Chala chimodzi revisited


I am one of those who danced at Dr Banda’s youth rallies, singing anti-colonial songs in the cause of nationalism in the 1960s. Later, I was to fall foul of Dr Banda’s one party state and be reduced to a meek and mute civil servant for two decades or more before I joined the multiparty cause, a cause which you President Mutharika, were according to your official biography, a part of. I fought the one party state, not for money like many, but for principle. Now, pardon me, therefore, if I reject the notion that I have to be silent when my country is lurching back into tyranny, a tyranny, it must be said, fuelled by many Johnny-come-lately to ‘democracy’ and the likes of people like Dr Ntaba who were in the thick of resisting democracy back in 1992. 


Malawi has been described as a beautiful land of happy good people let down by its rulers from colonial times onwards.

Mr President, we are all equal under God and the sight of people starving while others drive in army-sized motorcades and VIPs spend more on one illness than a whole traditional authority gets per year in health spend is almost obscene. Perhaps Attati Mpakati was right, Malawi needs a more Marxist analysis to its problems. But do not panic my president; I am not a Marxist, I am a seeker for social justice and equality under the law. I seek a free and fair sustainably economically developing Malawi. Malawi cannot develop if we have a chala chimodzi syndrome where only one person, in this case your good self, ‘knows all the answers’. It did not work for the governor-general, the bwana mkubwas. And it certainly did not work for Dr Banda.  

What is happening?

You started quite well, delivering impressive results in your first term. Then something happened. Perhaps you got bad advice (you ditched some of your original lieutenants and advisers and surrounded yourself with ex-MCP types, dodgy ex-UDF types, questionable hangers on, opportunists and those that appeal to your partisan instincts. They have convinced you (or you have persuaded yourself) that the only way to rule is to emulate Dr Banda.

Bingu’s billboard boats of chala chimodzi

You seem to have decided that the constitution, academic freedom, media freedom, transparency, freedom of association and other freedoms for which people died in 1915 (Chilembwe) and in 1959 (State of Emergency) do not matter anymore. You act as if only one ethnic group matters. You have decided that only your good self are right and the rest of us are ‘stupid’. No other parties are being allowed to register; opposition leaders are being humiliated; and NGOs are barely tolerated. No other parties are allowed mass rallies.

The only people allowed the facilities of the state MBC to argue the toss are those who, as in the 1960s and 1970s, slavishly expostulate in post hoc manner the righteousness of your actions. But how can it be right to fight post hoc ideological quarrels when your people are starving because of your actions? We do not need to be told that western powers were colonial; we know. Some of us lived it. What we needed from you was how to get the former colonial powers to work constructively with us in our development. As it is, our so-called new friends, the Chinese, have categorically stated that they are not here to replace the British.  


The trajectory of your rule and actions is one that would have us believe that Malawians are, in your own words, ‘stupid’ and of short memories. Well Malawians may be ‘loyal, obedient, disciplined and united’ for a period. But even they have their breaking point.

Malawi does indeed have a class problem. You see, you have a coterie that is doing well out of your rule. A coterie that does not want the good times to come to an end.

Speeches and advertising on roads cannot persuade a starving Malawian that ‘nchito za manja anga’ has been good for him – not when he has to walk because there is no fuel and stumble in the dark because there is no paraffin and go hungry because you gave Mugabe his maize. They cannot be expected to dance for you just because you are the president. They cannot be expected to be happy that Mama Mutharika receives K1,000,000 just because she is the ‘mother of the nation’; as they would put it in South Africa, given Malawi’s poverty, ‘mugger of the nation’ would be more appropriate. Already the rural Malawians are aware that the fertiliser subsidies will not be very generous next year unless the donors (yes, it is the donors – and  us the tax payers – who provide the funds) play ball.

Now your middle-classes, the very middle classes who campaigned for you and crowded the stadium in May 2009 to cheer you on to your second term have had enough: no petrol, no forex, no travel, expensive consumer goods and so on.  

Perhaps you are hoping to appeal to the peasantry; but what will you give them without donor funded fertiliser inputs? 

Religious leaders have spoken out. Opposition members have disagreed with you.

NGOs have spoken out against some of the human rights abuses under your regime.

The media has felt threatened. Civil society has become polarised into ‘us’ DPP and ‘them’ ‘stupid complainers who ‘do not understand’ you. The police have become more politicised. The judiciary, while neutral, sees its rulings ignored, making it a laughing stock. Those experienced, intelligent Malawians who have something to offer, development-wise, have become quiet. 

This is not what we fought for in 1959. This is not what we fought for in 1992 -94.

This is not what Malawians voted for in 2009. And no amount of threats will stop them saying so. 

Possible consequences

As you drive protected by a huge convoy, you may forget that you are meant to serve the masses those police and soldiers are protecting you from. You may feel far removed from their daily concerns. At times you have acted as if that is the case: lavish wedding, super new jet (when the national airline, Air Malawi, was struggling).

Malawians may be patient but they are not different from any humans anywhere. 

In fact, as an economic historian you will recall that Nyasaland provided the first serious revolt against the British Empire in the form of John Chilembwe in 1915.

Certainly, the news that the secret police and youth loyal to the DPP are out to beat people up does not point to a mature democracy. What makes these youths think that people cannot hit back? Your Dr Ntaba is misleading you, just as he did Dr Banda. And what makes your police chief think that people cannot talk about being free when their mouths are being closed? 

President Mubarak had 450,000 soldiers under arms; they failed to control the crowds. The Tunisian president had 27,000 soldiers; it did not work there either. Even with tanks it is not silencing angry Syrians.

The Malawi Police can cope with riots at Chancellor College, and Bunda, and Poly, and Mzuzu University, and maybe a few secondary schools at once. Call in the Army and may be four or five districts can be pacified; but how are you going to keep 7,000,000 (I am assuming the other 7,000,000 are neutral or ‘on your side’) quiet? Even your most ‘die-hard supporter will tell you that that is NOT what anyone wants.

We all want a peaceful, stable Malawi. 

A suggested solution

It is high time that you and your highly educated cabinet behaved as if you were indeed educated. You have eminent lawyers, like your brother and Dr Chaponda, who are trampling all over the constitution. You have highly educated men who quake when you thump the table.

Well, unless you throw money around like your predecessor, people just won’t take it. Besides, it is the wrong decade; this is the decade of twitter, facebook, wiki leaks and free speech.

As a patriotic Malawian, I suggest both to you and to active and enabled Malawi civil society in general that;

  • It is high time Malawi civil society stood up for its’ rights.
  • It is high time religious, opposition leaders and other civic leaders of worth and integrity told the president to his face that Malawians expect social justice, freedom of association and equality of opportunity. All these ‘prayers this and that’ are making religion in Malawi a mockery. People do not live by prayers alone.
  • It is high time our security (Army and Police) chiefs told the president that Malawians are peaceful but not doormats. Maintenance of peace is a major function of government: one maintains peace by enabling not oppressing people.
  • It is high time the Police chiefs reminded the president that 10,000 – or even 20,000 police cannot suppress a population of 14,000,000 in 2011. It has not worked in Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere. Zimbabwe is not an example to follow. And Malawi has only about 10,000 Police and 6,000 active Army personnel.
  • It is therefore high time we had you as a genuinely listening and honestly acting president, acting to maintain democracy by upholding the constitution in the full knowledge that – in the absence of force, tyranny and autocracy – the contract between the ruler and ruled is by consent. 

Above all, it is time for all of us Malawians to come to our collective senses: we, the people, need to realise that freedom is partly a mental concept; and our leaders need to realise that we are not their servants.  

By the way, I am copying this to donors, chiefs PSs, religious leaders, academics, civic leaders and so on. This is a quant custom in Malawi for foreigners, but a reminder that during the fight for ‘multipartysm’ – the very fight that brought us Muluzi and Mutharika – all these people mattered, not just chala chimodzi or mutu umodzi as the Catholic bishops put it.-( Written by  CSI Lilongwe, a retired non-political civil servant).

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