One nice thing about being a publisher is getting to meet interesting people. One of these people is Lazarus Chakwera, opposition leader of Malawi, a country of 16 million people in southeast Africa.
I first met Chakwera at Mike Espy’s house in Madison. Chakwera was planning to run for president of Malawi in 2014. He was raising money in the states. He had zero experience in politics, having been a preacher all his life and more recently the head of the Assemblies of God churches in Malawi. It was like the head of the Southern Baptist Convention running for president of the United States.
Chakwera drew big crowds wherever he went and it looked like a political miracle would happen in Malawi, a country that has long been mired in corruption.
The polls showed Chakwera leading, but the brother of a previous Malawi president ended up winning amid accusations of vote rigging. The sitting president tried to annul the results, but was overruled by the Malawi supreme court. It was a mess.
Chakwera says flatly that he won the election. When the results started coming in, the new president, Peter Mutharika, had his supporters take over the election center, and then the results started changing. During the days that followed, 1,500 ballot boxes were mysteriously destroyed in a fire.
Malawian elections have typically been peaceful but it was about to get violent. Chakwera then called for his supporters to back down and declared he would not contest the election.
Missionary Henry Joseph, of Jackson, who founded a 1,000-member church in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, brought Chakwera by the Northside Sun to say hello. Earlier in the day, Chakwera had addressed the Legislature (which was still in session).
I know Joseph from Clean Water for Malawi, a small charity in Jackson which strives to help bring clean water to the impoverished rural areas of the country. I have been involved with Clean Water for Malawi for many years.
Sitting in my office, halfway around the world from Malawi, listening to Chakwera describe his political battles in Malawi, I realized just how much the world is shrinking.
One hundred years ago, it would have taken months, maybe years, to go from Jackson to rural Malawi. Now it can be done in 40 hours.
Malawi is truly impoverished by global standards. In 2014, the World Bank ranked Malawi dead last in the world with a per capita GDP of $255. By comparison, the United State’s per capita GDP that year was $54,630 — 215 times higher.
It is truly sad that such inequality exists in the world. The people of Malawi are known for their friendliness. The motto of the country is “the warm heart of Africa.” The people are 90 percent Christian and their faith is an inspiration. They don’t have any money to turn their heads from God.
Chakwera and I talked in my office for more than an hour. I asked him the main thing holding his country back. He didn’t hesitate for a second, “Corruption,” he said.
Not resources, not disease, not infrastructure, not poverty – but simple corruption. Why should anyone work hard to make a better life if the government can confiscate it?
In the United States, we take something as simple as property rights for granted. But in Malawi, property is fungible depending on who is in power. If Malawi could simply have a basic process for deeding land, the country would prosper, Chakwera said.
Complicating matters is the dual form of government. On the one hand, Malawi has a local, regional and national government ruled by laws. Yet parallel to this form of government is a tribal system led by the village chief. The national politicians are afraid to challenge the tribal chiefs, so there is a general form of anarchy, especially in the rural areas. This uncertainty is fertile ground for corruption.
Every nation, every state, every city battles corruption. It is part of life. But looking at Malawi, you see just how extensive the damage wrought from corruption can be. Mississippi, rated recently as the most corrupt state in the nation, is also the poorest state in the nation. Like Malawi, this is not a coincidence.
- Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]
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