Ambuje’s Diary 2012, Part 1: When ‘peace’ is a curse

Let’s not sugarcoat this, Malawi is broken. Her back has snapped under the dual weight of poor governance and economic mismanagement. Her recovery will be slow, difficult and painful; and shows no signs of starting. The economy is sputtering to a halt and the elixir that could revitalize it, a concoction of donor inputs, better economic management and good governance; remains nowhere in sight.The Mutharika administration maintains a truculent arrogance towards donors; a self-serving mediocrity on governance and an intransigent insouciance on Malawi’s economic deterioration. One of many visible signs that the economy is in the infirmary is the acute shortage of fuel and negative vicissitudes resulting from that alone.

A mood of despondency has descended. Malawians are loathe to rise against government, not even in peaceful demonstrations, because the last time they did, July 20th and 21st 2011, police shot several dead in cold blood. We seem genetically programmed to fear government, especially one which shows no hesitation to use lethal force on the slightest pretext. We will thus sooner appease rather than confront those in power lest their ire be provoked. We have relinquinshed the exercise of our constitutional rights in exchange for this pyrrhic truce.

Police state: Malawi under Mutharika

What kind of ‘peace’ is this, however? It is a ‘peace’ based on government phobia; on the fear of brutal reprisals at the hand of a politicised police and ruling party enforcer ‘cadets’. It is a fear of retaliation in the form of firings from government controlled jobs or the denial of access to such jobs. It is a fear of being denied government services to which we are rightfully entitled. It is a fear of being singled out and persecuted in those many ways that autocratic governments victimise some of their own people purely for political reasons.

An unfortunate byproduct of this ‘peace’ is a growing tendency towards misdirected aggression and an increase in crime as a coping mechanism. Recent weeks have featured self-destructive acts in which ordinary Malawians have turned against fellow innocent citizens while leaving the government, which is the cause of their misery, unmolested. Violence is becoming rampant. Recently, for example, some Lilongwe street vendors ransacked and looted shops belonging to innocent owners when told to relocate to appropriate vending areas. In another incident, street vendors stripped innocent women of their trousers in full public view on a city street.

The failure to sustain mass anti-government demonstrations last year closed a vent through which pent-up frustration with the incompetent and nonchalant government would find peaceful expression. The fury is now finding inappropriate release into innocent victims. Theft by low-ranking public servants (immitating the corruption of their seniors)  and a burgeoning black market have become common coping measures and are contributing to public deprivation and danger. On a just-ended visit to Malawi, I observed first hand some of these mikwingwirima.

Mmemo, Zigubu and a Spark

The sun was beating down on Balaka (BLK) in early January, 2012. The rains didn’t come to the area until the middle of January. The maize crop might as well just be written off. Some of the stalks looked so yellow you would think they were wearing UDF t-shirts. I tell you, it was hot, humid, sticky and sweaty. The sweat came out of your pores and failed to evaporate because of the humidity. It then mixed with dust and caked your skin, bloking the very vents you needed to sweat your body heat out. Your caked body felt like a potato getting roasted in a buried oven, cooking in its own sweat. The sun did not relent until evening, perhaps to remind you of its presence on the new Malawian flag. Even then, you couldn’t count on a comfortable night unless you had artificial air conditioning – barring the ubiquitous electric power outages. That was BLK in early January, 2012.

I heard a commotion in the middle of the night and wondered what was going on. I went back to sleep thinking it might be just another group of DPP Cadents practicing panga knife drills for the next time they are needed to intimidate the public against mounting anti-government demonstrations. When I awoke the next morning, however, I learned with shock that there had been a five-alarm fire and it had pulverised Balaka’s main market. The night’s commotion had been the noise of merchants rushing in to save their wares. This was all the more shocking as another big Balaka market, the Mthandizi, had similarly gone up in flames recently; itself following other blazes at markets in Zomba, Blantyre and Mangochi.

Several days later, President Mutharika issued a public statement denying responsibility for the fire. I wondered why he needed to do that. My own investigations suggested that a trader in the market had stored zigubu containers full of fuel for resale on the black market. His watchman, who was hungry in the middle of the night, decided to cook himself mmemo but apparently failed to leave enough space between the zigubu of fuel and his mbaula stove. He was also probably busy listening or dancing to the latest Malawian hit song Akamwile, which is played around the clock at the market. One chigubu caught a spark and ignited, later exploding. By the time the full-blown inferno was over, several stalls of merchandise worth millions of Kwacha had been reduced to worthless ashes. There is no fire-fighting capability at Balaka and the incendie pretty much ran its course. Fortunately, no deaths or injuries were reported. I was unable, however, to establish whether the night watchman had had the time to enjoy his mmemo.

The Balaka market fire may have been the most spectacular, but there had been numerous smaller fires in people’s homes in recent days, all similarly caused by illegal fuel storage for resale on the black market. These are some of the byproducts of the scarcity of fuel – needless public danger enhanced by unregulated storing and trading of the commodity on the black market.

Mayhem at a Lilongwe Filling Station

I had just seen off my wife at Kamuzu International as she returned to Canada ahead of me on January 9th., 2012. My brother drove me to a National Bus Company station afterwards where I boarded a Blantyre-bound coach in the late afternoon. The Marcopollo was humming along towards Blantyre when it came to a screeching halt near Bunda Turn Off. There was a commotion outside, and I looked out through a starboard window in time to see a man throwing a chikwapa haymaker to the face of another. On the port side, a woman was defending her man against a flurry of zibagera punches from a younger man. Her own makofi slaps were raining on the younger man’s face. Further up the road, a man’s chigwedula mano upper cut was connecting below the chin of a petrol attendant. The centre of the action was the nearby Puma Filling Station, wandu kutimbana kwambone. All hell was breaking loose by the time police reinforcements arrived to restore order.

From what I could gather, the commotion had started when a fuel delivery had just been made and motorists, some of whom had parked their vehicles in a long queue over days and nights, wanted a first-come-first-fuelled service, but saw a lot of queue-jumping instead.  This infuriated some and sparked the payele-payele fisi anadya mkazache free-for-all. My coach was delayed by about forty-five minutes, which was the time it took police to restore traffic order. And so even as our driver set three sheets to the wind to catch up for lost time, conversation in the coach centred around government’s mismanagement of the fuel ‘issue’ and how this was dehumanizing otherwise decent people – some of them respectable bwanas (bosses) in their places of professional work. The general consensus was that Malawi’s economy was going to hell in a hand basket and the government had proved unable or unwilling to arrest that.

Driver Driver, Syphon Me Some Fuel

The next day I went to visit my friend MacKenzie (Khenzo) Kundiwali in Chilobwe (CLB) Township in Blantyre. Entering the gates of his walled compound, I saw a light truck and some men syphoning fuel from the tank. Upon further inquiry, I learned that it was a City of Blantyre truck and the driver was making a very good business syphoning municipal fuel for sale – proceeds to himself. I learned that the practice was widespread, especially in regards to vehicles belonging to governments, both local and central.

I also learned that some fuel attendants habitually withheld fuel and sold it to ‘special’ clients – usually their personal friends, family members or others with whom they are in a scam to resell the fuel on the black market at much higher prices. They fill zigubu or cars at odd hours of the night and pretend, during the day, that their filling stations have run out of gas. These people and their partners are making a killing, so I was informed, by reselling the contraband at exhorbitant prices on the black market. Word on the street is that some  these traders are ‘sponsored’ by senior business captains and government leaders for a cut of the proceeds. The victim in all this is, of course, the ordinary, honest, Malawian fuel consumer.

When ‘Peace’ is a Curse

The ‘peaceful’ nature of Malawians, coupled with their fear of the retaliatory capacity of those in power, has long been hailed as a national blessing. It fosters a certain degree of national tranquility and thus the space in which development may take place. The same ‘peace’, however, can be a curse if it leaves the government of the day free to do whatever it wishes with impunity as is the case in Malawi today. Our government leaders have no fear of negative consequences from their harmful and abusive actions. They are not held accountable.

The Mutharika administration has a compliant majority in Parliamernt. The opposition is weak and factious. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) were successfully stared down and knuckled under by government  intimidation following the demonstrations of July last year. The CSOs consequently called off further demonstrations in what must rate as one of the biggest let-downs of the Malawian people in history. Today, government acts without fear and with impunity. It does not hesistate to pile abuse upon further abuse on the Malawi public – even in its rhetoric. It has forgotten who the real boss is, the people who elected it. It wrongly considers itself the superior and overlord of the people who elected it to power and can remove it. The President and his spokespersons have an annoying habit of addressing the public as if it is composed of children only who cannot think or see realities for themselves. Mutharika has set up all kinds of commissions of inquiry and presidential committees on so-called dialogue. The clear intention is to stall, sweep issues under the carpet and hoodwink the gullible into believeing that something is being done to address their pressing grievances.

And so, like sheep to the slaughter, we accept to queue for almost all basic necessities: for fuel at filling stations; for medicines in hospitals waiting for the lucky day they will be available; for fertilizer coupons, where corrupt chiefs and politicians have not yet grabbed them for themselves; for maize at Admarc outlets, where government has recently hiked the staple’s price by 50%; and for many other basic items and services. Imagine what the public reaction would be if the Egyptian government raised the price of their staple food by a whopping 50% on the incoherrent pretext, as in the Malawi case, that it wanted to protect the commodity from unscrupulous traders! I wager there would be rivers of humanity on the streets, demonstrating. In Malawi, on the other hand, there is nary a public protest on the issue. Malawians want ‘peace’ and are ready to spend night and day, time in which we could be doing other things to advance our lives, on queues for basic necessities whose availability we once took for granted. Cry the beloved country!

Time for New Mass Demontrations

To demonstrate peacefully is a Malawians’ constitutional right. There is nothing illegal about it. Commissions of inquiry and presidential committees on dialogue are not a replacements for the public’s right to peacefully show its displeasure and call for remedial action from government.

The time has come for Malawians to, once again, rise and pour onto the streets to peacefully let it be known that we cannot take fuel shortages any longer while government fat cats have plenty of it. That we are tired of being told lies about the real causes of the fuel shortage. That we cannot take power outages any longer while government fat cats are bathing in light at night. That we cannot take 50% increments in the price of our staple food any longer, while we also feed our leaders who do not pay for their own food. That we cannot take water outages in urban areas any longer while they build olympic sized swimming pools with public money at their residences. That we cannot take government corruption, nepotism and selective prosecution any longer. That we do not accept blatant preferrential treatment, using public ressources, of those close to the President in ethnicity, family, political affiliation or friendship. That we cannot take any more stalling on government’s obligation to address the 20-point petition presented it as part of last year’s July 20th and 21st demonstrations.

The time is long overdue for these new mass demonsrations. This time they should not stop until the public is satisfied that its issues have been adequately addressed by those in authority. The demonstrators in Cairo did not stop when they heard vague promises and stalling gambits from Mubarak, did they? Or those in Tunis when Ben Ali tried to intimidate or hoodwink them, did they?

Ambuje Che Tom Likambale is a Malawian political commentator based in Canada

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