No, Your Excellency, hand-outs are no substitute for justice denied

While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.” – Chinua Achebe

“Hundreds of police officers have been enlisted among vulnerable households receiving food hand-outs President Joyce Banda has been distributing over the past months, …” read an opening paragraph in Weekend Nation of February 1 2014.

The gist of the story is Joyce Banda’s timing of distributing maize to ‘lowly-paid’ police officers, having in mind that the country is only 15 months away from tripartite elections. The reporter, Watipaso Mzungu Jnr speaks to a political commentator, Mustapha Hussein who questions why benefactors of Presidents Banda’s charity are only ‘lowly-paid’ police officers and not other civil servants on similar wages.

President Banda’s press secretary, Steven Nhlane defends the president’s gesture, arguing that “this is not the first time the president has donated foodstuffs to police officers.” Adding that the president “has been doing it since last year when there were no elections.” According to the paper, Nhlane further claims that the request for assistance comes from the police officers themselves.

President Banda hands over maize to a resident of Salima

President Banda hands over maize to a resident of Salima

There are two unchecked fact here, which could shed a completely different light on the story. The reporter could have checked if indeed this is not the first time Joyce Banda is giving hand-outs to the police. Nhlane’s claim that the hand-outs were given on request from the police needed checking, too. If true, the reporter then needed to find out if President Banda is prepared to do the same to all lowly-paid civil servants if asked. Reporter could further find out if the president believes hand-outs are the solution to the problem. This is where the crux of the matter is.

Looking at it from this perspective, ‘lowly-paid’ police officers have President Banda to go to when their meagre wages cannot buy enough food for their households. No need for the police to demand wage adjustment when President Banda is around to bail them out. Yet, it is important to acknowledge that Joyce Banda the charity worker, is not and must not be confused with Joyce Banda the State President. The latter is a head of government and is supposed to look at the welfare of all the civil servants by ensuring reasonable pay and descent working conditions, not blindfolding them with hand-outs.

As this is not first time Joyce Banda has come to the rescue of the ‘lowly-paid’ police officers, the president should know that hand-outs are not a solution. Instead of unleashing Joyce Banda the charity worker, the state president should have worked on improving conditions of service, specifically payment. And, Mustapha Hussein pointed out, the civil service is much larger than the police; what about lowly-paid teachers, nurses, messengers etc.?

In absence of clear and defined policies to lift struggling Malawians of what is now permanent poverty, Joyce Banda and all her predecessors have taken poverty as a political tool. These cunning politicians thrive on people’s misery. They are ware of this. They are not clueless. This can only change if Malawians start demanding solutions from its leaders. Hand-outs are not a solution. Nhlane, the Press Secretary, earning his wages, speaks as if it is ok for salaried civil servants to survive on alms when he knows these politicians are out to milk the skinniest cow. Muhammad Yunus aptly made this point:

“Most often we use charity to avoid recognising the problem and finding solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility. But charity is no solution to poverty. Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor. Charity allows us to go ahead with our own lives without worrying about the lives of the poor. Charity appeases our consciences.”

Like her predecessors, what Joyce Banda is giving out in the name of charity are state resources meant for all Malawians. These are state resources, not Joyce Banda’s. Ignore the “Dr Joyce Banda” branded maize bags. Bakili Muluzi had all the resources when UDF was in power. Folks were eating on plastic plates with “Dr Bakili Muluzi” face on it, served on a UDF branded tray. Now out of power UDF cannot afford it. Pay attention and you will see that DPP cars, nsalu etc. are hardly new. They are finishing off what they hard when they were in power. In Malawi the state is a cash cow.

When you look at this picture then you realise that it is not enough to accuse Joyce Banda of seeking political favours from the police. It is also paramount to question source of those resources. Why is it that only incumbency can afford to give hand-outs willy-nilly? If anyone is unhappy about cashgate then it is time to realise that this is among the main causes. There is no coincidence that majority of those arrested in connection with the Capital Hill loot are connected to the ruling party, one way or another.

  • Jimmy Kainja
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