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Controversy Over Academic Freedom In Malawi Grows

19 May 2011 19 May 2011 Tags: No Comment Print This Post Print This Post

Former Binghamton PhD student, Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, involved in controversy over academic freedom in Malawi.

Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula

There is good reason to be concerned for the safety of our friend and colleague Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula. After earning her PhD in Comparative Literature at BU in 2010, Jessie returned to her homeland in Malawi at the beginning of this year, hired as head of the English department at Chancellor College, the main constituent college of the University of Malawi. Immediately she began to serve as acting president of the teacher’s union, Chancellor College Academic Staff Union (CCASU). The present situation began around February 12, when her Chancellor College colleague, Blessings Chinsinga, Associate Professor of the Department of Political and Administrative Studies, was summoned by the police chief, Inspector General Peter Mukhito and asked about the content of a lecture he gave. Allegedly, Chinsinga compared the popular protests in Egypt and Tunisia to Malawi’s fuel and food crisis. On February 21, Lecturers (professors) at Chancellor College marched to Eastern Police headquarters to present a petition to Mukhito against “political threats and intimidation,” citing a number of articles from the Malawi constitution that ensure academic freedom. The academic staff also noted that the police chief’s action was based on information passed on by “informers in our lecture rooms” (Nyasa Times, 21 February 2011). The union asked for an apology from the chief of police and assurances that the Constitution of the nation would be upheld. The lecturers declared that they would not hold lectures until they were assured. Mukhitho stated that issues of national security limit the right of academic freedoms.

The President of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, supported the Inspector General of Malawi Police, who “will not apologize to anyone, I repeat, Mr. Mukhitho will not apologize to anyone.” He repeated himself once again in Chichewa, the official language of Malawi and Zambia, to underscore his tone of authority (Nyasa Times, 22 March 2011).

Mutharika also ordered the lecturers to resume their work. Jessie and her colleagues asserted that they were afraid to enter classes because the Inspector General had not assured academic freedom that is provided for under the Malawi Constitution. In the middle of March, the education minister, Ben Phiri, has also indicated that “there is still room for further negotiations” to resolve the standoff. But the University of Malawi (Unima) Council, chaired by James Seyani, ordered its employees to resume classes by March 24 or face disciplinary action. Those willing to return had to sign a declaration designed by the Council. The CCASU held a meeting and resolved to stand their ground, and issued a renewed call for an apology and assurances that their rights as academics would not be violated by the police, government, or University of Malawi (Unima) administrators. They obtained a stay order from court against any directive forcing them to be in class before their demands are met.

On March 31st a number of students held a demonstration in support for their Lecturers. The police broke up their demonstration, hurting a number of students and arrested others. Apparently the union lawyers who went to visit the students in jail and in the hospital were denied access. A student at Polytechnic told a local reporter that they were demonstrating against the Lecturers’ decision to end their boycott and return to class before they got assurances that their freedoms would be respected. (Nyasa Times, 1 April 2011).

On April 6, the authorities of the University Council ordered the closure of the schools involved with the boycott, Chancellor College (Chanco) and the Polytechnic (Poly), in defiance of the court order. On April 8 Jessie claimed that neighbors tipped her off that there were some “thugs in unmarked vehicles looking for her” near her home. She said, “No amounts of threats will take me away from what I stand for. I will continue fighting until Mukhito addresses our demand unconditionally.” Yet she was forced to relocate to another city. She also applied for a visa to come to the US to attend conferences but Immigration Department of the Internal Affairs Ministry of Malawi has not issued her with a new passport (Nyasa Times, 7 April 2011 and the Malawi Democrat, 8 April 2011).

As of April 13, Jessie’s name is included among a group of human rights activists who told the newpapers that they are under attack by the government (The Nation, 12 April 2011). She is in hiding in another town in Malawi. The latest news came on Wednesday when Malawi High Court Judge Rowland Mbvundula also dismissed an application by the Unima Council and some students to force boycotting lecturers at Chancellor College (Chanco) and the Polytechnic (Poly) back to class (Nyasa Times, 14 April 2011).

Considering Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula is an alumni of Binghamton University and served honorably as the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) President in 2008-09, it is my belief that Binghamton University should come to her defense. We should recognize her as a product of our university deserving our support and care as Binghamton university’s ambassador to East Africa, who is fighting for the integrity of academic freedom.

by Carol Linksy SUNY



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