Sunday, February 2, 2014

Governance: Embracing Issue-Based Politics in Phalombe District

Mathews Kaliwe, 75, from Traditional Authority (T/A) Mkhumba in Phalombe is so sure that Malawi’s old generation would have been “younger” than they are had multiparty politics remained outside the realm of life in the country.

As if that is not enough, Kaliwe vows that the advent of multiparty politics in 1994 has fast-tracked the pace of his ageing.

“I remember that, in 1992, I could till over five hectares of land without getting exhausted easily. But, today, I can hardly till one hectare of land, and this is because democracy has increased my worries. Multiparty politics has given crooked politicians the leeway to cheat us, and I feel like a victim of multiparty politics,” Kaliwe says.

Kaliwe, a father of 12 children and 16 grandchildren, says the past 19 years have seen him getting worried over so many things, ranging from the lack of potable water, road infrastructure, electricity, to food.

“I blame it on politicians, who have been cheating us since 1994. They promise the moon, but cannot offer even the stars. In my village, Mkhumba (Village), for instance, there is only one borehole, yet almost all the Parliamentary candidates in the 2004 and 2009 Parliamentary and Presidential Elections promised to drill three boreholes in this village,” Kaliwe says.

Kaliwe says he has become increasingly worried in the past five years because, every evening, his wife goes out to look for water. He says he stays awake until his wife comes back home, a development that has made his marriage lose its early allure.

All these factors have forced him to undergo a rapid modification, a development he partly attributes to his diminishing faith in politicians.

As things stand, however, Kaliwe is not the only one from Phalombe who has become angry at the political governance system. Traditional leaders, too, have joined the fray.

T/A Mkhumba, one of the handful female leaders in the district, acknowledges that politicians’ tendency to abandon their promises was the biggest enemy facing development programmes in the district. She says, left unchecked, the situation would fuel voter apathy.

“The main problem is that some unscrupulous politicians and even Non-Governmental Organisations have been taking people for a ride, promising what they cannot deliver. In some cases, politicians relocate to urban areas once elected into office, while some NGOs just want to use people when wooing donors, only to disappear once they get what they wanted,” Mkhumba says, adding:

“This is dangerous because people are getting frustrated. The problem with these politicians and NGOs is that they do not realise that the rural voter is no longer ‘backward’ in their thinking. People are now ‘awake’ and ready to choose people who represent their aspirations. Gone are the days when politicians and NGOs used people as a transmission belt into power.”

Indeed, as part of the political awakening, people re now demanding that politicians who are serious about improving people’s livelihoods and bringing infrastructural development initiatives should sign Social Contracts, replete with a chapter giving constituents powers to terminate their contract with the elected leaders and “fire” them from power.

Thanks to the British Department for International Development, which is funding local NGOs through the National Democratic Institute, the people of Phalombe have started consolidating ideas which will form part of the Social Contract.

The contracts will be enforced in all the five constituencies in the district, namely: Phalombe Central, Phalombe East, Phalombe North, Phalombe North East and Phalombe South. Mkhumba has vowed to make sure that Local Government and Parliamentary Elections’ candidates put their promises in black and white.

She says this will be done to avoid a replica of the 2009 Parliamentary elections, in which over 10 candidates contested in the constituency during primary elections conducted by various political parties, and so many promises were made by the aspirants.

“But people have been taken for a ride, time and again,” she said.

It will not be the first time for Mkhumba’s subjects to ask their political representatives to put their promises in ink as, in 2011, her subjects came up with ‘The Mkhumba Citizens’ Charter’, a development blueprint outlining the aspirations of her subjects. It categorised development goals into six sectors, namely: Agriculture, education, infrastructural development, cultural development, health, and youth development.

The charter reads in part: “However, like in many parts of the country, Phalombe has not been spared from social-economic challenges, by and large emanating from the state political and economic systems, which leave the citizens out of the policy-formulation and programming of development project plans at different levels of the social structure.”

This state of affairs contradicts the vision of Mkhumba subjects, which is to be a “leading community, far advanced in all aspects of social and economic development in Malawi”.

Growing calls for transparency

The Mkhumba Citizens Charter has inspired not only Mkhumba’s subjects, but Traditional Authorities Jenala, Kaduya, Chiwalo, Nkhulambe and Nazombe as well.

No wonder, other voices have joined the chorus of people calling for social contracts with their elected representatives. For instance, Group Village Headman Chimenya agrees that it was high time elected leaders were compelled to “eat their words”.

However, as Phalombe people bang heads on what to include in the social contracts, some community members have turned the heat on district assemblies and councils.

One of the people of Phalombe, Jonathan Jenala, says calls for transparency should not only be extended to politicians and NGOs, arguing that district assemblies and local councils should also be forced to be transparent in their dealings.

“In most cases, we struggle to get information on financial transactions from local councils. So, we should not just focus on politicians, leaving aside district commissioners and those responsible for development initiatives at area and local level,” Jenala says.

Area Development Committee chairperson for the Mkhumba area, Frank Meiwa, concurs, and says it would be important for community members to include issues of transparency and accountability in social contracts.

Meiwa says, for unknown reasons, community members struggle to have access to information pertaining to development projects.

“But, so far, we have had no big problems with LDF projects, where a minimum of K7 million is used to fund the construction of houses and other micro projects. We only have problems with CDF, where funding is controlled by MPs and accountability has always been a problem,” Meiwa said.

While all eyes are focused on transparency and accountability, one of the organisations working with the National Democratic Institute in Phalombe, Umodzi Youth Organisation (Uyo) sees more benefits in signing social contracts.

Uyo programme director, Shy Ali, cites the issue of violence, saying social contracts would help reduce cases of violence perpetuated by the youth.

“For a long time, our youths have been used as instruments of perpetuating political violence. But I don’t see any Parliamentary candidate of local councilor signing documents in which he promises to use youth to perpetuate violence, and this means politicians will be trying to disassociate themselves from violence. Violence negatively affects people’s participation in development,” Ali says.

Ali adds that, sometimes, voters become their own worst enemies when they abscond political meetings addressed by those they don’t like. He says this denies voters the opportunity to hear from all sides and make informed decisions.

He says people should learn to make decisions based on issues and not personalities, arguing that hatred for some individual persons with good development plans leads to underdevelopment, as people lack basic social amenities even when the financial resources are there.

“We need to change the way we run our affairs. We should avoid perpetuating political violence. Chiefs should stop giving a cold shoulder to other political parties by realising that there is a difference between a ruling party and the government. And, more importantly, we must learn to follow up on development projects, and that is where the issue of social contracts comes in,” Ali said.

While it is true that social contracts could also strengthen the bond between voters and their elected representatives, nobody knows if that would be enough to make Kaliwe “younger” again.

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