Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Reflection on 50 Years of Malawi's Independence




It is clear, after 50 years of independence, that the national development script was not designed to roll out like this.


In spite of the high hopes that independence would come with its array of attractive trappings, Malawi has turned out to be a begrimed landscape replete with all the miseries that come with underdevelopment.


May be the new nation of Malawi was just carried away by the notion of independence without being thoroughly prepared to embrace its ideals. Indeed, independence must have come abruptly for those who envisaged a land flowing with milk and honey at the proclamation of the word ‘Independence’.





The roots


Consider this: In one moment on July 5, 1964, Nyasaland struggling in the dark shadows of colonialism and, in the next moment, on July 6, 1964, it wore the cloak of a new state after the nationalists- led by Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda- flipped a switch in the dark and Malawi was free.


Indications are that the nationalists might have been following a pattern that started in Ghana. After all, these were educated men and women who were well-versed with affairs on the international stage. May be some background of nationalism may help.


Nationalism, according to the book, ‘Nationalism through State-Constructed Symbols: The Case of National Anthems’, says modern views of nation and nationalism were influenced both by Liberalism and Marxism and underpinned by general ideas of social evolution and human progress,acknowledging that “The discourse of nationalism is distinctively modern”.


It is argued to have originated in the 17th century British rebellion against monarchy, the 18th Century struggle of the New World elites against Iberian colonialism, the French Revolution of 1789 and the German reaction to that revolution.


For some commentators, such nineteenth century German writers as Fichte, Herder and Schleiermacher are the true nationalists; for some others, France is the birthplace of nationalism and Rousseau is its first theorist; for, yet others, nationalism is a universal phenomenon to be found in every settled community,” reads part of the book, which was written by authors from University of Western Macedonia, Florina, Greece.


So, it’s either that the nationalists in Malawi picked a leaf from Germany or France, or maybe they just awakened the dormant nationalistic spirit in the settled community that was the people of Nyasaland. And with it (independence), Malawi adopted those great symbols of a nation state: The national Anthem, local currency, national flag, coat of arms, territorial boundaries, among others.


Somehow, these symbols of a nation state had to mean something. The national anthem had to mean something. The national currency had to mean something. The coat of arms had to mean something. The territorial boundaries had to mean something: Something in the shape of a present we are all proud of.


Malawi was born.




Ragged path


Unfortunately, Malawi’s 50 years of independence have not been all they were meant to be. Nobody fully understands how the song of hope and freedom has faded under the blazing sun of the reality.


Consequently, instead of extending our ideals of freedom, complete with feeder roads and more infrastructures, we have only succeeded in reinforcing the contrast between pre-independence futuristic reverie and harsh reality. Slow progress in all aspects of life- economy, water development, sanitation, agriculture, to name a few- strains the limits of our hope and anxiety.


In fact, it is like Malawi discarded Britain and embraced a new master: The Breton woods institutions. When Malawi discards International Monetary Fund prescriptions, for instance, she creates a gnawing uncertainty about her economic future. A good case in point is when former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, refused to devalue the Kwacha.


So, in a way, Malawi has had a chastening encounter with post-independence reality, prompting the need for an unabashed national reevaluation of our nationhood and what it means to be independent. We have to, tightly, weave together a future we shall all be proud of.


What is freedom when Malawi has no international bus depot? If I may ask. What is the meaning of freedom when the country still uses the slow-pace train? What about corruption that has become endemic in the private and public sector?


Former president Joyce Banda, speaking at the Malawi National Consultative Conference on ‘Malawi at 50 and Prospects for The Next 50 Years’ on March 5 this year, summed the extent of our misery when she said:


Since independence, Malawi has implemented different strategies including the Development Policies (Devpols), Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategies Paper (MPRSP), Vision 2020, Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS), and the current Malawi Growth and Development Strategy II (MGDS II), and re-emphasized by the Economic Recovery Plan (ERP).



We have had mixed experiences in the implementation and outcome of these development plans. Some have succeeded while others have failed. For example, the per capita income stood at $381 in 2012 which is still far from the $1000 envisioned for the year 2020.



At this point in time, with only six years to go before Vision 2020 expires, the situation is not much different from the one just described. About 50.7% of Malawians are still poor with little or no access to basic needs such as food, medical care, education, housing, water and sanitation.”


The President was spot on. With the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) II expiring in 2016 and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ending in 2015, we cannot say Malawi has attained her goals.


Banda rightly concluded: “I feel it is time we revisited our way of doing things, examine how we have implemented our development strategies; where we have gone wrong and think through what we can do as a nation to go forward with much focus on the improvement of people’s lives.”





Hero worship


One of the reasons for our failure to make the best out of independence could be hero-worship. A subtle examination of the praise heaped on our leaders since independence leads to discovery of an aggravated inferiority complex stereotype. That is why we worship our leaders.


The problems started soon after independence. The Cabinet Crisis of 1964 is a good case in point. The rush to succeed, it seems, transformed pre-independence nationalist buddies into post-independence enemies: more less like friends in day time, nighttime enemies.


In the end, we have few things to point at as points of our success. Instead, we have more challenges than anticipated. A battered economy. Depleted drug chests. Leaking houses. Long unemployment queues: That’s all there is to Malawi’s 50 years of independence.


It is as if attaining independence in July 1964 stripped away myth-laden stereotypes about a Republic that would have its path to prosperity paved; instead, it (independence) exposed underlying complexities. That is why the nationalists’ initial aversion to colonialism did not grow into a warm regard for the post-independence period.


Trading on Malawians infatuation with thinness, corrupt and self-serving leaders have taken Malawi towards the path of self-annihilation without showing the slightest signs of shame. And, yet, the majority of the population still scrapes for the crumbs of the economic cake.


To move forward, Malawians must abandon their leader-worshipping tendencies. As British literati, Aldous Huxley (who studied English Literature at Oxford), aptly observed: “The attribution of personal characteristics to collectivities, to geographical expressions, to institutions, is a source, as we shall see, of endless confusions in political thought, of innumerable political mistakes and crimes.


The danger with this line of thinking, warned Huxley, is that, “The personified and deified nation becomes, in the minds of the individuals, a kind of enlargement of themselves.


But, sometimes, it is not the citizens who perpetuate this line of thinking; the leaders themselves do, mainly by pretending to speak for the nation through their utterances. In the end, na├»ve citizens fail to make the distinction between the leader’s own words, and the words produced by a nation through its constitutional provisions.


In which case, according to Huxley, “A nation, then, may be more than a mere abstraction, may possess some kind of real existence apart from its constituent members. But there is no reason to suppose that it is a person; indeed, there is every reason to suppose that it isn’t. Those who speak as though it were a person- and some go further than this and speak as though it were a personal god- do so because it is to their interest as egotists to make precisely this mistake. In the case of the ruling class these interests are in part material.”


Indeed, French jurist, Leon Duguit, suggested that the personification of the nation as a sacred being, different from and superior to its constituent members was merely “A way of imposing authority by making people believe it is an authority de jure and not merely de facto”.


Again, the problem, in the words of Huxley, is that, “By habitually talking of the nation as though it were a person with thoughts, feelings and a will of its own, the rulers of a country legitimise their own powers. Personification leads easily to deification; and where the nation is deified, its government ceases to be a mere convenience, like drains or a telephone system, and, partaking in the sacredness of the entity it represents, claims to give orders by divine right and demands the unquestioning obedience due to a god.


In conclusion, the literati suggested that challenges like these can be overcome by upholding high moral standards in politics, but warns:”Politics can become moral only on one condition: that its problems shall be spoken of and thought about exclusively in terms of concrete reality; that is to say, of persons.



Otherwise, it will continue not to make sense that, 50 years down the line, Malawians still grasp the very same wisp of dependency-pain the nationalists felt. It has been a 50-year-old journey to nowhere. May be the fate of a nation crested by images derived from wishful thinking.

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