In 2011, the people of Malawi took their frustration over rising taxes, fuel shortages, and the increasing authoritarianism of the government to the streets.1 Beginning at the University of Malawi in February, the protests spread across the country, culminating in large public demonstrations in July. In response, the Government of Malawi ordered a crackdown on the protestors in which 20 civilians were killed and 58 injured by the police.2 The crackdown inspired further unrest and violence, which in turn led the government to accuse the opposition of attempting a coup d’état. Civil society leaders then issued the government with an ultimatum, giving it a month to address the concerns outlined in a 20-point petition or face further street protests. Some militant opposition groups threatened violence should the demands for reform be ignored, while rumours that the government was hiring Zimbabwean mercenaries in preparation for a conflict served to heighten tensions even further.3 The likelihood of further violence and an escalation into armed conflict was high.
The UN Secretary-General was quick to recognise and respond to the crisis, appointing a Special Envoy in July 2011 and tasking him with calming the situation and preventing a recurrence of the recent violence. The Envoy successfully brought the parties together and, on 16 August, they formally agreed to participate in a UN-facilitated National Dialogue in which the 20-point petition would serve as the agenda.4 This provided a credible alternative to the protests, which under the circumstances remained a potential spark for armed conflict. Between September 2011 and March 2012, UN staff mediated talks between government officials and representatives from civil society. These efforts succeeded in reducing tensions and containing the immediate crisis, however much work remained to resolve the conflict. The UN Development Programme led efforts to prevent conflict and reduce tensions at the regional level, while other agencies worked to create a safe and secure environment in which the upcoming elections could be held.5 By engaging with both parties and providing a mechanism for constructive dialogue between them, the UN effort helped to prevent the political crisis from escalating into armed conflict.