The current democracy is nothing but fake and unlikely to be sustainable due to the fact that we do not have national parties but rather regional-based parties masquerading as national parties. Thus one group of people ends up annexing the other(s) creating a “them and us” syndrome and in the process moving away from a one-party system to a one-region system.
This square peg in a round hole system does not address fully the will of the peoples of the three Regions. When a party such as MCP that virtually controls the entire Central Region is left out of the political and economic development of the Centre, you are inviting serious trouble. Asking a party that has its power base on one corner of the country to control the whole country is living on borrowed time.
Whilst one-party system had its own evils, the current multi-party system (one-region system) under the present conditions is worst off. There has to be an acknowledgement that the modern Malawi nation is nations within a nation and any political system that does not embrace these diversities is bound to fail.
The reality is that when it comes to politics the North does not offer appealing political market. When a party such as DPP wins, its first mandate is to consolidate its power by delivering to its own electorate. Unfortunately, because DPP’s electorates are mainly people from the South, satisfying these electorates is construed as favouring “akwao” as was the case under UDF rule. MCP, AFORD, PP etc, could do the same unless they want to be voted out as it happened to PP.
Presently both the North and the Centre must understand that they will always feed out of political leftovers. Unfortunately we are a poor country that literary lives on donations and borrowings, which are not enough. Hence, whatever is left after satisfying the winning party’s electorate is very small. Any development project that gets channelled to the North or the Center is out of the good will and pity of the ruling elite as there is no political motivation for doing so under the present conditions.
If you come from either the North or Centre and still believe that you can get an equitable share out of the current political mess, you are either delusional or outright sale out. Multi-party politics is a numbers game and so far the numbers do not favour the Center nor the North.
Over the past month or so the subject of federalism has come up again although this time with added flavour by some even calling for the North to break away and be a standalone country. As expected, on social media hate speech has been the order of the day as if what is being proposed is new and taboo.
Equally disturbing is the fact that different groups or leaders have either issued contradictory positions or chosen to articulate popular positions in order to be seen as the “good” guys in the eyes of some and in the process betray their own subjects.
In 1996 we met the late Professor Bingu wa Mutharika at Balalaika Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg to discuss the possibility of Malawi going the federal route. This was after the 1994 presidential and parliamentary elections which showed that we had voted on regional lines. The late president was not entirely against the idea although we sensed that he wanted a rather watered down version.
We made it very clear to him that leaving out MCP and AFORD which at that time had swept the entire Centre and North respectively from political and economic involvement would be disastrous (not in terms of civil war).
In the same year we travelled to Malawi to hold discussions on the same matter with several stakeholders. Amongst the religious groups, we met representatives of Nkhoma Synod of CCAP at Lilongwe CCAP and the Secretary General of the Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP at Capital Hotel. It is at that time that we learnt of the possible breakup of the CCAP church. The two synods were not against the federalism idea. The Muslim Association in Lilongwe was not entirely against the idea either.
At a political level, as expected, AFORD represented by the entire top bras including the late Bitwell Kaonga and B Mkandawire were totally for the idea. MCP categorically distanced itself from the idea through the then Secretary General of the Party, Lovemore Munlo. Mr Munlo went on and on stating that one-party system was not imposed on the people but that it was the will of the people – as if he was playing Kamuzu’s tape. On the other hand, UDF refused to take part.
Amongst the traditional authorities, we met Chief Kaomba at Kasungu Inn. Among other things, the Chief said that Kamuzu never favoured his own district (Kasungu) economically besides the construction of Kamuzu Academy and Chiwengo village. According to the Chief, Central Region was being sidelined economically by the then UDF government.
Under one-party state, there was no need to satisfy electorates. In fact there were no elections. The truth of the matter is that whilst the current debate on federalism has been triggered by people from the North, we should not be under any illusion that it is only people from the North who are dissatisfied with the vagueness of the current political system. We sensed the same uneasiness in 1996 when we conducted our survey.
The problem is that it is human nature to defend a leader who comes from your own area. Because of the way our politics are crafted in Malawi, any criticism of the political elite or system unfortunately easily degenerates into one region versus another. However, when you engage with people on a one-to-one basis a different perception is created.
We were surprised to naught that the ordinary people on the streets understood very well what was being proposed in that the emphasis was on economic development and creation of local power structures. The Reverend Dr Jere of CCAP in Mzimba said in his deep Tumbuka the following: “Pala mwamu kulongosola umu mwalongosolera apa, banthu bamu kuchipulikiska”– meaning: if you are going to explain the way you have explained, people will understand it (meaning the federation issue.
In 1998, credit to UDF, a new Local Government Act was passed which for the first time emphasized the decentralisation of some administrative and political powers to the Districts. In view of that we then decided to suspend the discussion on federalism and instead give the new Act a chance. Unfortunately, the new Act did not bring about the intended objectives.
Fast forward to 2014: Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP has since changed its official position, MCP which has been hopeful that one day they would wrestle the power from the South is slowly being hit by reality and has started (though carefully) to change its original opposition on federalism, some chiefs are against the idea contrary to what Chief Kaomba told us in 1996. We are not sure if Chief Kaomba has also changed his position.
Whilst by and large the reaction from the government has been statesmanship, the sending of a “Tumbuka” (as all of us from the North are wrongly referred to) to talk to fellow Tumbuka is counterproductive. It is a policy that the Whites in South Africa used to practise as a way of divide and rule. Instead the government could have deployed such elderly statesmen as Gwanda Chakwamba, John Tembo, Louis Chimango, Dr Bakali Muluzi, Amayi Dr Joyce Banda et al.
In our discussion with late President Mutharika, we addressed two fundamental issues: being fast tracking economic development and creating a truly representative political system. We stressed (and we still do) the fact that whilst presently the North is not politically appealing, the economic messiah of the entire country could one day come from the most neglected areas including the North. Already the North has started to open up economically and there is more to come.
We pointed out that there was going to be a tendency by the ruling party to satisfy its electorates and in the process neglect areas that do not contribute significant electoral votes such as the North. Unfortunately this could be construed as favouritism when in fact the North or Center could have behaved the same way if they were in power. We went on to say that in the case of Malawi, there are no losers in an election but parties that win in their own areas of control. The three regions were created (administratively) for a good reason and that should be respected otherwise we are going to be practising modern day “colonisation”.
There was need (we argued) to transfer more administrative and political powers to the districts/ regions coupled with allocating more funds to the said districts/regions. For this to happen, it meant abolishing the colonial system of appointing District Commissioners and instead allowing the Districts to appoint their own Chief Executives.
Secondly it meant devising a better and more equitable formula for distributing national budget based on population size and level of economic development, among other things.
One could argue that because some issues are discussed in the National Parliament where all parties (that have MPs) are represented, the notion of one Region controlling the others should not be there. To some extent this is true. But practically we all know that the Executive (which is basically a Party) is what is ruling the country with the parliament simply having an oversight role in some cases. The oversight role of the parliament is even diminished once the ruling party attains majority in parliament. Once the cash-strapped MPs decide to cross the floor and go to the government side the opposition further gets weakened.
Because of massive poverty, even intellectuals and chiefs/clergy alike begin to compromise their positions. Hence you begin to hear an intellectual saying the problems in Nigeria are because of Federalism when in fact the whole world (including children in the streets) knows that the Boko Haram agenda is an Islamic one. If federalism was so harmful, Nigeria would not be the number one ranked economy in Africa surpassing South Africa, USA would not be the number one ranked economy in the world, and Germany would not be the number one ranked economy in Europe.
Thanks to the UDF government, indeed some of our proposals were adopted in the new Local Government Act of 1998. Unfortunately distribution of funds was not adequately addressed and DCs are still being deployed from National Local Government.
The new Local Government Act chose to decentralise power to the Districts. In our case we argued that Districts do not have capacity and that some powers should be granted to the Regions. This meant that the regions which have always existed on paper (administratively) would now become second tier governments with their own democratically elected mini parliament/committee. Whether you choose to call this decentralisation or federalism should be a semantic issue for the sake of simplicity.
At a political level, we argued that Malawi is a unique nation in that people do not vote on issues but rather in regional blocks. Whilst over the years we have been fused into one nation with one identity, our differences are still visible and correctly so. Voting on regional lines should not (in any way) indicate backwardness. In fact we would have been very surprised had people voted otherwise. We can choose (struggle) to educate the population so that they vote based on issues or we could (and we should) change our political system to be in line with the makeup and thinking of our people.
A regional-based party cannot assume national responsibilities. Similarly, a party that sweeps almost all the seats in a region (such as MCP in the Center) cannot be left out of the politics and economic activities of the Region it has won. There is need to create political and economic space for MCP in the Central region where its power base is.
A federal system in some ways creates political space for some parties at lower levels of government. Quite frankly not all people have interest in national politics when they can easily and more effectively serve their people at local level. They tend to go to national politics because of the money.
The current local government system where DCs are appointees of the National Local Government Ministry and the national government disburses funds to the Districts at will is too-colonial, archaic and irrelevant in a modern democratic order. Most of these DCs have no understanding of the areas and people they are supposed to be serving.
The only way we can address the current political frustrations is through the decentralisation of administrative and political powers beyond what has already been suggested in the Local Government Act of 1998. This is where a federal system (or any other name) becomes relevant.
We do not believe a referendum is necessary in this case as the Parliament has powers to amend the Constitution. The people already voted (through a referendum) in favour of a multi-party politics. How that multi-party politics should be implemented does not warrant another referendum but a simple Constitutional amendment through the parliament
We have stated that multi-party politics is a numbers game. There is no evidence that people from the South or Centre hate those from the North. In the course of satisfying the wishes of the electorate a ruling party is seen to be favouring its own. We believe federal system is better under these conditions. Those who hold a different view on this matter, they need to explain how the current system that has failed us over the years is in fact better than what is being proposed. They also need to explain how a federal system would bring about disunity.
There are no good guys in multi-party politics. Why should a ruling party risk being voted out simply because it channels funds to a minority group such as the North which does not contribute significant votes? There is no room for minority groups in multi-party politics. Federal system is a preferred system to address conflicts as in the case now in the newly created country of South Sudan. Federalism is not the cause for divisions but rather a solution in times of divisions. Federalism is a better system to address the concerns of minorities.
What about rotational presidency? This is another form of quota system. The problem with quota system is that whilst it might be seen as fair to some it is unfair to others. Secondary, once you begin to implement it in one area, other areas may require the same, and at the expense of quality.
Our argument is that not everything is of national importance and that some issues are best left to the local people to address whilst others may require all of us collectively.
Whilst the subject of federalism may have been introduced by people who are perceived to be bad “electoral losers”, the subject matter is very relevant to today’s political situation. We hope that the powers that be will listen to the voice of wisdom and take corrective measures before it is too late.
- Aston Nyondo is a retired Banker now based in Mzuzu while Edgar Mwandira is a former Malawi College of Accountancy Lecturer and now a Consultant based in South Africa and they’re writing in their respective personal capacity as concerned citizens.
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