Martyr’s Day: Malawi’s opportunity to reflect

The Malawi Congress Party dictatorship (1964 – 1994) established Martyr’s Day, March 3, to allow Malawians a full national holiday to remember those who fought for Malawi’s independence from Britain. Independence came in 1964. During the dictatorship, the solemnity of this day was strictly enforced. However, with the notable exception of John Chilembwe, leader of the 1915 uprisings, the names of nationalist heroes and heroines who fought colonialist oppression in the struggle for majority rule and independence, were hardly mentioned.

In the meantime, the MCP itself was busy creating martyrs out of those who were fighting for freedom from dictatorship. From the cabinet crisis of 1964, in which a significant number of ministers resigned or were fired by autocratic Prime Minister Kamuzu Banda; to the multi-party referendum in 1994, the MCP made scores of victims out of those who dissented, or were suspected of dissenting. Those who strove to see Malawi revert to multi-party democracy so that her citizens could enjoy the basic freedoms of Opinion, Choice, Expression, Religion etc. were severely oppressed.

Jehova’s Witnesses, for example, were banned, persecuted and others fled into exile.

Burrying the July 20 martyrs in Mzuzu

Burrying the July 20 martyrs in Mzuzu

The dictatorship used the Forfeiture Act to confiscate the property of these freedom fighters. Others were detained without trial for up to decades, some lost their youth in prison without seeing the light of day for decades, others even dying in gaol. Yet others fled into exile, some of whom were murdered by the MCP’s hit squads abroad.

Within Malawi, some dissenters were martyred by being fed alive to crocodiles as Kamuzu Banda himself bragged publicly. The internal atmosphere in Malawi was of mutual distrust and people generally avoided discussing politics for fear of expressing an unwanted opinion and being reported, for which the penalty could be anything from job loss, detention without trial, forfeiture of personal property, or simply being ‘disappeared’ presumed killed.

Lingering Effects

Many of the problems that Malawi faces today are remnants from the system established during MCP dictatorship. If, for example, former President Bingu wa Mutharika of the  Democratic Progressive Party (2004 – 2012) was so easily able to become a tyrant after Malawi had already changed to a multi-party democracy, it is because he knew how to tap into Malawians’ sense of fear of government left over from MCP years. Mutharika even took on the title of ‘Ngwazi’ to mimic Kamuzu Banda. On some occasions he even tried to duplicate, without success, Banda’s sartorial style.

The high levels of corruption today started, a least in post-independence Malawi, with the advertised Zonse zimene n’za Kamuzu Banda (everything belongs to Kamuzu Banda) mentality of the MCP dictatorship. The MCP President built structures such as his Kamuzu Academy using public funds; and yet boasted that he had built them with his personal money. It is with such a background that President Bingu wa Mutharika reportedly stole a whopping K61 Billion of public funds within eight years of governing. It is also this failure to differentiate between public and private property that has resulted in the massive looting of public funds by senior civil servants starting in 2005 under President Mutharika, according to the current government, to today, that is known as Cashgate.

It is the same dictatorship mentality that allowed the ratifying of a Constitution of Malawi that still left vast powers in the hands of the President. The presidency clearly reigns supreme over Parliament and, as President Bingu wa Mutharika was readily able to demonstrate, can easily run roughshod over the national assembly. The President singly owns huge powers to hire, fire or transfer top civil servants; top statutory corporation heads and heads of a dizzying array of government agencies apart from the appointment of top diplomats.

Martyr’s Day 50 Years into Independence

This year’s Marty’s Day is particularly special coming, as it does, on the cusp of our celebration of the golden jubilee of Malawi’s independence from Great Britain. The day also comes barely three months, if that, before an important general election. Thoughts about law reform, constitutional renewal and reviewing the powers of the executive, especially those f the President, are particularly propitious today.

Apart from this, now is also a time to remember those who fought to bring political independence to Malawi in 1964. As we do so, let us also remember those who lost their lives or their freedoms and property to fight against MCP dictatorship. They are the ones who eventually brought about multi-party democracy and the enjoyment of basic human rights and freedoms such as we now do.

This is a time, too, to remember and honour those who lost their lives or were otherwise oppressed by Malawi’s other dictatorship; that of the DPP’s Bingu wa Mutharika. Some died simply for exercising their freedom to protest peacefully against economic hardships brought about by Mutharika himself. The President, who believed that the people should be watching his Economics lecture on TV instead, was not amused. He unleashed his police which brutally martyred at least twenty innocent demonstrators on that day. They did so in cold blood, too.

Let us pray that their souls rest in peace.

  •  The author, Ambuje che Tom Likambale, is from Balaka Township, Malawi 
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