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.
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 TimesFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :