CounterJab: North Malawi wants federalism? Be daredevils, go for independence

Selling the idea of changing the way Malawi is governed it is not an easy task. Leading public intellectual Edge Kanyongolo points out that the “federalism debate has quickly descended into emotive quarrels that cloud rather than clarify issues at stake”.

Proponents of federalism, says Kanyongolo, have failed to “explain how federalism or secession in and of itself can cure the problems of discrimination and inequality” while opponents’ “only response to those advocating for federalism (or is it secession) seems to be limited to saying repeatedly that the advocates of federalism wish to divide the country.”

This author cannot agree more.

Prof Chirwa: Call for secession or federalism is nothing short of beer hall chatter

Prof Chirwa: Call for secession or federalism is nothing short of beer hall chatter

Respected columnist D.D. Phiri says Malawi is too small to be broken up into states and legal scholar Danwood Chirwa says “the call for secession or federalism is nothing short of beer hall chatter.”

Chirwa says proponents should substantiate “their proposals rather than appealing merely to their personal perceptions of victimization based on alleged regional identity.” They must prove that the North “has indeed been consistently marginalized and dominated in Malawi’s socio-economic and political landscape for a considerable period of time.”

The learned man goes on to say: “The right to self-determination guaranteed by international law and the jurisprudence thereon has been interpreted very strictly to limit the scope for secession… It cannot be proven…that the various ethnic groups in the Northern Region constitute a ‘people’ in order for them to receive protection under this right.”

Did Chirwa raise similar questions when Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom, sought independence before the idea was rejected in a referendum?

On Malawi, Chirwa argues that nothing “unites the peoples of the North in a fundamental way” and that the region “has numerous ethnic groupings that practice different cultures and speak different languages. There is no unique shared identity between the Tumbuka of Mzimba and the Lambia of Chitipa, any more than there is between these and the Sena of Nsanje and Lomwe of Thyolo.”

Under which rock has Chirwa been living? Lobola (payments of bride price from the husband’s family) runs strong in the North. Northerners are patriarchal. Chirwa mentioned Nsanje which is in the South. Yes, they have something similar to Lobola but the rest of the South and Center do not practice Lobola and they are matriarchal. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the difference between the two is that in the North the father is the head of the family while in the two other regions it is the mother.

Is the practice of Lobola not good enough for cultural identity and why should everything else be similar for a country to hold together? Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, is a country with one religion, Islam, and Somalis speak one language yet peace eludes them.

You probably have guessed by now where this author stands on this issue: Independence. Is that setting the bar too high? Not a problem. Nothing wrong in aiming high. In fact, lack of ambition is one reason Malawi remains backward. If the North ended up with federalism, and not independence, that particular outcome would still be better than continuing with the status quo. What the North would then have to do is make sure that they type of federalism crafted devolves meaningful power to the region.

Talk of federalism or secession triggered by feelings of economic disenfranchisement has been there before but nothing came out of it which perhaps prompted some to dismiss the latest call as mere “beer hall chatter”.

The North, whose development has largely been sponsored by religious institutions, need not be afraid of the many challenges that would emerge with independence. One has to start from somewhere. What did Malawi have when it gained independence from Britain over five decades ago? From the get-go, Malawians knew they had to do the bulk of the work themselves. Fifty years after independence, the North, like other regions, has enough brain power to transform the region.

As the call for federalism or secession gets louder, you cannot rule out undemocratic means by the government to quell the sentiment. But this is the 21st Century and like Scotland, Malawi should allow full public debate on what the North decides it wants; let people choose and both sides should respect the results.

*The author is former founding editor of Maravi Post who is now a ‘CounterJab’  columnist on Nyasa Times

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William kaunda

I am surprised why many people from south are against federal type of government. Do they mean they can’t develop the south without northerner or people from centre? Come on, wakeup southerners.

mlomwe kabisa

iwe ndi galu eti lero ukudana ndi mbuli,mayesa iwe lero ngati ukudya mkumakhala ndi mphamvu zo bwebwetuka mchifukwa cha mbulizo.


It is not fair for nothern region to have their rulling.if their is problems just discuss,thats all.

Under a decetralised/federal system the resources of the country (budget) are allocated (as per Malawi Local Government Act of 1998) according to population size and level of economic development just to mention a few. This means (all things being equal) Lilongwe should get a biggger share of the resources than Mzimba. Secondly, some of the economic activities are planned and executed at local level, thereby speeding up development turn arround. The practice of deploying District Commissioners who are appointed by and report to National Local Government is old fashioned and too colonial. Most developing countries (such as South Africa) have… Read more »
let the north get independence or sucede as its people wish. we are now sick and tired of this issue. There shouldn’t be no one that should cling to people that want to break away. even in a family, if one wishes to go, the nkhoswe and courts do allow, yes they are consequences and one advocating for such move should be prepared to face that. in that situation, you gain some and you also lose some. it’s never a win situation. my thinking though is issue will do more harm than good to Malawi for following reasons; this is… Read more »


Mbuli ndi zomwe zikuonongetsa dzikoli. Zikumavotera anthu based fundo zopusa komanso zosathandiza. Zina mwa izo: 1. APM ndi Professor, anaphunzitsapo Obama. Ngat anamva kuti kuphunzitsa Obama means intelligence and wisdom to lead a nation 2. APM ali ndi ndalama kale kotero sazafuna zina kuti abe. Kuiwala kuti iwo sanalowe mmaganizo mwake and anthu omwe amuzungulira are also hungry for money 3. APM ndi wanzeru ngat mchimwene wake Bingu kotero adzapitiriza chitukuko ankachita mbale wake. Kuiwala kuti no body exactly equal to another person no matter what. …Lero ndi izi wagawanitsa komanso mitundu mdziko muno. I think we should set minimum… Read more »
John Nyirenda

I second

Mwana wa Mfumu M'vonye
Mwana wa Mfumu M'vonye
Now we have heard from two profs., Kanyongolo and Chirwa; and from DD Phiri, an original thinker. It would be instructive to consider their views, as these people would act by their heads, and not necessarily by their hearts. For those advocating secession or federalism, please throw sentimentality out the window, real quick. Not serving the country favorably at all. Present solid economic (not sentimental) arguments regarding the pending benefits of federalism (cf. the costs): remember you will be adding another layer of government, and that’s not cheap. Malawi is not Great Britain, Belgium, Canada or Spain where great noises… Read more »

Where to find them? Please elaborate Mr Mvonye so that we can all consider these alternative solutions.

FKajera wa Kajera

Mvyonye, you have talked no fact at all. You should be defending your region and why it is not necessary to be in a federal state. Mwana akafuna nyanga ya mtsatsi umusemere. Why are you not advocating? It is because you have no problems and see nothing wrong with what is happening. I am made to believe you are talking theoletically. You have never been to the north. We feel it and is getting deeper each day. Enough is enough. We must get things moving very quickly. QUOTA, NO DEVELOPMENT, POSITIONS IN GOVT, name them all.

Sue mikanichi, you started very well until when you started saying the north should form their own party. Why? The north had a party before, where did it take us? Please don’t regionalise parties. That is exactly one Of the problems that we Malawians are still far behind on democracy, we still think on regional lines. A party should be national, not regional. The north has refused to think on regional lines or forming another party or supporting aford because it takes us no where. It is the perpetual Numbers game!!! The north now votes for a party that we… Read more »
wisdom mwanza
I for one do not see why people are so afraid of a federal government in Malawi. After 50 years of independence, most of us can see that the leadership of our country has failed us.The development of Malawi as anation has been polarised and it seems it will continue to be polarised because our political leaders are selfish and afraid to make unpopular but wise decisions for the sake of unifying the nation. Whatever the aurguments they can put forward, there is no need for the government to continue with university quota system selection. The policy has proved to… Read more »

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