afrol News, 22 May - At least 3,000 militant youths and women members of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) on Monday besieged the premises of Blantyre Newspapers, angered by the newspaper group's stand against President Bakili Muluzi's bid to run for an unconstitutional third term when his constitutional two-terms expires in 2004.
There was high drama as the UDF loyalists held a rowdy demonstration outside the newspaper offices that publishes the 'Daily Times' and the weekly 'Malawi News'. They threatened to storm the premises and beat up journalists.
The ruling party loyalists were angered by the newspapers' persistent articles against the proposed third term bid for the president. After a series of stinging commentaries against the bid, the proverbial last straw that broke the camel's back was last weekend's article in 'Malawi News' which disputed claims by Henry Mussa - the ruling party's Member of Parliament for the southern district of Chiradzulu - that up to 185 chiefs had mandated him to support an amendment to the constitutional clause that limits presidential terms.
But the Presidential Affairs Minister Dumbo Lemani brought two senior chiefs to the newspaper officers after the demonstrations where the chiefs re-affirmed their support for the presidential third term. The militant youths started gathering outside the newspaper offices as early as 07h00 local time. By 08h00 the crowd had swollen with hundreds of people coming in truckloads.
Staff of the paper barricaded themselves in their offices as the women chanted their support for the third term bid while the youths angrily demanded an apology from the paper. Blantyre Newspapers Managing Editor Jika Nkolokosa said he did not know why the youths decided to demonstrate outside their offices. In its Monday editorial, the 'Daily Times' challenged the ruling party saying it will not be shut up by threats.
The demonstrations, which - despite the inflamed emotions - were largely peaceful, went out of control when the angry youths beat up a staffer who was seen attempting to record registration numbers of the vehicles that brought in the demonstrators.
It had to take a meeting between Lemani, the Presidential Affairs Minister, and Blantyre Newspapers Executive Chairman Cassim Chilumpha who incidentally is an executive member of the ruling party.
Lemani then asked the demonstrators to disperse. Lemani later said in an interview the angry demonstrators were only exercising their democratic right of expressing a political opinion. When asked him whether the newspaper had no right to freedom of the press he said when the freedom clash there is bound to be conflict.
He said as far as the ruling party is concerned President Muluzi will be its candidate come the 2004 election. "What do you think can happen if Dr. Muluzi does not run again?" he asked rhetorically. "There will be chaos because a lot of people would have been denied their right to political choice."
The issue of Muluzi's third term is threatening to tear the ruling party asunder as senior officials of the party are quietly showing their disquiet over the debate.
When the ruling party's southern region governor Davies Kapito last week warned that any MP who does not support the third term will be fired, Environmental Affairs Minister Harry Thomson described the statement as emotional saying nobody should control how MPs vote. "If you think in a certain way don't expect everybody to think the same," he said.
In recognition to the potential split in the party, the UDF Blantyre governor Eric Chiwaya at the weekend warned Muluzi that if he decides not to stand again the party will break up. He light-heartedly told the president that he risks legal action from the party should he betray the wishes of the majority of UDF supporters.
Although Muluzi himself has not expressly said he wants the job he has not said he does not want it either. At a political rally at the weekend President Muluzi said he does not want to rule Malawi for life but he did not say anything on the 2004
Based on an alert by Zoe Titus, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)