22 July, 2014

Malawi at Fifty: Celebrating Independence Amidst Political and Socio-Economic Anxieties

by Harvey C.C. Banda

On 6th July 2014 Malawi clocked fifty years since the attainment of independence from her former colonial master, Britain. As is the case in many African countries, scholars have long debated the question of independence - whether or not (in this case) Malawi got genuine independence. The dominant view is that Malawi, just like most African countries, got political and not economic independence! In other words, Africa never got weaned from her ‘colonial master’ mother. A situation that is worse off than the common chicken-chick scenario. Yet even the so-called political independence leaves a lot to be desired: there is a lot of political bickering and undue in-fighting among people who are entrusted with the responsibility to administer development. Shameful indeed. In this article, I take a swipe over Malawi’s fifty year independence period with a view to predict what lies ahead bearing in mind that ‘history repeats itself’. I argue that despite being independent for fifty years, based on what is obtaining on the ground politically and socio-economically, it is as if Malawians have only been independent half that time. Quite amazing!

Around this time last year I authored an article titled ‘Malawi at Forty Nine: Economic Misery or Progress?’ in which I centrally argued that the economic challenges outweighed economic progress, as it were. I went on to argue that the independence celebration period was a moment for deep reflection and not a time for merry-making since there were so many areas which required not just catching up, but literally patching up! For instance, in terms of infrastructural development, Malawi continues to rely on genuine infrastructure that was put in place by the first President, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda (1964 – 1994). It would, therefore, not be far from reality for one to argue that during the silver jubilee independence celebrations in 1989 there was something to showcase, hence to celebrate about. However, this does not mean that everything was rosy. In fact, during this one-party, dictatorial rule Malawi had a bad human rights record where freedom, liberty and fraternity were more of a mere illusion. Yet some of these represented the very foundations on which the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) of Dr. Banda was, arguably, built.

In this article I argue that a year later, Malawi is worse off! Sadly, and realistically though, it is as if you are cycling down-hill and while in motion your brakes snap! There are usually few options in such a hair-splitting scenario: you try to control (merely directing) ‘the now-uncontrollable’ machine while, simultaneously, saying your last prayers just in case of a worst case scenario (death)! The situation that is obtaining in Malawi would be likened to this scenario because, surely, you do not know what the next fifty years will be like. In this case, I have to point out that I am not a pessimist; I am simply being realistic and objective about it. When things are good, tell it; when they are not, they are simply not. Period. This reminds me of the great twentieth century idealist, Woodrow Wilson, who in his wishful thinking, looked at World War One (WWI) as ‘a war to end war’ and, unfortunately, it is common knowledge that the reality was and still is the exact opposite.

One of the notable developments in the history of Malawi is the introduction of multi-party politics and democratic governance in 1994. This actually replaced the once-mighty one party system under the then flamboyant ‘His Excellency, the Life President of the Republic of Malawi, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda’ (may his soul rest in peace). It is not surprising that such a personality was associated with all kinds of myths. I remember whenever we were chatting while in junior primary school in the 1980s we used to caution each other “don’t mention the name Ngwazi because he hears every conversation that people make about him and despite your location, you will be arrested by the police and the youth league members”. As if this were not enough, we had youth league members aged over fifty, clearly a propaganda tool! The youth league was in many ways mightier than the police: they could soak someone wet for merely having forgotten to carry an MCP membership card. As if that was not enough, there was also the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) which was more military (at times rivaling the Malawi Army), than its theoretical intention: to impart agricultural skills to a cross-section of the populace.

Things really improved politically after 1994. Malawians became freer than before. They could belong to a political party of their choice. The dominant political parties then were United Democratic Front (UDF) of Bakili Muluzi, Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) of Chakufwa Chihana, and MCP which eventually came under the tutelage of Gwanda Chakuamba and John Tembo, respectively. Although this was the case, democracy, good as it is, came with attendant problems: misinterpretation of human rights and freedoms by Malawians, especially the youth; laziness and dependency syndrome as Malawians relied more and more on handouts from the ruling UDF; and competition amongst the successive political leaders to carve for themselves and their party a lasting political legacy. This seems to be the obsession of most political leaders up to the present day. Unfortunately, it is real time development that suffers since there is no continuity in government ideology and policies, themselves a sure foundation on which lasting development is solidly built. It is partly a result of this that the Karonga-Chitipa tar mac road, which is only 101 kilometres long took more than ten years to complete; again thanks to the timely intervention by the People’s Republic of China.

The same ugly story applies to the education sector. When Bakili Muluzi took over leadership in 1994, he had good intentions of increasing access to tertiary education following the hasty introduction of Free Primary Education. In order to realize this goal, he upgraded Mzuzu Teachers’ Training College (TTC) to university status, in the process establishing Malawi’s second public university, Mzuzu University. The latter opened its doors to students in 1999. On paper the idea was very good. The government was eventually supposed to ‘relocate’ the defunct TTC. Sadly fifteen years down the line construction of this TTC is yet to start! Secondly, Mzuzu University was expected to be permanently located at the much-talked-about Choma Campus. Whole villages were relocated at the site and, alas, fifteen years later the project is still in its infancy as no single block has been erected and the local people are left wondering: ‘why did you move us?’ I wonder if there is any official who can give them a convincing response. When Bingu Wa Mutharika took over leadership in 2004, he abandoned this project and came up with his brainchild: establishing not one, but five public universities. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2012 before even one of these became operational.

Following the demise of Bingu Wa Mutharika, Mrs. Joyce Banda took over the Presidency in line with the provision in Malawi’s constitution. Banda was the first lady President and the fourth President since the attainment of independence. Malawians including most people in Africa had high expectations from her leadership. A few months into her tenure things started to improve for the better: fuel crises and maize shortages were a thing of the past. This was in stark contrast to the last years of Mutharika’s rule. However, after barely one year her reign was embroiled in a deep-seated financial mismanagement scam, locally dubbed cash-gate scandal, which actually shook the very foundation on which her political party, the now withering People’s Party (PP), was built. Through this millions of Malawi Kwacha were looted from the government coffers at Capital Hill in Lilongwe. In fact, it was as if there was no one in control: quite reminiscent of the ‘sheep without shepherd scenario’.

To add salt to injury, Banda generally lacked political clout and stamina. No wonder the Tanzanians capitalized on this to claim part of Lake Malawi. The dispute remains unsettled a few years after it erupted. She had also espoused populist politics earlier craftily used by President Bakili Muluzi between 1994 and 2004. She was usually out in the field conducting the so-called development rallies where distributing maize and elevating chiefs became the order of the day. Little did she know that twenty years after the introduction of democracy, Malawians had become politically literate. At this point her Presidency days were numbered. No wonder she performed miserably during elections in May 2014: she came third and her party, PP, won less than 30 seats in a 193-member Parliament. Malawians’ hope is now in the hands of the newly elected President, Professor Peter Mutharika, who has an up-hill task to win the trust of Malawians because of his late brother’s faltering and hovering legacy.

Based on the foregoing discussion, it is clear that the second twenty five years of Malawi’s independence (1989 – 2014) are associated with more problems not only on the political scene, but also on the economic arena. Economically, Malawi started breathing a sigh of relief following the establishment of Kayerekera Uranium Mine in Karonga District around 2009. However, five years later, the mine has majored in retrenching her workers, citing losses on the international market.

Although all is not lost, Malawi’s leadership has to pull a surprise if the current socio-economic and political landscape is to improve. That is why I reiterate my earlier position that the future remains bleak. Malawi needs to overhaul the political engine if this political vehicle is to go another fifty years! This is in line with the old adage ‘unenesko ukubaba’ (truth hurts). I rest my case.