Today was a first for me. It was the first time I've had to close down an office because of an escalating security situation. In hindsight, I definitely made the right decision, but it has been an incredibly interesting and eye-opening experience.
Earlier this week, a prominent member of the opposition party, Atepele Muluzi (also, son of the former president) was arrested. He is/was being held in the prison which is very close to our office (recent reports are that he was moved to a local hospital for high blood pressure). This afternoon, over 200 people (opposition supporters) gathered at the prison gate late today, and were demanding his release. Not much of a big deal, right?
Malawi in generally a peaceful country, but for those of you who haven't been following my facebook posts, it has devolved significantly in the last few months. A zero-deficit budget passed by the ruling party has left the country with little foreign exchange to import much needed goods (fuel, TONIC for all that gin..) Last July 2011, protests against the increasingly austere environment suddenly got nasty, with reports of 18 deaths. The current President, Bingu Wa Mutharika, is reliable mostly for his outbursts in the press, recently telling all non-governmental organizations to "go to hell"' and sniping that the the world bank representative that was sent to meet with him was "too junior."
All of these things are interesting in the abstract. But seeing them played out in real life is almost surreal; I'm surprised at how easily a difficult environment becomes, well - NORMAL. Getting fuel means our drivers have to sit in long fuel lines, our accountant has to harangue the bank for foreign currency (last week, it took two days to get $200, and even then they only gave it to us in euros...). Leaving the country last fall, I got on the airplane to Nairobi and was told that our entire flight had been re-routed to Lusaka - because there was not enough jet fuel to get to Nairobi! Now, I'm thinking I might not even get to Nairobi, as Kenya airways has cut back their flights to and from Malawi.
Fast forward to last week. A Public Affairs Committee (PAC) made up of civil society leaders held a conference in Blantyre, which closed by calling for the President to resign in 60 days, and a referendum in 90. I haven't yet pieced together the rest of the story entirely, but from what I understand, members of the opposition tried to hold a rally on Sunday in Lilongwe (of which Atepele was a part) that turned violent. So, when he was arrested heading back to Blantyre on Tuesday, the situation was, as my office mate Jeff described: "emotive."
I didn't know much of this before 1pm today, but trust my co-workers, who alerted me to the fact that people were streaming in along the road which was our only exit. I understand the power of crowds, and I have no desire to be around them. After a quick discussion regarding the weekend's events (I knew about the PAC meeting), and a call to the Country Manager (who was in Blantyre, and agreed with our assessment), we alerted staff through the emergency phone tree and shut the doors. The road was abnormally busy - and my colleague pointed out some plain clothes police officers and other officials - but there was otherwise blissfully uneventful, and short.
I've been safely ensconced at home since 3pm. I'm getting periodic texts about tear gas around town, and the roundabout near our office did indeed close down around 5pm. All the staff that were in the field are now home, and vehicles are safely stowed. What's interesting is how calm everything is (I'm sitting here watching "What Not to Wear", thankful that the electricity has stayed on all evening) but also tense. I've a greater appreciation for how things can escalate quickly, without one really understanding how, and feeling powerless to change the outcome.