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AFRICA: We Are the Government

Jessie Boylan

LAGO DISTRICT, Mozambique, Nov 6 2009 (IPS) - As if they were going to the races, Emma Musako and Monica Mhango showed up in their finest outfits to attend a meeting on the health, social and environmental impacts of uranium mining. They came because they, like the other attendees, no longer want to remain uninformed citizens.

Members of the Women's Forum of Karonga after the meeting. Credit: Jessie Boylan/IPS

Members of the Women's Forum of Karonga after the meeting. Credit: Jessie Boylan/IPS

Last month in the dusty lakeshore town of Karonga in northern Malawi, some 80 people met to discuss issues concerning the Kayelekera Uranium Mine (KUM) which lies 52 km north east of Karonga.

“Before we came to this meeting,” said Musako, a strong willed mother of 10 and member of the Women’s Forum of Karonga, “we weren’t sure what this ‘uranium’ was; we thought maybe it was the name of a person.”

Organised by the Citizens for Justice (CFJ), the meeting had representatives from Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), non-governmental organisations (NGOs), churches, communities and universities; and concluded with a clear strategy and action plan as to how the new civil society ‘movement’ would proceed.

The meeting allowed for opinions to be voiced and for concerns to be raised – everyone had the opportunity to have their say.

“The government is you and me, we are supposed to take control,” said a university representative.

“We are citizens of Malawi, we all have constitutional rights to be protected and safe. Our government is a signatory to international laws… they must protect us,” said a workers rights campaigner.

“We must build bridges between civil society, NGOs, local community and academics,” said a local reverend.

This last point, became the main focus of the meeting, and had the strongest impact on those who attended.

The KUM, which is owned by Paladin Energy Africa, an Australian company, began full operation this year, and intends to begin exporting within the coming months.

The mine began production without the proper legislation in place to deal with minerals such as uranium. Paladin and the government have been criticised for failing to meet international standards of uranium mining and the handling of radioactive waste.

Paladin are junior players in the mining business, with only one other operating mine, the Langer Heinrich uranium mine in Namibia. They have been criticised for being unable to conform to Australian mining standards and turning to Africa, which has little understanding and regulation of uranium mining, meaning they can operate without being monitored or being held accountable.

“Paladin are operating under outdated legislation,” said Reinford Mwagonde, the director for CFJ. “They are operating under the 1981 Mines and Minerals Act, which was passed during (President Kamuzu) Banda’s ‘one-party’ regime, so it is very archaic, it’s very old, and it bares little relevance to current standards.” Malawi’s former President Kamuzu Banda served as president since the country’s independence from Britain for over three decades until a referendum in 1993 ended his one-party rule.

“We have the mine now,” said Mwagonde, “so what we have to work out, is how we’re going to make sure they (begin to) operate according to international standards, and to make sure Malawians (and everyone dependent on Lake Malawi/Niassa) are not in danger. We have to make the government and Paladin accountable, we have to instigate ‘peoples power’.”

According to Kapote Mwakasungula, a village headman for the Karonga region, and director of the Uraha Foundation and chair for the Cultural and Museum Centre of Karonga, civil society does not have a long tradition of dissent in Malawi and the closest action of civil resistance happened in 2004.

“When the president (Bakili Muluzi) was finishing his second term, and he wanted to go for a third, (an NGO) brought together a lot of people into the State House, and that was the first time that Malawi got near to people’s power,” he said. Muluzi did not serve a third term of office.

Mwakasungula has an aura of wisdom and a face of generosity. As an elderly man, and former university lecturer, he is fully aware of the impacts that development has on society, and is hoping that civil society will wake up due to what is happening around the KUM.

“I think the mood is changing now,” he said, whilst eyeing a plate of nsima (corn-based bread) and chicken at the museum café. “After this meeting my hunch is that the KUM position will never be the same. I think that next time, after (another meeting like this) if we were to call a demonstration against Kayelekera it will be massively supported.”

With such a short history of civil action in Malawi, it is any wonder that when the meeting concluded, the question of how civil society is going to work together to move towards change was left open. However, the meeting did succeed in prompting local people and communities to take issues into their own hands.

“I think there has to be one success story, and then it will catch up,” said Mwakasungula. “I think Karonga will be the most likely place for it to happen. It was very positive what happened at the meeting, and we can build on that. I think we can build an alliance, of individuals and of NGOs etc., to make sure that we can generate a people’s power force.”

Musako, sitting with six other local members of the Women’s Forum outside the meeting hall, tells IPS her plans of educating civil society, particularly around the issues of HIV/AIDS and prostitution, which have increased dramatically in the Karonga-Kayelekera region since the mine began operation.

“We’ve learnt about the problems of uranium, and about the death of our sons at the mine, and the problems that workers are facing there, we’ve learnt a lot. We knew nothing, but from this meeting we’ve learnt a lot, and we are able to go back home and tell people about these mistakes, we will be able to tell them and teach them,” she said enthusiastically.

“If we had more resources we would like to go around giving civil education in all of Malawi, because HIV is everywhere, in every corner.” Paladin and NGOs have been throat to throat since the mine began development in 2005, and recent allegations by Neville Huxham, Paladin’s country director, claimed that CFJ and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace were being paid from international sources (who are against nuclear power as an alternative energy source), purely to attack the company.

Whatever the allegations, NGOs like CFJ and CCJP know they are fighting for a clean, safe and just future for generations to come, and will not be deterred by business or government actions to silence them.

“All governments do everything in the name of the people,” said Mwakasungula, “even if they are not really interested in people’s welfare.”

He said that the KUM was not really done in the best interest of the people of Malawi, but people are opening their eyes to this fact and is inspired to see what change will come.

Charles Taphwiyo, the Commissioner of Mines, was unwilling to comment on the mine.

While Musako and the other women from her forum gather for a photograph – they laugh as if they’ve all won the races. “So we will speak with a strong voice,” she said. “We don’t have to fear because our children are dying and in (years) to come people will have more problems, and our animals will be dying because of unclean water, so we have to speak now.”

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