BY RICHARD CHIROMBO
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 too long to start. But everybody kept quiet, no
murmuring, complaints, whatsoever- just some inner, psychological
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 democratically-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 most of these, the relatively long
distance they had traveled registered on their bicycles. The village
‘motor vehicles’ had added some dusty colour to their, mostly, black
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 (linking the two to democracy); I am just applying
the things we come across in everyday life, 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, too. The national leaders ‘eat’ our votes because we
cast them (votes) for them (leaders). The votes are not for free. It
is like investing power in them and we expect something back.
“Something in terms of development initiatives, favourable laws and
accountability. 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
Malawians needed to find out the impact of the four times (1994, 1999,
2004 and 2009) our national leaders were made to lie down and account
for their political actions. They then got re-elected (positive
sanction) or got the boot (negative sanction). That happens when
little dogs lie down.
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.
Some of these lessons also came from various other analysts and observers.
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
“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.
No one way about it,” says 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 an “enormous task” 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
“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,
which they have presented at various platforms. 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
Nobody is willing to relinquish grip over public media
One Bruce Sterling never set foot on Malawi. True. Yet, the practical
machinations of his words render credence in Malawi. If that sounds
unfamiliar, hear 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
“People are being denied balanced knowledge here in Malawi; those
entrusted with the mandate to rule are not loosening their grip over
MBC, and that has an impact on democracy. What it means when we say
‘Knowledge is power’ is that 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 thought 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
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 opted for democracy over all other
forms 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 whatever quantity or 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
“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 than the ‘real’ man who toils
on the ground in Malawi can ever imagine in his basket. They make
billions, he says, when it remains the same old poverty story for the
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
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 use 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 really 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
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 may 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
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 opted 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 government and
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, those who voted,
but more importantly, those who did not.
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 votes. EC
statistics indicate that 5.8 million people registered to be in that
lonely house, polling booth, for some 10 seconds or more.
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’s style of leadership could
be something they have wanted all along 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
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 agenda,
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
minority groups are not suppressed by the majority- some form of
guarantee that the majority will not take everything to 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 sort of international oversight because women comprise a
whooping 52 per cent of 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 higher for women is the fact
that the black clouds may ascend even further and live room for light.
This light comes when women are elected, or appointed, into decision
“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 target for the 50-50 campaign for
women meant to catapult more women into decision making positions.
Only that the secret ballot may not be the best of catapults.
Gender activists are not worried, though. 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
“We know for sure it will happen, and society will be an improved lot
because women are known for their caring nature, their unsurpassed
The battle for women empowerment, a majority that suffers suppression,
is a battle of love, and care.
Democracy is Malawian
Chisi further dispelled suggestion democracy was foreign. He said it
was both local and foreign, but more local than foreign.
“Our chiefs practiced it over a long period of time, even before
colonialism. In fact, colonialists found democracy here (in Malawi)
because our chiefs used to delegate cases to their counselors (Nduna
zamfumu). Isn’t that democracy?”
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 local government
elections violates people’s 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”,- a form of living democracy that
sits and chats 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
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 may be forgiven for being at Mvela in Dowa, and not Capital Hill yet.