Sunday, February 2, 2014

Of Democracy and Chikhwawa District

The people of Chikhwawa are loaders of meaning: the river Shire is loaded with symbolism of both a shallow hole- you go in and come back- and a grave (you go and never come back, stuck in the mouth of a crocodile); the rain-maker Mbona remains a symbol of the ancestors still holding sway among the living; while traditional leaders stand for unquestionable powers.

So, Shire does not just flow, it purifies; does not just erode the soil along the way, it fertilizes- according to Alfred Chaliwa from the area of Traditional Authority Mlilima, Chikhwawa.

“What this means is that the river washes away people’s dirt, many bath in Shire here. Where does the dirt go? Downstream. But Shire also washes away fertile alluvial soils, depositing them along the way,” Chaliwa said.

The river Shire, symbolism, and scorching heat are part of the Lower Shire psyche. With this in mind, one is made to believe that Chikhwawa’s people are experts at coming up with meanings to everyday phenomena.

Far from it. It is a lesson Civic and Political Space Platform (CPSP) leaders learned the hard way earlier this month. As part of a Dan Church Aid initiative to build religious and community leaders’ capacity in preparing for next year’s Local Government Elections (LGE), CPSP courted religious leaders just days after the Episcopal Conference of Malawi’s issued a strong-worded Pastoral Letter. CPSP, which has planned similar sessions in Blantyre and Mwanza, said it wanted to emphasize the role of religion in politics.

After 16 years of multiparty democracy in Malawi, Chikhwawa people are yet to find the real meaning of democracy. At Chikhwawa National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) offices, members of the clergy leaned on tables and scratched heads, but could find nothing concrete to call heads or tails.

Chikhwawa Pastors Fraternal chairperson, Hussein Nguwo, blamed it on unpleasant experiences people have come to associate democracy with. When experiences are painful, they cease to be the ‘greatest teacher’; instead, they become a distraction and burden.

The problem is that people have learned to dismiss such burdens, leaving a litany of problems unresolved. Unfortunately, says Pastor Nguwo, this has turned out to be the case with democracy.

“One of the reasons is that voters are disappointed in Members of Parliament (MPs), most of whom prefer urban areas to their constituencies. They think councilors will be no different.”

It is a challenge warranting a multi-sectoral approach. It means religious leaders continuing to pray for rains, offering spiritual food, visiting hospitals and prisons; but they should also preach politics, responsible politics.

“We should encourage our members to take voting seriously. We have a role to play,” said Nguwo.

This has been part of the problem, too; realizing that there is a ‘role to play’ without understanding the basics: what democracy means and its aligning principles. Noel Msika, CPSP Southern Region coordinator, said the Republican Constitution is the chief guideline.

But Constitutions are themselves principle causes of conflicts, he observes. 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.

Not long ago, in monarchies, it was qualified by the name of ‘national development’; in countries under representative regimes, it has for long been christened ‘development’, promising respect for charters and fundamental laws; while in one party states, mainly characterized by ancient national representation, it takes ‘reform’ as its object, Msiska noted.

‘Everywhere, it means change and trouble. In our case, it has largely represented national consensus and solidarity.”

But, 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 generally respect the generally held consensus to protect certain values while being free to challenge their continual validity.

In so doing, there will be mistakes. As has been the case in Malawi- 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 crucial motions including that 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 democracy.

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.

Every election has conflict built into it, too. Elections are a child of politics, which is, by its very nature, a form of positive conflict- competition to achieve a greater good.

Chipembere says, however, that some of the obvious things warrant reflection. One of these include our voting system, the First-past-the-post. Because one can ride at the back of even a single vote, Malawians were sanctioning voter apathy.

During the 2000 LGE, political analysts faulted the electoral calendar for encouraging voter apathy, same with the 1999 Parliamentary and Presidential Elections. They said during the 2000 LGE, held in November, voters’ focus was limited to their stomachs and granaries- never ballot boxes.

They also attributed it to elections’ hung-over. The previous 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 poll might have angered many, forcing them to fold the hand that stretches into the ballot box.

In last month’s By-Elections held in Dowa and Mangochi voters preferred to stay home, again. The DPP MPs elected will still walk the narrow, green road to the New Parliament Building to represent the few who voted for the ‘many’.

“This trend should spur us into reflective action. We must trace the problem and map the way forward. I feel like MPs or councilors elected by a few do not carry much aura of authority; ideally, the more voters turn up, the more authority one has,” Chipembere said.

It is a perception shared by Vincent Chibowa, Advocacy and Communications Officer for Christian Service Committee (CSC). He said religious leaders stood a better chance of coercing congregation members back to the voting lines, the way they know the importance of standing on long farm input subsidy lines.

Apathy thus eats through the seed of development, leaving voter hopeless, in the process breeding more voter apathy. Chibowa noted, however, that the tendency to force development policies on people could be one of the reasons people were shunning the road to the polling station.

“We need to have open minds. Leaders should not come with buckets of wisdom from their offices; an open mind will bring out solutions to electoral challenges,” said Chibowa.

It is with open minds that others, notably NICE, have started to unearth the problems. What comes clear at Chikhwawa NICE Resource Centre are issues of illiteracy, lack of accountability and accessibility of political representatives.

It seems that Chikhwawa women remain far behind in terms of reading culture. From January 2009 to May 2010, the percentage of female readers has never exceeded 15 per cent, while the lowest was 7 per cent. On the other, male readers always surpass the mark of 85 per cent. These figures are for people who visit NICE District Library, Ndife Amodzi, Chikhwawa Prison, Mtera and Sangano.

It is a threat to the 50-50 women representation campaign. How can people who do not read widely get the information top make informed decisions?

It is a jig-saw complicated by inaccessibility of MPs. In the absence of councilors, MPs are largely regarded as the first-line of call. Chikhwawa has registered some success because every Traditional Authority, Paramount Chief and Senior Chief has their mobile number publicly displayed. It is a mark of accountability.

But community members complained over MPs. Legislator for Chikhwawa North, Grain Malunga’s, number is missing. He is inaccessible. Same with MP for Chikhwawa South Joseph Tembo: his number, too, is missing, rendering him inaccessible to his constituents when he is 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.

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