Dancing, sleeping into another dictatorship: The problem with Malawi society

As a recently retired civil servant, I was there when we inaugurated the second Bingu wa Mutharika presidency at the Kamuzu Stadium Blantyre in 2009. It was an optimistic event with a sea of blue bunting. Now it is safe to say that only a minority are happy with the way things are going, most of us have strong fears for the future. We should have seen the mixing of party and government ‘blue’ even then.

Once popularly elected, presidents the world over use a number of mechanism to stay in long-term power. In the past this was easy: if you were pro-Moscow, the Russians kept you in power; if you were pro-USA, the Americans propped you up – and this no matter how cruel or brutal you were to your own people! Then the Chinese were a third world country, one of us.

Now of course the rules of the game have changed, donors want ‘value for money!’ And the Chinese are a super power and may sometimes support African dictators to get our resources.

Mutharika: Dictator

But our rulers are still set in the 1970s ngwazi mindset. How do African, particularly Malawian, leaders try to extend their rule at every cost, including development.

1)      They appeal to the middle classes who own property and are waged with threats of job losses if they dissent or criticise, even constructively.

2)      They appeal to the rural masses using ndale, religion and everything else to suggest that the government is legitimate and ordained by God. The masses are subjected to theatres of dances, mass rallies, state power shows (police convoys, quasi ufiti talk etc).

3)      They suggest they were ordained president by God. Listen to all the talk of rebels and dissident VP as ‘Lucifer’ etc.

4)      They appeal to culture: ‘Ah! Ku mwambo wathu timalemekeza achikulire. No one is allowed to ask: ‘Do we respect elders even if they are wrong and are killing our country, our future and our children? Culture or mwambo, as in Kamuzu’s time, is twisted and exploited to make us look docile.

Imagine Malawi men being, effectively, told ‘Donor money will make you gay!’ Imagine hearing well fed religious leaders (who depend on our church donations) telling us ‘We would rather starve than accept homosexuality!’ Anyone familiar with Theba, the Bible, prisons, ancient Africa, history and local languages (mathanyula etc) will tell you that, just as there were and are adulterers, criminals and other sinners, there will always be different sexualities like gays. If USA and UK are giving money to Islamic Pakistan, where Christians are being killed, why should our children starve because Mutharika wants to pusitsa (fool) us with an irrelevant gay debate. It is a debate coming after he has lost us donors because of his temper.

5)      They give masikono to the police, army, judiciary, church and civil society leaders to stop them from acting in the best interests of the poor people.

6)      They create paramilitary thugs to terrorise and intimidate the population. We have all seen the pictures of panga wielding DPP youths in DPP vehicles.

7)      They create a climate of fear by spending government money paying spies in pubs, schools, universities and markets. They use intimidating language ‘I will smoke you out’.

8)      They create an atmosphere of ‘them and us’ by dividing the population through patronage or tribe. Those on the right side harvest the government resources and our taxes. The rest become scared and silenced.

9)      They try to or even muzzle the media, leaving us with only the boring and propaganda MBC.

10)   They use state money to make themselves rich and to buy support.

Can a dictator be good for a country? Yes, sometimes, especially if people have development, prosperity, food, security, forex, electricity, some degree of freedom to criticise and a few other things that make life bearable. A benevolent dictatorship has benefits.

So why do Malawians, with a model constitution that ‘guarantees’ democracy, repeatedly suffer dictatorship?

And, more to the point, why do they suffer an ‘arrogant’ (as one diplomat put it) Mutharika ‘dictatorship’ when this dictatorship has brought: food shortages; forex shortages; petrol shortages; tribalism; electricity blackouts; unemployment; poor schools; closure of university colleges; murder; crime; lack of medicines in hospitals; corruption of the police who spend more time on road blocks taxing the populace than solving crime; abuse of government money and so on?

Why do decent senior police officers stay silent while Mukhito, the IG, allegedly dishes out K50,000 from his safe to corrupt young students into becoming informers. Why does the ACB not investigate? Why do senior police tell Mukhito to be more professional.  Fear? Did we not hear that the 17th August demonstrations were cancelled because there was not enough police manpower. Now they are arresting and kwaputa a civil society. Apolisi akwanira?

Why do religious leaders twitter on about prayer instead of telling the man ‘chosen by God’ to lead us that he is wrong and is making poor people suffer? I thought the truth liberates one?

Why do civil society leaders appear more worried about the middle class concerns than those of the poor? And yet most of their funding is for pro-poor activities. Let us remember that the concerns of July 20th had been felt by people in rural areas for many months, if not years.

Why do chiefs allow themselves to be paraded by politicians and humiliated like sheep?

Why do judges stay silent and – sometimes – give the appearance of being fed scones? Is the attorney general not meant to advise the president to follow legal niceties?

Why do donors succumb to the political games of our politicians? Being called ‘neo-colonial’ is not a good reason for not standing up to dictators, in your own countries you take even worse criticism.

Why do senior army leaders observe while the country lurches towards discontent and possible anarchy? Are they not supposed to advise the president on security in a democracy? Security, in a democracy, results from justice, equality, rule of law and things like that.

Why do some business people, a minority doing well out of patronage, think that they can survive in a country of shortages and disgruntled competitors and people?

Why is it that the ruling elite are so arrogant that they think we will accept all the problems they have landed us while they enrich themselves? Look at this: K1,000,000 a month for the president’s wife, big salaries for the top brass, private jet, big convoy, sudden accumulation of farms and houses, big salary, big state house.

But more to the point: why do we Malawians put up with it?

And, for example, why do we put up with a first lady who, like Marie Antoinette (who told starving peasant to ‘eat cake’), tells off Malawians demanding petrol ‘muli ndi galimoto inu?’ (why do you want petrol, have you got a car?) and civil society leaders to ‘Naff off!’ (akagwere uko). Clearly she does not know that salt, sugar, maize and so on are delivered by motor vehicles!

Why? Why? Why?

How can we free ourselves from this totally and developmentally retarding and unnecessary suffering?

First and foremost we need to undergo a collective mental psychological shift from a mindset of ukapolo (servitude) to the government or party rulers. They are our servants and not our masters. We should expect our rights to be respected. And we should revise our political party cultures, culture that praise leaders even when they are stealing our present and our future.

In this new mindset, like our friends in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Europe and elsewhere, we will expect politicians to respect the rule of law: We will expect those who commit atrocities to be accountable now and in future.

We expect a Malawi where politicians who have abused their positions do not come back to mess things in future. Imagine Ntaba was MCP, NCD, UDF and now DPP. Imagine a government in 2015 having Vuwa Kaunda, Kaliati and all the usual suspects. We should critically examine our party political culture, present and future leaders motives and ideologies.

We need a strong collective will as a people to ensure that we will not be intimidated by threats, intimidation, political lies, spies and planned divisions that rob us of our freedom.

We will have to learn to stand up to our chiefs and religious leaders if they forget whose pastoral care they are meant to look after.

We should expect, as a right, the availability of justice to all; instead of the current abuse of the law by a government determined to thwart our democracy by wasting scarce legal resources with injunctions meant to muzzle freedom of speech.

We will expect leadership from the church here on earth, not just promises of reward in heaven when the lives of many rural and urban Malawians are so wretched that any decent first lady earning K1,000,000 a month for being married to a highly paid president would be ashamed.

We expect a resolute stand on the side of the people by donors who are now increasingly aware of the abuse of donated money by this government.

We should expect any legitimate government worth its name to look after its people and not abuse them.

We will expect political parties to stop abusing the young. There is no room for panga wielding thugs in any decent society.

We should expect our young to have access to unrestricted education in a climate of freedom of expression to develop a more enlightened civil society, one that will deliver capacity, resources and ideas to develop Malawi.

We have to demand a free media in order to facilitate the free exchange of ideas and information. A culture of rumour should have died in 1994.

However, at the end of the day, each of us needs to be personally mentally liberated at each point of contact with the government and politicians (be they ruling or opposition). We should refuse to be used as part of the present or any germinating future dictatorship.

Collectively we will need to make our voices heard. When civil society leaders next call for a demonstration of people’s concerns let us make sure our peaceful voice is heard loud and clear: No to dictatorship in Malawi!’ This time let us not be deceived by cries of ‘not enough police’; we know Mukhito is busy subverting democracy by buying informers.

This call is inevitable. Far from listening Mutharika is busy is arresting, intimidating and killing activists. He has no intention of changing, making amends or becoming democratic. We made a mistake in 2009 by electing a man with dictatorial tendencies. And let us remember that they say njoka yoluma siiputidwa (Don’t play with a dangerous snake).  And far from improving, Malawi’s economy is getting worse. Peter Mutharika has been told by the British that no aid is forthcoming until Malawi governance improves. What does he do? He returns home and says ‘aid is coming!’

So we will either go back to a one party state ruling us with fear, political and police threats and starve with no aid, forex or petrol or we will stand up for our rights. And the threat of a one party state is not theoretical; just look around you at the arrogance of the Mutharika brothers. An internationally renowned law expert is now an architect of a new dictatorship in 2014.

In the meantime, keep wearing something red every Wednesday. And pray, real prayers, not the political ones bandied about in the God-fearing nation, that God does indeed bless and save Malawi from dictatorship again.

In the meantime, keep wearing something red every Wednesday. And pray, real prayers, not the political ones bandied about in the God-fearing nation, that God does indeed bless and save Malawi from dictatorship – yet again. And the Bible does say that God helps those who help themselves.

  • CSI Lilongwe is a retired civil servant
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