BY RICHARD CHIROMBO
June 14, 1993: Heavy political clouds enveloped the horizon, as voters kicked through the rotting one-party dictatorship door to beckoning multiparty democracy huts. Malawians felt that the rains would be too heavy for a single roof, and sought shelter in a multiplicity of political huts.
The political rains fell heavily in May 1994, when the electorate voted for political change. In the euphoria that followed, the bitter past was quickly forgotten- so much so that the violence (burning of losing Malawi Congress Party Land Rovers and property in Salima and other districts), corruption, questionable public tendering processes, political appeasement, monopoly of State-run media, diversion of development projects from opposition strongholds to ruling party zealots’ abodes, among other creeping tendencies, tasted sweet.
Sixteen years down the line, however, the huts seem to have quickly evolved into some form of desolate wildernesses, forcing voters in such districts as Chikhwawa onto the unkempt road-of-common sense in search of simple answers.
“We were made to understand that democracy means the power to participate in political and development activities. So far, this has not been the case: the ordinary man and woman can still not get his or her voice heard,” said Andrew Mantchichi from Chikhwawa Central constituency.
When citizens lose the prospect of a response from those in authority- councilors, Members of Parliament (MPs), District or City Assembly officials, Cabinet Ministers and Heads of State and Government- it is called participation without power.
“This (Participation without power) breeds voter apathy,” said Noel Msiska, Coordinator for the Southern Region chapter of Civic and Political Space Platform (CPSP) - a grouping of civil society organizations working in the area of human rights, governance and democracy.
That is not all. Even when citizens enjoy the power of participation, the challenge is that policy-makers and political leaders assume that rights of participation carry with them the ‘automatic’ prospect of tangible benefits- the truth, on the other hand, is that this is work half done. The task at hand is to establish which modes of participation, in fact, bring real development rewards, and to whom?
This realization has spurred Christian Service Committee, Association for Progressive Women and Church and Society-Blantyre C.C.A.P. Synod- CPSP member organizations in the Southern Region- into action as part of a Danish Church Aid initiative to build religious and community leaders’ capacity in readiness for next year’s Local Government Elections (LGE). And the findings were shocking.
After years of multiparty politics in Malawi, Chikhwawa people are yet to find the real meaning of democracy. At Chikhwawa National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) offices earlier this month, religious leaders struggled to make local sense of democracy.
Chikhwawa Pastors Fraternal chairperson, Hussein Nguwo, blamed it on unpleasant experiences people have come to associate democracy with. When experiences are generally painful, they cease to be the ‘greatest teacher’; instead, they become a distraction and burden.
Over the years, Chikhwawa communities have learned to dismiss such burdens, leaving a litany of problems unresolved, he noted.
“One of the reasons is that voters are disappointed in Members of Parliament (MPs), most of whom prefer urban areas to their rural constituencies. People believe that councilors will be no different.”
It is a challenge that calls for consulted efforts, meaning: media practitioners, policy makers, political parties, development partners should continue their role of making common sense out of difficult-to-comprehend issues and providing technical and financial support; while religious leaders should continue to pray for rains, offer spiritual food, visit hospitals and prisons- they should also preach politics, responsible politics.
“With renewed hope, we can rejuvenate voters’ interest in development and politics again.” said Nguwo.
It is a step that begins with voters developing real interest in the Republican Constitution. Unfortunately, according to Msiska, the Constitution remains an elite’s domain, leaving ordinary citizens in the shadow of ignorance. Constitutions can, sometimes, become principle causes of conflicts, too. They have, throughout the history of civilized politics, provided the ground for rallying cries from communities in general, and communities of interest.
Msiska said the word Constitution, susceptible to great latitude of interpretation, would be but imperfectly understood if we supposed that people attach the same meaning to it.
“This has never been the case,” Msiska said, adding that varying levels of literacy render it impossible to land on common grounds. Even with equal qualifications, people will still fall for different tastes.
In addition to this observation, constitutions have also been employed to achieve various objects. In monarchies, constitutions were sold as implements for attaining ‘national development’; same with representative regimes, where they sought to safeguard similar ‘development’ goals, promising respect for fundamental rights; while in one party states, they propagated the policy of ‘reform’ as the object, Msiska noted.
‘Everywhere, at least, the constitution means change and trouble. However, in our case, it has largely buttressed national consensus and solidarity.”
Like all guidelines, the Constitution must also embrace two important principles: the ability to challenge accepted social mores and the latitude to make mistakes. More related to this is the principle that elected leaders must respect the generally held consensus to protect certain values while being free to challenge their (the values’) continual validity.
In so doing, there will be mistakes. As has been the experience in Malawi- on such issues as the Third Term attempt by former President Bakili Muluzi, abuse of power by the opposition during President Bingu wa Mutharika’s first (2004-2009) term, Democratic Progressive Party’s current dominance in parliament culminating in rubber-stumping of controversial bills including one to modify the National Flag- someone at some stage is bound to take a step too far.
The challenge to most Malawians, says Pastor Velias Bwanamali of Kasinthula Assemblies of God, lies in failure to respect the right of others to ‘go a step too far’, saying it is through mistakes that human beings get the best out of themselves.
In Malawi, summary judgement of politicians has become an obsession, and Bwanamali is worried. He said it was apparent that anger is taking the place of reason, offering no chance for reflection on the meaning of such issues as democracy, human rights and responsibilities.
Not all things need serious reflection, though. Some things are too obvious to be unclear, said Limbani Chipembere, Programmes Officer for Church and Society-Blantyre C.C.A.P Synod. Take, for instance, the issue of voters, monitors, candidates, and an independent electoral body- every election needs them.
The other factor is that every election has conflict built into it because elections are borne out of politics, which is a form of positive conflict- competition to achieve the common good.
Chipembere notes, however, that some seemingly obvious issues warrant reflection. One of these pertains to our voting system, the First-past-the-post. Because one can ride at the back of a single vote, the country has voter apathy sanctioned in the system.
During the 2000 LGE, for instance, political analysts faulted the electoral calendar for perpetuating the trend, yet voter apathy had been a notable feature in the 1999 Parliamentary and Presidential Elections. The argument was that, during the 2000 LGE held in November (coinciding with the onset of rains), voters narrowed their focus to their bellies and maize granaries- never ballot boxes.
The term elections’ ‘hung-over’ also cropped in. Analysts noted that just the preceding year (1999), people were on the non-paid-for lines again, voting for a Head of State and Government and MPs. The disputes that ensued after announcement of the Presidential results might have angered many, forcing them to fold the hand that stretches into the ballot box.
Just this year, during the By-Elections held in Dowa and Mangochi, voters preferred to stay home, again. The DPP MPs elected will still walk down the narrow road to the New Parliament Building in Lilongwe to represent the few who voted for the ‘many’, thanks to First-Past-the-Post system.
“This trend should spur us into reflective action. I have the feeling that MPs or councilors elected by a few do not carry much authority; ideally, the more voters turn up, the more authoritative one feels,” Chipembere said.
It is a perception shared by Vincent Chibowa, Advocacy and Communications Officer for Christian Service Committee (CSC). He said religious leaders have more influence over their congregation members, increasing the likelihood of getting voters back to the voting lines- it is merely a question of stirring the spirit that convinces target beneficiaries to stand their ground on long subsidized farm inputs’ queues.
Stirring that spirit could entail the use of a bottom-top approach in community development plans. Chibowa felt that the tendency to force development policies on people could have contributed to voter apathy.
“We need to be open-minded. Leaders should not come with preconceived ideas but strive to solicit real contributions from grassroots communities,” he said.
With open minds, organizations such as NICE have started uncovering some of the challenges. What comes clear at Chikhwawa NICE Resource Centre are issues of illiteracy, lack of accountability and transparency, difficulties to reach out to elected representatives, among others.
It seems that Chikhwawa women are left behind in terms of reading culture. From January 2009 to May 2010, the percentage of female readers has never exceeded 15 women out of every 100 males, with the lowest registered mark being 7 per cent. On the other hand, male readers always surpass the mark of 85 per cent. These are people who visit the NICE District Library, Ndife Amodzi, Chikhwawa Prison, Mtera and Sangano resource centres.
How can people who do not value reading get the right information to make informed decisions? The trend could be food-for-thought for civil society organizations advocating for 50-50 representation of women in politics and decision-making processes.
The situation is made complicated by the general inaccessibility of MPs. In the absence of councilors, MPs have come to be regarded as the first-line of call for community members, some of whom have reduced the role of an MP from law maker to coffin-buyer. Chikhwawa has registered some success in accountability levels because each Traditional Authority, Paramount Chief and Senior Chief has their mobile number publicly displayed.
But community members complained over MPs. Legislator for Chikhwawa North, Grain Malunga’s, number is missing. Same with MP for Chikhwawa South Joseph Tembo: his number, too, is missing; they are inaccessible when out of Chikhwawa.
The case is different with Chikhwawa Central legislator, Bernadetta Mlaka Maliro. Instead of furnishing only one mobile number, she has provided two.
Every society, perhaps, gets the ruler it deserves.