Monday, July 15, 2013

Malawi: 49 Years, Living the Lie of Independence

July 6, 1964. A young man, less than 24 hours old, abandons his maiden name, Nyasaland, adopts a strange name, Malawi, and departs from his elder guardian’s care into a world he knew nothing about.

And the young man saw that deserting the elder guardian’s care was not enough!

The young man, consequently- having retired from his elder guardian’s care for the unknown bush- shrugged off all the Black Jack’s hooks that clung to his only shirt, opting for the heat emitted by the fragile rays of a rising sun!

Thus, in a village half-known to the world, a new nation was born. Malawi!

Did Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), the legal expert, politician and author realize that this was bound to happen, anyway, when he said, “But when subjects, by a long course of such ill conduct, are once thoroughly inflamed, and the state itself violently distempered, the people must have some satisfaction to their feelings more solid than sophistical speculation on law and government”?

He might have known.

The road to hope

If not, why did people like Rev. John Chilembwe (1871 – 1915)- who, some historians argue, inflamed the seeds of nationalism when he led the natives of Chiradzulu in rebellion against Thangata system (bonded labour)), hut tax, and other ills on 23 January, 1915- rise up against the British authorities?

Burke argues, in his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, that “I am, and ever have been, deeply sensible of the difficulty of reconciling the strong presiding power, that is so useful towards the conservation of a vast, disconnected, infinitely diversified empire, with that liberty and safety of the provinces which they must enjoy, or they will not be provinces at all.”

Indeed, it is the shortfalls, and excesses, of the diversified British Empire that begum to inflame and disorient the natives, culminating in the fight for Malawi’s independence- pressure that bore fruit on 6 July 1964.

The British Empire- so outstretched and magnanimous - could no longer cope up with the demands of a ‘vast, disconnected, infinitely diversified empire’, a responsibility that came with the prestige of being the ‘elder guardian’ of many peoples. And, as destiny would have it, that responsibility started to wane when, in the 1950s, agitations for independent rule increased.

What hastened this state of affairs was the colonial rulers’ ill-fated decision to form the Federation of Nyasaland and Rhodesia in 1953, bringing Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Malawi into an unholy alliance that was doomed to fail due to opposition from nationalists.

Proponents of independence had their ranks strengthened when Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who had been studying medicine in the United States of America, returned home on 6 July, 1958. So determined was Banda to break “the stupid federation of Nyasaland and Rhodesia” that he accepted to become the leader of the National African Congress [Nac –the modern day Malawi Congress Party (MCP)]. The Nac was a child of the educated Nyasaland elite who wanted more freedoms and expressed their grievances- first through natives’ associations and, then, the Nac- with willful force.

And, for his daring spirit, Banda was arrested and sent to Gwelo Prison in Zimbabwe- only to be released in 1960, so he could attend a constitutional conference in London, United Kingdom. After that, it was journey-started for the MCP, which went on to score an overwhelming victory when elections for a new Legislative Council were held on 15 April 1961.

This victory, and growing calls for self-rule, prompted the British government to offer Nyasaland self-governing status in 1963, a development borne out of November 1962 Constitutional Conference held in London. And, as promised, Banda assumed the position of Prime Minister on 1 February 1963, though he did not become the de facto leader because the British administrators maintained a strong hold on key aspects such as judicial, financial, and security operations.

Chances of Nyasaland finally detaching herself from Britain then grew following the adoption of a new constitution in May 1963, and the subsequent abolition of the Federation of Nyasaland and Rhodesia on 31 December 1963. The implication was that, as the new day dawned on the Land of the Lake, a new nation was born. Within seven months, on 6 July 1964, the former British colony became a member of the Commonwealth.

It had been a long journey; a journey that ended in favour of the British by chance. While the Portuguese reached this part of Africa much earlier, with records stretching their presence as earlier as the 16th Century, it was Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone’s 1859 visit to Lake Nyasa that titled the stakes in favour of the British!

And Livingstone’s troubles were rewarded 32 years later when the British government declared Nyasaland a protectorate in 1891.

However, it was until 1966 that the prodigal son (Malawi) adopted a new constitution that paved the way for a one party state. And it was Banda, who had become the symbol of Malawi’s enduring spirit, who became the first President.

But his road, like the colonial one before it, had to reach a point of no-through road. That happened when Malawians voted in favour of multiparty democracy during the Referendum of June 1993.

And, what had, for 30 years, been a single party state stretched into a democracy after the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections of May 1994. The electorate gave the United Democratic front (UDF) the mandate to rule democratic Malawi by electing 82 of its 177 Parliamentary candidates to the National Assembly.

But, in spite of the UDF’s third successive victory in the Presidential elections of 2004, the party was dealt a heavy blow when its winning presidential candidate, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, announced on February 5, 2005 that he had dished the party because its leaders were frowning upon his zero tolerance for corruption crusade.

Thus, just in the nick of time, the UDF became an elections’ winning opposition party! Mutharika later formed the Democratic Progressive Party (MCP), prompting seasoned politicians such as former Speaker of the National Assembly Sam Mpasu to question the logic of forming a political party while in government. His argument was that one “forms a political party in order to get into government, instead of getting into government in order to form a political party”.

It was a puzzle. Really. A puzzle replayed on the DPP following Mutharika’s sudden death on 5 April 2012. His DPP had been a ruling party on this day, only to be pushed to the opposition benches in Parliament when President Joyce Banda was sworn in on April 7. Her Peoples Party moved from being an aspiring ruling party to a ruling party.

Such have been some of the jig-saws strewn along Malawi’s independence path.

Contrasting signs

However, while the country has made strides in improving the living standards of its people, the path has been thorny for a large part. In their Democracy Report for Malawi, for example, Dr. Wiseman Chirwa et al aptly observe: “The 1990s witnessed a remarkable surge in civil society in unmistakable stages of development, but which in the end failed to act in concert with the state to pursue a socio-economic programme.

“The population labours heroically to make a living by scarce means; adult literacy is 57 percent (42 percent for women), infant mortality is high, and nutritional indicators are subject to the harvest and vagaries of household income”.

As a result, “Malawi is among the poorest and most foreign-indebted countries in the world, nine-tenths of all people making a living from low-productivity agriculture…Less than half of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) comes from agriculture, though the high-value segment of the sector provides 90 percent of exports. Industry accounts for 12 percent of GDP; a third is agro-based for export.

“In the decades since Independence, Malawi has partaken of the continent's sharp fluctuations in growth. In the manner of other sub-Saharan countries, it has had to reform its economy without much improvement of its meagre productive base. Acute inflation and stagnant peasant agriculture characterise the economy. Creating jobs, guaranteeing food, strengthening infrastructure for production, correcting mal-distribution, and reining in prices are priority socio-economic tasks in this young democracy.”

Until that is done, however, the living conditions among ordinary citizens will continue to be dire.

However, other researchers have been more sympathetic to Malawi’s situation. In his article, Economic developments in Malawi Since Independence, published in the Journal of Southern African Studies (Vol. 2, No. 1), Simon Thomas observes that, “ideally, the actual performance of the economy should be compared with its potential, but, given the possibility of different objectives by policy makers, this potential has no uniquely defined meaning.”

Adds Thomas: “To compare the situation before and after independence is likely to be meaningless if either the objectives of policy or external economic environment have radically altered. An alternative approach might be to compare Malawi’s economic policies and performance with that of a country with similar resources and objectives, but no similar country exists for such a comparison to be made.”

This notwithstanding, documents from the Ministry of Finance indicate that the country’s economy continues to perform relatively well against its own history, as seen when Malawi maintained single-digit inflation during the later part of Mutharika’s regime.

The domestic debt got sliced as well, from 25 percent of GDP in 2004 to 11.6 percent of GDP in the 2010/2011 fiscal year; with the budget deficit being reduced from 7.8 percent of GDP in 2003/2004 financial year to 1.5 percent of GDP in 2010/2011 financial year.

While economic, political and social commentators may continue to debate the pros and cons of judging Malawi’s performance, what is clear is that the pillar of independence is now of 49 years’ standing.

The road to nowhere

Even though Malawians purchased their freedom after a long struggle, and constructed their pillar of independence using the moisture in their blood, there is little to show for their pain- at least in some social and economic respects.

For the ordinary citizen, the road to sustainable development has had various windings, raising doubts that citizens’ aspirations were about to be met. It is like the nation has abandoned the right path.

After all, didn’t Voltaire (1694 – 1778) not warn “That a right line, which is a right line so long as it is finite, by changing infinitely little its direction, becomes an infinite curve; and that a curve may become infinitely less than another curve”?

Supposing the ‘right line’ to be development, can we say that we have stayed the course when public projects whose funding has been approved by Parliament go unimplemented?

The Centre for Social Concern (CfSC) sums this well when, in its Policy Brief No. 1: The Paradox of Continuous Foreign Borrowing in a Rash of Stalled debt Sponsored Projects, it observes that a number of health care service and road construction projects have been abandoned after due Parliamentary approval.

Mathias Burton Kafunda of CfSC’s Economic Governance Programme observes that the government should take the flak for this. “The reasons for the rash of stalled or abandoned debt sponsored infrastructural and other projects across the country are often not too far to seek. For one, there is the poor performance by the government itself. For decades Malawi’s reform efforts to make an impact with foreign borrowed money have been Tango 1-2-3 movements: One step forwards, two sideways and three backward.

“There is no penalty within government for bad borrowing decisions or poor project implementation. And in respect of improving delivery of ‘pro-poor’ services, the mindset of the Political/bureaucratic elite is similar to Rhet Butler’s famous last words in Gone with the Wind:Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’. The accountability of government officials to the citizens is far more attenuated; in effect, it is utterly non-existent.”

This lack of accountability and neglect manifests itself in Neno district, probably the only fully-fledged district without a tarred road in Malawi. Save for the modern health facilities erected by the Clinton/Hunter Foundation, the district would have been the cold spot on the Warm Heart of Africa.

Another district that has borne the brunt of neglect is Phalombe. Although Parliament approved a US$7 million (approximately K2.3 billion) debt from Badea (a grouping of Arabic governments), the people of Phalombe continue to depend on private hospitals. Apart from the living, the dead also suffer- as their lifeless bodies are often ambulanced to Mulanje District Hospital or Zomba Central Hospital for storage.

But one other feature that betrays the term independence is the lack of lights (neon or otherwise) on bill boards announcing one’s arrival to a city, district, or town assembly. When local or foreign tourists drive into a different administrative area, they are more likely to miss the message ‘Welcome to Chikhwawa/Salima/or Nkhotakota’ at night because of the lack of lights.

No wonder that one foreign tourist, British citizen Michael Robinson, once asked me after we had driven past Chia Lagoon on our way from Salima to Nkhotakota Zero-Point (Central Business District): “So, where is the demarcation between Salima District and Nkhotakota?”

I told him it was the bill board we had driven past some five minutes, or so, before. He could not contain his laughter (read, mockery). He has missed the ‘Welcome to Nkhotakota message’ because it was dark outside. Robinson then schooled me on the meaning of lights, saying they symbolized the presence of people.

“If there are no lights, the way it is in most parts of Malawi, it means that the people there are dead,” Robinson said, to my chagrin.

The only time these light-less welcoming billboards are visible at night is when light from the headlights of an on-coming vehicle reflects against the billboards, revealing the ‘Welcome to…’ words. In which case, the headlights represent foreign influence because, without them, the message on the billboard remains invisible and thus dead.

Which raises the question: Can the dead claim to be independent?

Indeed, what is the meaning of independence when the aid budget in Malawi contributes up to 38 percent of GDP , which goes further to reveal our degree of dependence? What is the value of independence when the influence of bilateral and multilateral donors remains enormous? Is it Malawi that introduced Structural Adjustment Programmes against its own will, for example?

To say the truth, the country is indebted to foreign governments and donors. In the 2012/13 fiscal year- to quote Budget Document Number 5’s Draft Estimates of Expenditure on Recurrent and Capital Budget for the Financial Year 2013/14- year-on-year interest on foreign debt amounted to K3.9 billion, and will hit K5.2 billion in the 2013/14 national budget.

It is estimated that the figure will inflate during the 2014/15 fiscal year, hitting K8.4 billion.

The fact that interest on domestic debt in the 2012/13 fiscal year hit K28.9 billion- and is expected to hit K30.3 billion in the 2013/14 budget, and K35.0 billion in the 2014/15 fiscal year- only buttresses the point that the citizens of independent Malawi are forever dependent on others!

Consumer rights activist, John Kapito, says that poverty and the heavy yoke of debt may forever weigh down Malawi’s fragile back because of greed among politicians.

“Politicians think only of themselves. They get into the government poorer than a church mouse, and get out extravagantly richer. Our leaders think not of people but themselves. They are guided by greed,” Kapito says.

Untying the tentacles of greed

Did Kapito say greed?

The great philosopher, Aristotle, in the Fifth Book of his Nicomachean Ethics, observes, in a get-over-the-hill-the-way-you-like way, that greed is the “extreme opposite of justice”.

To which the great Italian poet and politician, Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321), adds: “Greed ignores man himself and seeks other things, but charity ignores all other things and seeks God and man, and consequently man’s good.”

Freedom, adds Dante, consists of being ruled by reason and in living for the goal of mankind.

“We must realise that the basic principle of our freedom is freedom to choose, which saying many have on their lips but few in their minds. For they go only so far as to say freedom of choice is freedom of will in judging. This is true, but they do not understand its import. They talk as our logicians do, who for their exercises in logic constantly use certain propositions, such as ‘A triangle has three angles equal to two right angles’ (they just confuse people).”

The implication of this observation is that, even after collectively toppling the colonial regimes that presided over the affairs of Africa after the Partition of Africa (set rolling after the Berlin Conference of 1884 – 1885), post-independence leaders rule simply because they want to unify their people, other than bringing real development to them. And, soon, excitement turns into murkiness as citizens’ hopes falter.

Which brings us to the conclusion made by one author, long before Malawi came into existence.

“But”, observed Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), author of books such as Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) and The Social Contract (1762), “in truth, what else was to be expected? Every community without laws and without rulers, every union formed and maintained by nothing better than chance, must inevitably fall into quarrels and dissensions at the fist change that comes about.”

May be this change- after colonialism and one party rule- was the democratic government that came into force in 1994. But, like those before it, the citizens have not, really, benefited, and all the democratic regimes are bound to fall ‘at the first change that comes about’.

May be this state of affairs could be blamed on the governance systems adopted by the leaders. Emmanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), in his tell-it-as-it-is book Perpetual Peace (written in 1795 when he was 71 years old) observes that there are some three notable maxims that leaders who are bound to fall follow, namely: Fac et excusa (First do and then excuse); Si fecisti nega (Deny whatever you have committed); Divide et impera (divide and govern).

According to Kant, leaders who adopt the Fac et Excusa concept “seize every favourable opportunity of usurping a right over their own state, or a neighbouring state. After the action, its justification may be made with greater ease and elegance…”

The Si fecisti nega type, however, deny whatever they have committed. “For instance, if you have reduced your people to despair, and thus to rebellion, do not confess it was through your fault. Place all (blame) to the account of the stubbornness of your subjects. If you have taken possession of a neighbouring state, maintain that the fault lies in the nature of man, who, if he is not anticipating, will certainly seize upon the fortunes of another.”

But it is the Divide et impera type that behaves in a funny way. “If there exists among a people certain privileged chiefs who have conferred upon you sovereign power (primus inter pares), set them at variance with each other, embroil them with the people. Favour the latter and promise them more liberty, and all will soon depend on thy will. Or if your views extend to foreign states, excite discord among them; and, under pretense of always assisting the weaker, you will soon subject them all, one after the other.”

It is these leadership qualities, may be, that have turned independence into nothing more than a fallacy.

Independence doesn’t exist

When everything is said and done, is there any such a thing as independence?

Dante said independence, or put the other way, sovereignty, doesn’t exist.

Said Dante: “Furthermore, human society is a totality in relation to its parts, but is itself a part of another totality. For it is the totality of particular states and peoples, as we have seen, but it is obviously a mere part of the whole universe. Therefore, as through it the lower parts of human society are well ordered, so it, too, should fit into the order of the universe as a whole.

“But its parts are well ordered only on the basis of a single principle, and hence it too must be well ordered on the basis of a single principle, namely through its governor, God, who is the absolute world government. Hence we conclude that a single world government is necessary for the well-being of the world.”

On the other hand, it could be that independence really exists, but, like a ‘tender stem of a reed’, it has been overstretched by the machinations of post-independent leaders, making it lose one of freedom’s essential ingredients, namely: The Common Good!

After all, didn’t the poet Bouterweck warn against stretching the reed so much when he recited, before Malawi was born, thus:

Bend the tender stem of a reed;

Bend it too much and it breaks.

He who attempts too much attempts nothing.

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