By Richard Chirombo
Mussa Paulo, DPP, nearly banged into an on-coming lorry ON august 27, 2007, as he attempted to duck Dyson Misomali, a United Democratic Front (UDF) director of youth for Blantyre- Kabula constituency.
Paulo, also from Kabula, is no stranger to politics, or politicians. Not merely because he currently serves as Democratic progressive Party constituency governor for youth; he has over the years been bodyguard to a myriad of notable politicians who, from an observer's point of view, have little in common other than the common string that is politics, and being Malawian.
Talk about Malawi Congress Party (MCP) President John Tembo, New Republican Party (NRP) president Gwanda Chakuamba, Stanley Masauli of the resuscitated Republican Party, and Steve Ching'ang'a, among other notable politicians- he has served them all as bodyguard- either as a single individual or part of a security detail.
"The reason I nearly got run over was political; many Malawians have a long-held view that people who belong to other political parties, other than their own, are their sworn in rivals, that there should be no interaction whatsoever. I might have shared in this misconception, but now I know (what politics is all about). Politics, in the developed world, means campaigning in the run-up to federal or national elections, and then holding hands for the sake of national development thereafter. Not in Malawi," says Paulo.
He defends his case by adding that a majority of Malawians have taken politics beyond its traditional meaning, perhaps because of its Chichewa translation of Ndale which, literally translated into English, comes to mean 'slashing one's legs at one go' (as in cutting of grass)-a martial arts technique that sees someone falling over himself from the sudden effect of a slash-like movement of the legs.
Yet, in his own words, he also reveals that on so many occasions, in his other life as bodyguard, he came to learn about the behind-the-podium-life of politicians. He saw his (former) bosses screech to resounding halts whenever they saw their perceived political 'enemies' embroiled in the delay-tentacles of an auto-mobile break-down.
After which, he says, they would agree on where they would meet for one-too-many, or beer, sessions. 'Why can't we learn from this, as we approach the May (19, 2009) general elections, that the polls may be peaceful, that in the end we will all agree to concentrate on development until one's term of office expires? There is a lot to be done to transform our lives, and all these things depend on purpose of unity".
Politicians do it at night.
A lot, it seems, needs to be done, and the signs were bounty recently at Namatete Primary School, in Blantyre, where constituency-level politicians drawn from various political parties met to discuss unity as we approach the May 19, 2009 general elections, equally expected by many a politician and political analysts to be the most challenging Malawi has ever braced since the advent of the Third Republic.
The primary school lies at a distance of 900 metres, East of Chirimba bus stage as one goes towards Blantyre City Centre. There, at Namatete, is a wall two-metres tall, that swallows linear-constructed, but dilapidated all the same, blocks christened classes. These walls also serve as classrooms. In fact, over six chalkboards cover every ten metres of this wall (sorry, classroom!) and, every school day, pupils sit down on stones facing this brown wall.
Every school day, teachers bid their homes bye saying 'we are going to school', yet it is a wall they mean. All they do, and know at this school, ironically constructed in one of Malawi's highly esteemed cities, Blantyre, is stand in front of the wall- the pupils, some can hardly afford soap, watch both the teacher and the wall. Of course they listen to the teacher and not the wall, but environments can also talk. The wall cries for help, in form of classrooms, enough teachers and quality education, on behalf of the pupils.
But, according to UDF's Misomali and Ephraim Pofera, MCP constituency secretary for Kabula, the school remains in such state because people are pre-occupied with politics: the opposition always against, the ruling party always dictating. People are the ones who suffer.
"They (innocent people) are denied their right to development. The problem affects children hard; in this case, pupils have to brace the rain, sometimes so heavy, wind, and the October sun. It's unfair, really. Tit-for-tat politicking, on every side, both the opposition and the ruling party, is retarding social-economic development," says Misomali.
This has largely been detrimental, he enthuses, as some people go about removing other parties' flags and political insignia. Where has sanity gone, when Malawi was supposed to be a boat? One boat.
In fact, in the words of Pofera, what has gone haywire with multiparty politics in Malawi, that it now means enemies to the point of shedding innocent blood? Multiparty politics were supposed to be at the individual person's discretion, whether to join this party or that, just as it happens with churches. He rightly points out that some are catholics, presbyterians, protestants, restorationists, muslims, hindus, among other religious affiliations. But they don't stone each other for their beliefs, they live in peace.
"After all, after all", exclaims Pofera, as if powered by the virtuoso of a newfound revelation, " were we not all members of one political party during the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda's regime. Were we not all MCP? The institution of a multiparty politics' system simply meant we now had a choice, and making one's choice doesn't mean violence or muzzling of other views. No, that is anathema to democracy," explains the MCP constituency secretary.
But all the three grassroots' political officials agree that the key to peaceful 2009 elections is not success on the voting day. Rather, the key rests in the processes initiated in the run-up to the same, and that this means political involvement of communities and their leaders. They say, at the moment, politicians only use people at the grassroot to propagate their political ambitions, mostly using violence against perceived political enemies. This is exacerbated by deep-rooted poverty, high illiteracy levels, lack of clearly spelt out ideologies and ignorance about world political systems among rural and peri-urban dwellers.
The future, however, is bright, the way MCP campaign director for the constituency Duncain Hora sees it. Hora says the first solution to any political impasse lies in the realisation that before politics and whatever it means, there was kinsmanship among all and sundry in Malawi; that brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandmothers and fathers, even good neighborliness first lived before politics.
So, as we approach the 2009 elections, people should put these considerations first before thinking of politics. That way, Malawians will come to take politics and elections as only a process through which people who love each other tell those who have failed to impress and have failed electorates' expectations that "well, you will do better than this next time, from the experience you have, let us help the one we now want to fill in your weaknesses. Anyone who chooses someone, or allows themselves to be elected to fill the gaps in other people's weaknesses, is a friend in deed," says Hora.
Edward Chaka, executive director for Peoples' Federation for National Peace and Development (Pefenap), an organisation that has been holding discussions on civil and political rights in the districts of Blantyre and Thyolo, with much emphasis on freedom of assembly and association, says imparting knowledge on grassroots leaders and community members is one plausible approach to solving the probable problem of political violence during the 2009 general elections, among the country's political players.
Lack of knowledge is one weakness that has, for a long time, been exploited by politicians to use villagers as tools of political discourse. But with the requisite knowledge that comes from realizing that every citizen has a constitutionally-enshrined right to form or join a political grouping of their choice; that this right goes with the freedom to assemble as a means of achieving political ends, may be the genesis of much needed political tolerance necessary to achieve sustainable social-economic development.
"In the end, resolving political issues at national level should be a process that begins at community level; it is a local responsibility. It is at this level that people are exploited and engaged to be castigating political opponents," according to Chaka.