Commission of Inquiry in Malawi Declares Student Activist’s Death Murder

October 11, 2012

In September 2011, two months after the devastating anti-government protests in Malawi which left 19 people dead and in the midst of a violent and coordinated crackdown on political critics, a young student activist, Robert Chasowa was found dead on his university campus. Police ruled the death a suicide, but his family, friends and fellow activists believed that the injuries Chasowa suffered were inconsistent with a suicide and instead pointed to murder – one which they believed was politically motivated. However the political climate under former President Bingu wa Mutharika which imposed a veil of secrecy and oppression of dissent meant there was little chance of the truth emerging and those responsible being brought to justice.   

The death of President Mutharika in April 2012 and the coming to power of Joyce Banda appeared to usher in a new system of governance in Malawi and promised a greater degree of respect for human rights. President Banda has taken a number of steps which demonstrate her commitment to the rule of law and a brighter future for Malawi, including announcing that Malawi would arrest Sudanese President Bashir if he were to visit and reigniting aid relations with Britain. But her announcement, in only her second major press conference as President, that there would be a commission of inquiry into Chasowa’s death was an indication that not only was she looking to the future, she was also not prepared to let the human rights violations of the previous regime go unpunished.  It was an acknowledgement from President Banda that for Malawi to move forward, it has to confront its past.

The Commission of Inquiry was chaired by Supreme Court of Appeal Judge Andrew Nyirenda and heard testimony from 94 witnesses and assessed a post-mortem conducted on Chasowa’s body. The Commission presented its report to the President on Tuesday, and the full report will be made public by the end of this week. After submitting his report to President Banda Judge Nyirenda stated that the Commission had concluded that the “suicide notes” purportedly written by Chasowa were faked and that the injuries suffered by Chasowa indicated that the student had been murdered.

President Banda welcomed the findings of the Commission and assured Malawians that having determined that Chasowa was murdered, she would ensure that those responsible for his death would be brought to justice. More details on possible investigations and prosecutions will come to light once the report has been made public.

The response of the political and judicial arms of the new Malawian government to this report will be a good indication of the practical commitment of President Banda’s administration to the change she promised when she was inaugurated. It may also serve as an example and sound a warning to other authoritarian and brutal regimes that leaders cannot protect themselves and their henchmen forever. President Mutharika had tried to preserve his legacy and his security by grooming his brother to succeed him as President, which would presumably have protected all those involved in the dirty tricks he is suspected to have authorised and encouraged in Malawi. However, he was unable to do so and now, with a strong leader at the helm, Malawi is looking to bring those responsible for the brutality and human rights violations to justice.

Malawi had long been seen as a shining light in Africa, but which dimmed considerably under President Mutharika. However, with this Commission of Inquiry and her response to its conclusions President Banda has the opportunity to set Malawi on a new path and play her part in the forging of new ground; that of an African leadership prepared to ensure that previous regimes are not granted the immunity that has become so commonplace on the continent.

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