Will MCP phoenix rise from ashes? Malawi road to 2014

  • on the occasion of the rise of Rev. Lazarus Chakwera to the MCP leadership

When the face of leadership in the MCP changes from that of battle-scarred JZU Tembo, 81, to the more youthful Rev. Lazarus Chakwera, 58, the sentence is not yet complete. The failure of the MCP at national elections since the referendum of 1993, especially in terms of grabbing the presidency, had only partly to do with the leader, John Tembo. It also had to do with the fact that this was a party which, despite successfully fighting to bring independence to Malawi in 1964, also put many Malawians through a holocaust of sorts for thirty years following independence.

To complete the sentence, the MCP must embark on a sincere path to address its abysmal human rights history, atone for it, and prepare to govern in a multi-party, democratic system. Only thereafter can it start hoping to rise again like the phoenix.

In his acceptance speech on Sunday, August 11th. 2013, Rev. Chakwera appealed to his party to re-brand itself as it fights to wrestle back power after 20 years in opposition. By its very definition, however, rebranding is an artificial process. It refers to outward appearances, not necessarily inward reforms. Success at regaining the state presidency will require a rebirth of the MCP, not simply a rebranding. The MCP should not hope, simply, that older voters will not remember and younger voters don’t know its history of atrocities while in power until 20 short years ago.

Presidential handover: Tembo over to Chakwera to lead MCP

Presidential handover: Tembo over to Chakwera to lead MCP

 Revise the ‘Corner Stones’

The MCP needs an honest and serious introspection. Before telling voters what it will do for the country, it needs to understand what it must do for itself to regain acceptance. Rev. Chakwera was a Pastor in the Asemblies of God church. To be convincing in his new role, however, he has to embody the MCP’s past like a catholic at confession.

Does the MCP have a Charter or Constitution? Does it have internal by-laws and regulations? The MCP should not just renounce its history of human rights abuses while it was in power; it must also actually rearrange its own internal governing documents to ensure that it is guided by principles that are in synch with the democratic promise of Malawi.

Sticking to ‘corner stones’ such as unity, loyalty, obedience and discipline – principles which Rev. Chakwera repeated and endorsed in his acceptance speech – is not encouraging.

For alleged breach of the so-called ‘four corner stones upon which the party and government was founded’, thousands of Malawians lost their lives, the lives of their loved ones, their property and the property of their loved ones during MCP government. Some were incarcerated without trial for the better part of a generation. Others were summarily fired from their government, or government-connected jobs; never to find employment in Malawi again. Hundreds were forced into exile and/or poverty. The negative effects of these abuses linger on many Malawians today.

There was seemingly nary a word about these victims at this convention — a surefire way of leaving the impression that the change of leader is cosmetic; a mere rebranding, to use Rev. Chakwera’s own word. The people of Malawi hunger to hear word of internal reform from the MCP and a clear renunciation of its past that goes beyond a mere change of leader.

An Imperial Presidency

The MCP government brought an imperial presidency to Malawi and the traditions lingers. Today, for example, the President of tiny Malawi enjoys four imperial palaces in four cities, and a luxurious lakeside lodge at Chikoko Bay, all at huge cost to impoverished taxpayers and fatigued donors. The presidential road convoy guzzles enough fuel to generate electricity for more than a week in a country where power blackouts have become the norm. Senior civil servants and cabinet ministers still feel the obligation to attend presidential rallies that have absolutely nothing to do with their ministries – wasting taxpayer time, neglecting their real jobs. They then turn around and claim allowances for the time spent away from the office.

The President of Malawi has far too much power, outweighing even the power of Parliament. His/her vast appointing powers to senior government positions gives her unfettered control over government organs whose very raison d’etre, in many cases, is to act as checks on the abuse of power by the executive branch of government. To this day, Presidents still control state radio and television. They think that the taxpayer funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation exists as a propaganda campaign tool for the government of the day. Apart from that, laws about sedition and against ‘insulting the president’ still exist on the books.

All this opulence and imperial power lives side by side with some of the world’s highest levels of poverty, illiteracy, innumeracy and ignorance apart from some of the world’s most daunting health challenges. These presidential abuses of the system, and other lingering elements that are allergic to the democratic project, are brainchildren of the MCP from its time in power and have unfortunately been perpetuated to a perverse form of ‘perfection’ by subsequent Presidents.

 A convention for confession and policy reform

To be sure, other parties who have been in government since 1994 also need to address their own abuses during their time in power. They, too, need to demonstrate why the public should be tempted to entrust them with power again.

What makes the MCP unique, however, is the very fact that it is the country’s vintage party and is, for better or worse, a party of firsts. It established these negative traditions. It is the party that defeated the ‘stupid’ federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1963. It defeated colonialism and established Malawi’s independence in 1964. It is the party that established a full republic in Malawi in 1966 and created life-presidency in 1971. It is the party that banned all opposition parties constitutionally by 1971 and developed a culture of zero-intolerance for any opposition to government until it got defeated in both the referendum of 1993 and the elections of 1994.

With this kind of background, this is a party with a much greater moral obligation than newer parties to, not only truly turn a new leaf, but also to demonstrate convincingly to the public that it has, indeed, done so. The party has a greater responsibility than other parties to hit the reset button and establish a new first in Malawi: the specter of a political party undergoing an honest and sincere process of introspection, taking responsibility and embarking on genuine internal reform – and not just by choosing a new leader.

Rev. Chakwera should invoke his learning from the religious ministry to convoke a public meeting of the party and its victims and/or their survivors. It would be a time of catharsis through confession and victim impact statements aired publicly for the entire nation to hear and heal. The party must show that it is ready, willing and able to leave its past behind it and turn the page. Not just by saying so, and not just by changing leaders, but by a true project of genuine introspection and sincere reform that is public, verifiable and irreversible.

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

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