citizens and shot 58 others during protests in July, the government’s rights body said in a report on the unprecedented rallies. Britain suspended aid after Malawi expelled its ambassador during a row with Mutharika, a former World Bank economist. The aid freeze has left a yawning hole in the budget of a country reliant on handouts for 40 percent of its revenues, and intensified a dollar shortage that this week saw the government devalue its kwacha currency by 10 percent to 165 against the U.S. dollar.