Ambuje’s Diary 2012, Part 2: The unity imperative in Malawi

We gonna chase those crazy Baldheads out of town;
I’n’I build a cabin; I’n’I plant the corn;
Didn’t my people before me Slave for this country?
Now you look me with that scorn, Then you eat up all my corn.
Build your penitentiary, we build your schools,
Brainwash education to make us the fools.
Hate is your reward for our love, Telling us of your God above.
Here comes the conman; Coming with his con plan.
We won’t take no bribe; We’ve got [to] stay alive.

——- Robert Nesta (Bob) Marley, 1976 

One thing that Malawians seem to agree on is that the Mutharika brothers need to go – and the sooner the better. That if they don’t pack their own bags sooner, they should be sent packing by voters in the of elections of 2014. Not a single Malawian I spoke to between December 29th 2011 and January 24th  2012 thought otherwise. Indeed many thought it best that Bingu and his younger brother Arthur-Peter relinquish power immediately. Be that as it may, most agree, the best chance for them and their Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to be put to pasture will come via the general elections of 2014.

The history of elections in sub-Saharan African abundantly demonstrates the difficulty of dislodging unpopular governments via the ballot, however. Government control of the electoral process avails it the chance to win by hook or crook – more often by crook. Bingu and Arthur-Peter Mutharika have more than amply demonstrated that they have no compunction about subverting the democratic process to favour themselves politically. A government which can mow down its own people when they demonstrate peacefully, as theirs did on July 20th and 21st last year, is not beyond rigging votes. In his own party, moreover, President Bingu wa Mutharika has hectored his younger brother’s ascension to the presidential candidature for 2014, excluding rival contenders by ostracism or outright expulsion. Such a pair of brothers, while controlling the electoral process, cannot be trusted to relinquish power easily when they lose elections. They are more likely to rig the vote if necessary.

Tom Likambale

One way around this is an overwhelming anti-Mutharika vote. This requires unity in the opposition. A unified opposition ticket would render a rigged pro-Mutharika result implausible. It was therefore encouraging to see Austin Atupele Muluzi, one of the aspiring presidential candidates from the United Democratic Front (UDF) party, being quoted in one radio report as favouring an opposition electoral alliance. Vice President Joyce Banda, leader of the People’s Party (PP), herself a presumptive presidential candidate in 2014, is also said to favour the same (see http://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi/2012/01/22/joyce-banda-ready-for-2014-electoral-alliance/).

And speaking on the Straight Talk radio program with Brian Banda on Capital Radio recently, Mark Katsonga Phiri, leader of the People’s Progressive Movement (PPM), similarly intoned views favouring opposition unity to fight the incumbent Mutharika brothers in 2014 (listen on http://malawithewarmheart.com/interviews.php?linkid=19331).  However, the leaders need to go beyond paying lip service to the idea of electoral unity and walk the talk. 2014 is not as far away as it may seem. An alliance that may form a durable government has to start now. Coalescing just before the vote might ensure a factious government which isn’t in the national interest.

Unity Beyond Elections

We need a unity resembling the one massed against the Kamuzu Banda dictatorship leading up to the general elections of 1994. That time, there were only two main parties, the UDF and AforD, opposing the ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP) dictatorship. Today, unfortunately, one can count at least 14 opposition political parties according to the CIA’s fact book (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2118.html) or even as many as 41 if you are to believe another report (see http://www.malawivoice.com/politics/malawi-needs-political-parties-but-not-42-of-them-observer/). This can only lead to opposition vote splitting which would invariably favour the incumbent Mutharikas and their DPP.

The unity should go beyond elections. It shoud be a starting point for the process of healing some of the divisions the Mutharikas have sown in the nation. In Africa, unity is a national security issue. Divided nations are seldom peaceful. That is why early governments after Malawi’s independence made efforts to unify Malawi. The MCP dictatorship made unity one of the “four cornerstones” of the nation. The UDF government of Dr. Bakili Muluzi popularized the slogan “We are all Malawians” in an effort to forge a common national purpose.

The DPP government of the Mutharika brothers, by contrast, has created, cultivated or otherwise promoted division. President Mutharika openly promotes the Mulhako wa Ahlomwe (gateway for people of the Lhomweethnicity which he and his brother come from) organization. He uses it as a recruitment pool to lucrative, powerful public offices. This has created a potential fault line between people of the Lhomwe ethnicity and the rest of Malawians. He introduced a quota system for entrance to university and explained it, on national television, in a manner that left people from the northern region feeling singled out for exclusion. In fact, the policy was explained as being specifically designed to trim their alleged dominance in tertiary institutions of education. As a consequence, some students from the north who have since done extremely well in school leaving exams have not gained access to the public university. Mutharika has also fomented division among Muslims purely for political gain (see http://www.niuzer.com/World/DPP-invades-Muslim-community-4502698.html). The mantra of the Mutharika brothers seems to be divide and conquer. A new political coalition that will put national interests above ethnic, regional or sectarian chauvinism is sorely needed to heal these divisions for the nation’s sake.

Lurching From Crisis to Crisis

Together, Malawians are buffeted horrendously under a regime that lurches from crisis to crisis. Only recently has the University of Malawi’s Chancellor campus re-opened after ten months of closure, for example. This followed tampering with academic freedom by the Chief of Police who, egged on by the President, refused to make amends thereby prolonging and deepening the crisis. Relations with overseas donors, chiefly Great Britain, have soured following the President’s needless expulsion of the British High Commissioner. Our neighbours Mozambique and Zambia are uneasy about Malawi following Mutharika’s poor handling of relations with their leaders. Mutharika has soured our programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) thus blocking our access to other, much-needed, bilateral aid. He maintains a voodoo orthodoxy on currency devaluation, worrying more about the short-term negative effects – immediate inflation – than about the long-term health of the fiscal regime. In early January for example, while the official Kwacha-US$ rate was 150-1; it was 270-1 on the black market – a situation that screamed for significant official devaluation. Moreover, the President doesn’t seem to see that despite his refusal to devaluate the currency, prices of basic commodities are skyrocketing, anyway!

Our Parliament, dominated by members from the President’s party, most of them highly educated, has nevertheless been reduced to a Presidential rubber-stump passing repugnant laws after horrible ones. Fuel is scarce and medicines make only the rare appearance in our hospitals. Corruption, to which this government claims to be zero-tolerant, has become a way of life. On July 9th, Malawi’s courts ground to a halt. Roughly 2,000 judicial workers went on strike over work conditions and higher pay. The resulting overcrowding is wreaking havoc in already spartan police cells and remand jails. The judicial workers want new conditions of service and better pay which were already approved by Parliament in 2006 but which the government ays it cannot afford. Since 2006, however, the government has bought a Presidential jet and has been able to fly the President luxuriously and expensively around the world while also hosting all kinds of international summits in Malawi. One such summit, an African Union (AU) meet, is scheduled at Lilongwe this (Malawian) winter.

Mass Demontrations a Crucial Ingredient for Unity – Now Now Now! 

Last year, following the July 20th and 21st demonstrations, President Mutharika accused opposition parties of being behind the protests alongside Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). Whether the President’s accusations were true or not, it didn’t seem to occur to him that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any organisations, including opposition political parties, being involved in organising or otherwise inspiring demonstrations. In fact, considering the governance and economic deterioration in Malawi under the Mutharika brothers, it would be a dereliction of responsibility on their part if opposition parties did not organise, participating in or otherwise inspire peaceful protests against the regime. President Bingu Mutharika exhibits a knee-jerk rejection of peaceful protests as if he has never read the very Constitution which he was sworn into office to uphold. The President argues that demonstrations result in violence. Yet the violence that followed last year’s demonstrations did not come from demonstrators, it came from the police whose commander-in-chief is the President himself.

Now more than ever, unity and mass demonstrations are needed to send a clear message against abuse of its own citizens by this government and its gross incompetence especially on the economic front. Individuals, CSOs and opposition political parties should not shy away from organising, participating in or otherwise inspiring such anti-regime protests. The demonstrations would add two crucial elements – they would provide a public visual of the unity of Malawians and would cement that unity. This is no time for CSOs and opposition parties to sit still and wait for the government or other events to control the agenda. Northerners, Centrals, Southerners, Easterners, those in the diaspora, males and females, young and old; let us all unite and reclaim our country. Tujende pamo nimtima umo. This is our country. The time to take it back is not in the next decade when the younger Mutharika might be prolonging Malawians’ suffering if he manages to succeed his older brother. The time to reclaim it in unity is not next year or next season. That time is now.

Ambuje Che Tom Likambale is a Malawian political commentator

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