Blantyre - Heavily armed riot police were deployed on the streets of Malawi's major cities on Thursday as the government braced for protests against tough reforms designed to right the economy and win back investors.
In Blantyre and Mzuzu eyewitnesses said riot police had been deployed along the routes the marchers were expected to take. In Lilongwe, the administrative capital, protestors were to gather at the district commissioner's office.
Many Malawians are feeling the pinch from economic reforms that have been instituted by President Joyce Banda.
"Our chief concern has been the flotation of the kwacha which has led to unreliable market prices and forcing the currency to slide down... against the dollar," said John Kapito, the outspoken executive head of the consumer group leading the protests.
The reforms, which are backed by the IMF, have "led to the suffering of poor Malawians," he claimed.
Half of Malawi's 14 million population live below the poverty line and the country is highly dependent on donors, who make up 40% of its development budget.
One year ago similar economic protests descended into nationwide rioting and looting that left 19 people dead.
Then the riots, to force the government of the late president Bingu wa Mutharika to make greater reforms, were fuelled by anger over chronic fuel and foreign currency shortages.
Against this backdrop police vowed to "guarantee maximum security to protect life and property".
But while the situation remained tense, fears of widespread unrest appeared to have been overstated.
Many schools, banks and other businesses opened normally, although private schools shuttered their doors.
"We have called for peaceful demonstrations and we assure the business community not to panic," said Kapito.
"We have deliberately taken routes where business is not conducted."
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