Sunday, December 6, 2009

Some lessons from Malawi's democracy

This Saturday, May 9, 2009, a group of people gathered at Goma Primary School in Chikwawa. The bicycle parade to Mgabu Trading Centre, as one way of sensitizing people about the beauty of taking part in national elections, was taking long to start. But everybody kept quiet, no murmuring, complaints or whatever- just some inner hymning, pain. It was as if everybody, more or less, blamed themselves for their delinquency, lack of power to make things happen their way or merely pushed it over to bad luck.
Among this group were Chikwawa group village heads- Goma, Senjere, Changa, Makande, Linga, Singano, Konzere, Jombo, Mpheza, and Mgabu. At Mgabu Trading Centre waited Traditional Authority (T/A) Mgabu himself, and a host of other T/As; Ngowe and Sub-TA Masache, among others. The meeting at Mgabu Trading Centre was initially slated for 10:00am, but arrival delays for a Two-toner vehicle carrying the Public Address System meant 12:00 noon would be the most probable time for departure to the Trading Centre.
Then, around 11:00am, something happened- unrelated to the event that was to be, but in the end (it) related, all the same. Made to relate by the sharp democratic tuned eye of Maynard Nyirenda, Programmes Officer for the Sustainable Rural Growth and Development Initiative (SRGDI), an organisation behind this great gathering of traditional leaders and other villagers, for some, the relatively long distance they had traveled registering on the colours of their bicycles. The village ‘motor vehicles’ had added some dusty colour to their, mostly, black colour.
Distance speaks. It speaks through dust that clings to such mobile property as bicycles, vehicles, ferries, even wheelbarrows.
Back to 11:00am, and what happened:
A man in his late 30s was chasing a little dog in, somewhat, lucid manner from the Southern end of Goma Primary School. He caught up with it just some two metres from Nyirenda and me, behind the primary school. The ‘master’ then started whipping the little dog, fiercely, without mercy, to the extent of even throwing six stones at it (poor dog!). To Nyirenda’s amazement, the dog did not come anywhere near us to seek refuge but lied down before him, licking his hands in an attempt to mollify him.
That is typical of dogs; they often remain close to their master, even when the master is away. They wait at home for his return, for in the dog’s mind the master will always return, and then follows him whenever it is permitted once he returns. The man, who later said his name was Simeon Makaza, was a good man, according to some of the villagers who sat patiently under Acacias trees, waiting for the bicycle parade to Mgabu. He was only infuriated at his dog’s discourtesy in eating his two mice. He had laboured and toiled really had to get those two (mice) because, he claimed, eight more had eluded his seemingly clever hands.
“I wanted to teach it (the dog) a lesson because it is still young, only nine months old. As they say, Kuongola mtengo ndiukadali waungono (the best time to straighten a tree is when it is still tender and young),” said Makaza, seemingly satisfied with the ‘job’ he had done.
We did not leave Makaza at Goma Primary School, he and his dog. He went home, some 100 metres away, took his bicycle and joined the bicycle parade for Mgabu when 12:00 noon came and it was time to go. Every one on the parade wore t-shirts written ‘Ndife Amodzi’ (We are One). Except some four people because they had come alittle late when the t-shirts had run out, but they still cycled, fully aware of the importance of the day.
Any lessons from the ‘master’-little dog scenario at Goma (Primary School)? I asked Nyirenda.
“Yes,” said Nyirenda. “It is like democracy”.
Here is a master and his little dog, and you talk about democracy. Has that scenario gone that far?
“It’s not going far; I am just applying the things we come across everyday, like what we saw at Goma, and relating them to democracy. The symbols we come across in life may represent so many things, including the relationship between leaders and their subjects, which I may link to democracy. There must always be a process through which leaders are made accountable………….”
I say, how does that relate to democracy?
“It relates. The dog had eaten its master’s two mice, isn’t it?”
He claimed so.
“Right. That applies in democratic systems of government, like ours here in Malawi. The national leaders ‘eat’ our votes because we cast them (votes) for them. It is like investing power in them and we expect something back. Something like development initiatives and accountability; there must be a way through which the leaders are accountable. By beating up the dog, the owner- I wouldn’t love to call him master, which does not apply in democracy because the master is the voter, the purported subject- Makaza was just trying to make it accountable for the two mice. Everything we see could have lessons to the systems of our every day life,” said Nyirenda.
That was the reason national leaders have to play to ‘little dog’ once every five years, he said. Just what happened on May19, 2009.
So, the delays in departing for Mgabu were a blessing in disguise; one more lesson about democracy. Nyirenda said, for Malawi’s democracy to grow and attain maturity to the level of the United States of America, for instance, there was need to gauge the pay we have traveled, and suggest some of the things we may put in place to make our leaders accountable, other than instilling in them the spirit that they were ‘masters’.
Rafiq Hajat, Executive Director for the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) and his counterpart at the Active Youth Initiative for Social Enhancement, Marcel Chisi, agree with Nyirenda that there is need to draw some lessons from the 15 years of Malawi’s democracy. The boat is not half empty because even chairperson for the Public Affairs Committee (Pac) Fr. Boniface Tamani, Human Rights Consultative Committee’s (HRCC) chairperson, Undule Mwakasungula and Gender Support Programme’s Cecilia Mussa agree- a common voice echoed by political analysts and scientists.
Some of these lessons came out clearly during public lectures organized by SRGDI with funding from the German institution GTZ. It came under the ‘Demokalase Yathu’ (Our Democracy) Project, which was conceived to help Malawians design democratic principles that make local sense, and tallies with our hopes, wishes and aspirations. Hajat, Mzuzu University political analyst Noel Mbowela, Chancellor College lecture in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies Joseph Chunga, among others, guided Malawians through this process. Each step towards the whole 15-years process a lesson.
Malawi has no parliament, just a national assembly

One of the things that came out clearly was the revelation by Chisi that Malawi has no parliament, only a national assembly. This took students from the Catholic University by surprise. There was some sort of understandable disgust provoked by that revelation, though it is clear that constructive thinking, ironically, is almost taking the place in Malawian politics of the politics of patronage as the void once filled by the zeal to appease, regionalism and nepotism is being filled with pour ideologies.
Having done away with the one party system of government, and thus one-sidedness in thinking, people can now focus on a myriad of other issues- truths, half truths, untruths, abuse, ignorance, or prejudice.
Chisi has picked prejudice, saying the events of 1997 in parliament, when members of parliament (MPs) repelled the Senate, hinged on prejudice for the people of Malawi because, as the behaviour of MPs during the 2004 to 2009 House manifested, there was need for checks and balances.
“Who could check that bunch of MPs? Not the constituents, because those people were clearly following their party leaders’ bid, but the senate. That is to say chiefs, minority groups, among others. It is sad, but true, that Malawi has no parliament because of that action in 1997. Parliament comprises both the senate and the national assembly,” said Chisi.
Hajat, however, says, as far as he was concerned, the Senate was still there- at least in his mind- because the 1997 MPs did not call for a referendum when undertaking such a ‘grandiose’ as to discard off chiefs and other minority groups in that one mad sweep.
That sounds very much like in 1993. In that year, Malawi’s political curtain was apparently in tatters and appeared ripe for revolution. Then came May17, 1994, when came the abrupt, but highly anticipated, change- a new untried political demand made for a nation of learners. It was a curious state of limbo buried by a collective barrage of hope.
“That revolution is not over. We need that spirit to reverse the damage imposed by a handful people over a nation state. We need the Senate,” says Hajat.
He may be infuriated because, as it turned out, the hopeful image of politics of perfection proved merely an illusion. The specter of a smooth ride and fairness was apparently remote from a country still dozing from a dictatorship, weakened by a new slanderous, castigating multiparty regime still nursing the pangs of a shattered economy, an overtaxed population and rife with traits of regionalism.
We may be lucky now, though, as political analysts and experts have started replacing the lack of serious dissent, based on the view that democracy would be perfect and the constitution hole-free. The likes of Edge Kanyongolo, Boniface Dulani, among others, have contributed a willingness to do voluntary research that unearths our shortfalls. No longer do members of the academia, civil society organisations (CSOs), private sector and the media view the political situation through the same prism.
This pleases Nyirenda, who chips in: “This situation will accord the curious, progressive citizen a candid view of where our democracy has come from while, for political scholars, it will supply some footnotes to the relevance of citizens’ participation and, of course, give more ammunition to the ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ critic of the Republican constitution.”
Nobody is willing to relinquish grip over public media
One Bruce Sterling never set foot on Malawi, yet the practical machinations of his words render credence in Malawi. If that sounds unfamiliar, here him (Sterling): “Knowledge is power. Do you suppose that (that) fragile little form of yours, your primitive legs, your ridiculous arms and hands, your tiny, scarcely wrinkled brain can contain all that power? Certainly not! Already, your race is flying to pieces under the impact of your own expertise. The original human form is becoming obsolete.”
Nyirenda agrees that knowledge is power. There are so many ways of getting this knowledge- through school class rooms, conferences, meetings, seminars, every day experience. But none, he says, surpasses the power of radio in Malawi, and to some extent television. And no radio station surpasses the reach of Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s (MBC) Radio One (though Zodiac Broadcasting Station is going that distance).
“People are being denied balanced knowledge here in Malawi; those entrusted with the mandate to rule and not letting go off MBC, and that has an impact on democracy. What it means when we say ‘Knowledge is power’, we mean to say it can change perspectives, it can tilt results, it can misinform. Our people are being shown one side of the coin and that is a serious anomaly,” says Nyirenda, an observation once shared by many.
Dulani, Kanyongolo, Hajat, Mwakasungula, Hajat, international electoral observers, parliament, former president Bakili Muluzi (himself an abuser of the same) have all spoken about it. Even the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority and Electoral Commission’s (EC) media monitoring units have pointed it out. No change.
Students who also patronized the Demokalase Yathu Public lectures felt the same- the need to open up the airwaves to dissenting views.
“Let the people get the power. Whether they have the capacity to contain that power (knowledge) is irrelevant in democracy. Democracy means power to the people and knowledge is one way of imparting that knowledge, power,” says Mwakasungula.
EC Chairperson, Justice Anastasia Msosa, bemoaned it too (patronage of the public media in her assessment of the official campaign period.
“The public media has performed miserably in leveling the playing field for other political parties,” she said.
Democratic governance makes it necessary to provide a time frame, which in Malawi’s case comes every five years after any other national election, where it is necessary to unmask, through a secret ballot, the mass of repressed political wishes lying within the unconscious so that a new possibility founded on informed knowledge and choices may be launched to inspire people towards the next course of development. Two months before this all-important unmasking process, the EC pays for airtime on public broadcasters so that other political players should have a platform to share their plans, aspirations, wishes compressed in manifestos.
It never happened in Malawi this time (2009), though it happened in 1994 when the winds of change drew cracks across the hither to single wall. This is despite the fact that, with the 2004 general elections approaching and Muluzi ineligible to succeed himself- having served the two constitutional terms- people though things would change.
There is hope, however, as most analysts agree. Chisi and Mwakasungula agree that 2009 may not be fatefully late a beginning to start the process of change. We are still learning, says Chisi, as evidenced by the fact, for example, that it may take Malawi over 228 years to reach the level of democracy of the United States (if maturity in democracy was measured by the number of years in it, which is, fortunately, not the case. Democracy lies in the head- the willingness to learn and change).
While it may be hard to know the real intents behind people who would want to abuse their political mandate by monopolizing public airwaves, Mwakasungula says it becomes less hard to isolate their intents from the will of the people. It all boils down to intolerance and selfishness, which is often fortified by their propaganda apparatus including the use of public broadcasters.
Our liberalized markets need democracy, too
The idea behind democratic systems of government is to avoid monopoly of power by politicians. Those who re-designed democracy must have learnt it the hard way from corporations that monopolized markets in the past. The corporations originally had power over every dimension of people’s lives: they produced what they (not people) wanted; produced of whatever quality they determined; they fixed prices and costs; they decided on the future of each of their employees and, sometimes, on the future of entire communities.
They could even determine where people lived; what work, if any, would do for them (people); what they had to eat, drink and wear; what sort of knowledge, schools and universities needed to encourage; and what kind of society children had to inherit. Not only that, they also affected everybody in their treatment of natural resources and how they decided to deal with their own factory garbage and residues.
Some of these ills, chips in Hajat, continue to be practiced with our market players.
“Take our tobacco buyers, for instance; they form cartels and connive on prices; they refuse to share, let alone disclose, part of their huge profits with the tobacco farmer in Rumphi, Kasungu, Dedza. The case is the same with the tea grower in Mulanje, Thyolo; and cotton growers in Salima, Chikwawa, Nsanje. This shows the clear need for democracy in our market economy,” says Hajat.
He adds that the British government, for instance, makes more money from taxes imposed on tobacco products that the real man who toils on the ground in Malawi can even imagine. They make billions, he says, when it is the same old poverty story for the African farmer.
His sentiments may emanate from the reality that, while our economic system is sold to us under the banner of a liberalized, free enterprise economy, experience shows that free enterprise no longer exists, if in deed it ever did. This because free enterprise, as the name implies, would have been a system in which buyers and sellers had equal powers, met at a neutral market in the real village, possess equal information and make their trade without leaving traces of poverty behind.
Our markets may not be that neutral, in the words of Hajat, because tobacco buyers dictate the stakes and government still passes legislation that rigs the market by giving certain groups investment tax credits, incentives, depletion and depreciation allowances, subsidies, rebates and price supports.
Assertions best understood by long time Kasungu farmer, Andrew Bauti: “We need democracy on the tobacco market, and powers enabling farmers to vote out players who practice unfair trade. In our system, currently, neither small and big businesses nor buyers and sellers are equal in any way. It is very unfair on us because we toil and get nothing in return.”
That may be true because power is contagious. It can only be fought with equal, or more, power. Buyers are more powerful than the rural farmer. That is where democracy comes in when, for once, common citizens retain their power to fight possible excessive of power by those in elected positions. This upon the realization that every human group that exercises power does so, not in such a way as to bring total happiness to those who are subject to it, but in such a way as to increase that power.
That happens when we all pretend to own up to the moral values of democracy none of us possesses. And Hajat is against it.
From personal to ideology-based politics
Then comes the question of presidential and parliamentary elections. Sterling wrote that elections were a means by which people delegated and extended their mandate to national leaders so that, after a specific period of time, the people (electorate) get their mandate back and extend it through the election, or re-election, of new leaders.
Every thing in life is an extension, he argued: as the wheel is an extension of the foot; clothing an extension of the skin; the roof an extension of the sky; synthetic hair an extension of tree leaves; democracy an extension of choice, to the effect that it is no longer meaningful to see democracy as a subject. It has even moved from an object of desire to that of designing.
People have designed elections not as an end, but a means to an end. And the way Malawians are achieving their means to this end (electing leaders) has pleased Fr. Boniface Tamani, chairperson for the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) so much.
“People have moved from the politics of personalities to politics based on principles and ideologies, something we have been advocating for all these years. It is pleasing to note that we have started moving towards that direction,” said Tamani.
It is only natural to appreciate, as he does, because every election is a complex process. The complexity is compounded by the reality that it involves a multi-purposed society of ever-evolving egos, a development that means voting on personal, regional, or ideological lines could not be out of the complete question. To expect that every one will vote on the basis of principles is tantamount to thinking that every citizen thinks alike, says Nyirenda.
“Elections, and democracy in other words, counters the myth that we live as autonomous individuals, as islands unto ourselves, without rights balanced by duties. Our ‘Demokalase Yathu Project’, for instance, is premised on the realization that every decision each and every Malawian makes-whether it be to sell yourself into slavery or to sell yourself into prostitution- adds to and creates the telos of communities you are part of. You do not exist as an island, in democracy, you live in the context of majority wishes,” said Nyirenda.
Not that the majority should take everything for themselves, he adds, but must employ selflessness, compromise, servility and understanding to improvise the minority population (voters), the social-economically disenfranchised, the socially and politically marginalized and the psychologically weak. When people vote on ideology lines, it feeds into their nature that they must consider the wishes of others without being tainted by partisanship, nepotism, regionalism, or whatever,” according to Nyirenda.
Many analysts have hailed Malawians for voting along ideological lines this time around, though sentiments by Malawi Congress Party leader, John Tembo, seemed to suggest he wanted people to maintain the status quo.
What does the sentence, “Those who know the politics of this country will understand that the way (Bingu wa) Mutharika has amassed the number of votes he has is very, extra-ordinary”, mean? (That is an issue for next time).
People get the government they deserve
This is Rafiq Hajat’s tirade against none-voters. During the 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections, only one in every two registered voters trekked to the polling station, while the rest stayed home, some remained on the wheel (track and bus drivers). It is called voter apathy, a term referred to a scenario where eligible voters decide to stay out for various reasons. There has, however, never been a comprehensive study on the reasons voters opt to stay out of the polling station even before voting (when you vote, you are not supposed to linger around the polling station. Before you vote, you are most welcome).
“Some of these people were then heard murmuring and complaining about all sorts of things. If you don’t vote, the administration that comes in is the one you deserve. The solution lies in voting,” he said.
He may be backed by fact. In 2004, people gave Mutharika, then standing on United Democratic Front ticket 36 per cent of the presidential vote. The policies, ideologies and principles he brought into office were the things that the people deserved.
Come May19, 2009. There was a huge turn out, which Muluzi has equated to the situation and enthusiasm of 1994. It can not be ruled out that most of the voters that shunned voting in 2004 came out this time around, and voted for Mutharika.
Mutharika has chalked 2, 946, 103 votes, translating into 50.7 per cent of the total votes. Tembo, his staggeringly insignificant runner up, got 24 per cent of the vote when he got 1, 370, 044 of the 5.8 million registered voters.
Why do we say that? “Because Mutharika has amassed an overwhelming number of votes than anyone else in multiparty democracy since 1994. The people who stayed out have understandably contributed to this, after discovering that, may be, Mutharika style of leadership is the one they wanted and deserve,” says Gender Support Programme’s Cecilia Mussa.
The youth have a great role to play in Malawi’s democracy
It came out clearly, from the minds of Chancellor College’s Chunga and Mbowela of Mzuni, that Malawian youths form a political bloc that can be dismissed at one’s own peril. The youths, especially those pursuing higher education, are taken as role models in rural areas, are flexible to new ideas, have more access to communication channels, and have the energy to pursue their dreams, said Chunga, and could therefore influence political change.
Mbowela cited last year’s election in the United States of America, where he said the youth, as a bloc, influenced the election of Barack Obama, as the first African American president. This influence lies not in voter apathy, but in the ways their goals and aspirations are employed and the common end to which they are directed. In the USA, this common end came in their hope for change, and voting for it.
It lies in action, youths’ power, according to Mbowela and Chunga. Action Chunga said was evident during the nationalist period when university youths formed a universities’ revolution group that influenced political change across the width and breadth of the continent.
A power still evident in current development initiatives. The youth contribute towards farming in Malawi, they have helped in Malawi Social Action Fund work, as well as the income generating public works programme, adds Chunga.
But their main power and influence lies in their numbers. If only they redirect their energies (from violence) to leadership participation, their influence could work well for the country’s development, in the reckoning of Chunga.
Gender equality, too, is a great issue
A long, long battle that represents, in a way, the short of human rights advocacy. The United Nations has mechanisms that ensure that the minority are not suppressed by the majority- some form of guarantee that the majority will not take everything for themselves but employ selflessness, compromise, servility and understanding on the needs of the minority.
Nowhere do they talk about the suppressed majority, like women, and how the powerful, influential minority should handle them (selflessness, compassion, compromise, servility, understanding), a magnanimous sought of international oversight because women contribute a whooping 52 per cent to the Malawian population.
The suppression of women arose originally on grounds of economics, which held that cultural and moral change derive from changes in economic structure. This perceived suppression got perpetuated with the concept of private property; mainly because women could reproduce, they, like animals, were defined as property.
Mussa feels that this practice is continuing in Malawi, looking at the nature of positions our women hold in society. It is evident in the continued second class status most women are subjected to, especially in rural areas where the husband is very much the patriarch to be feared and worshipped in equal measure.
“It is also clear in the difficulties women continue to face in so many areas- their continued difficulty in regulating such matters as sex, marriage, procreation and divorce,” she says, one of the reasons gender activists may have almost turned gender equality advocacy into women empowerment campaigns.
Mussa is convinced this practice is also rampant in employment because it allows employers to get two workers for the price of one as there are huge disparities between salaries men and women get at the workplace. The man is paid wages but his wife, who performs the services necessary for him to live a decent life during the many hours he spends at work, is not paid (by the husband).
Women also provide a cheap reserve of labour, which helps keep wages down and profits up.
Will this change?
Emma Kaliya, NGO Gender Coordinating Network’s chairperson sees no reason why it should not. She says, through advocacy work, things were now improving- raising the hopes even high for women the black clouds may ascend even further and live room for light. This light comes when women are elected, or appointed, into decision making decisions.
“That is why we have applauded President Mutharika for choosing Joyce Banda, a reputable woman, as his running mate and, consequently. Vice president of this country. We are really happy. Now we want a female speaker,” said Kaliya.
Some 40 seats have gone to women in parliament, following the May19 elections. This goes against the goal for the 50-50 campaign for women in decision making positions.
Gender activists are not worried. They say ensuring that women get to the same level as men, in terms of numbers and influence, is a process. But it is not a one-day process.
As Malawi moves more and more towards the island of democratic maturity, women shall finally make it, according to Kaliya, who sums up:
“We know for sure it will happen, and society will be an improved lot because women are known for their caring nature, their unsurpassed love.”
The battle for women empowerment, a majority that suffers suppression, is a battle of love, and care.
Local government elections are an integral part of democracy
Hajat says the absence of councilors has been felt for the past four years, one that shows that their presence fills some void in the democratic open space. He says failure to hold them violates people development and political rights, as the duty of MPs was not to initiate development activities in their areas but make laws.
Nyirenda and the others agree. How can we help the common Malawian understand the tenets and principles of democracy when there is no democracy near him (meaning councilors). He says councilors were democracy brought to the people, to sit and chat with the people and sleep with the people.
“Unlike most MPs, councilors live with the people they represent; they know them personality. Isn’t that not democracy near the people?”
This has been one of the shorts so far, democracy that stays with the people. The distance from Salima to Capital Hill is too huge to be ‘walked’ on foot. The distance to the councilor’s house is not, says Nyirenda.
The journey to explore the lessons from our fifteen-year old democracy, too, is too huge to walk on foot. It is like walking from Salima to Capital Hill.
We are at Mvela.

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