Malawi groans for a vibrant civil society

The term civil society, according to political theorist Grugel, applies to social activity and societal organizations, which, directly or, indirectly, support, promote or struggle for democracy and democratization. Civil society includes social-political institutions, voluntary associations, and a public sphere within which people can debate, act and engage with each other on matters of group, public interest. Civil society groups provide the channel of communication between the people and the government or political parties in various ways. For instance, they act as representatives of the people by advancing views of public interest, which may be undermined by government or political parties.

Grugel underscores this point by stating that civil society organizations are a means for checking and controlling the state and a tool to push the state towards deeper reforms. A weak civil society implies a thin democracy, where patterns of participation are low and where the state has few obligations to listen to society, conceptualized broadly and inclusively.

A vibrant civil society on the other hand helps to determine the quality of democracy. They also provide a platform or podium for debate and discussion. This improves the quality of public policy and also enhances the creation of a better-informed electorate. Most importantly civil society groups or organisations scrutinize government actions with the overall objective of ensuring that they are in tandem with people’s interests or will.

Undule Mwakasungura: One of the civil society activists
Undule Mwakasungura: One of the civil society activists

Worth pointing out is the fact that politicians [or Political parties] and civil society are partners, rather than adversaries, in development or consolidation of democracy and they must hence view each other as such. However, civil society groups differ from political parties in terms of perspectives of operation. The former seeks to exert influence from outside, rather than to win or exercise government power. It is therefore on this basis that the pivotal role the civil society can play in the consolidation of democracy particularly in developing democracies like Malawi shouldn’t be underestimated or ignored.

Indisputably, our country’s political history carries a plethora of justifications and illustrations on how a vibrant civil society can vigilantly resist oppression, injustice and all emerging dictatorial tendencies which pose a serious threat to our hard-earned multi-party democracy. One cannot downplay the crucial oversight role played by the civil society in the past decade on the open term bid, section 65 versus budget saga, the marriage age bill, Robert Chasowa murder, injunctions bill, fuel and foreign exchange scarcity, the appointment of the Vice President Kachali as the overseer of the Malawi Electoral Commission and many other issues that had impinged on the very tenets of democracy and Human Rights.

Memories are afresh of how a vibrant civil society during Mutharika’s first term bravely voiced out the growing discontent and dissatisfaction amongst the general public against the dictatorial tendencies by the opposition which was using its numerical advantage in the National Assembly to frustrate government business at the expense of the people’s will. This was a time when the general public was for the immediate implementation of the budget. The opposition, however, neglected the public will by proceeding to use budget as a ransom for quick implementation of Section 65, a constitutional provision through which it was determined to use in order to satisfy its selfish-desires of dislodging Mutharika from the throne.

In response to the public outcry against this tyrannical opposition, the civil society through its collaborate efforts of its organisations like Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation(CHRR), Malawi Watch, Public Affairs Committee(PAC), and many others, successfully acted as the mouthpiece of the voiceless by organizing a series of activities including peaceful protests, vigils at Parliament, press conferences and several others in a bid to force the opposition-dominated National Assembly to priotise the passing of the national budget.

When Mutharika suddenly graduated from being the darling of the masses to a tyrant who never cared a hoot about the plight of poor Malawians, the civil society was at it again – performing the same noble role of speaking for the voiceless – in the face of a hostile political environment created by the regime. Interestingly, Mutharika’s 2009 Presidential general elections’ glory was gradually being ‘swallowed’ by the evils that were associated with his regime.

Instead of reflecting on the merits brought by Mutharika’s ‘golden era’ [2005-2009] which saw the country registering remarkable strides in the economy, security and food security, Malawians were then engrossed in issues that had marred Mutharika’s so-called “wise and dynamic leadership”. With the fuel crisis; the academic freedom saga; scarcity of foreign exchange; poor governance and a series of human rights violations, Mutharika lost direction and legitimacy to govern.

However, the civil society’s undivided resolve to the value of democracy and human rights came under litmus test during this crisis. Despite receiving stiff resistance from the regime which bluntly labeled the civil society and all Malawians who decided to exercise their constitutional right of a peaceful demonstration in a bid to bringing their grievances to the attention of the authority as “vendors” and “gay rights activist”, Civil Society organisations successfully led Malawians into nation-wide demonstrations on July 20 2011.

Even Mutharika’s unpalatable verbose and threats of arrest against prominent civil society leaders like Rafik Hajat and Undule Mwakasungula did not move the civil society an inch, and they eventually fulfilled their mission.  At the end of it all, democracy triumphed. In all these scenarios, we clearly see how a vibrant civil society in Malawi has all along kept both the opposition and the government on their toes forcing them to abide by their democratically stipulated obligations, and in the process championing the public interest and democratic values.

It is therefore against such a positive background that a cross-section of Malawians have of the recent past especially after the July 20 demonstrations held high expectations of what a civil society can and should do in the face of any conspicuous injustice, oppression, poor governance or human rights violations. No wonder any recent silence, intentional or non-intentional passive role taken by the Civil society on issues which the general public considers to be of national interest or importance have been greeted with a great deal of suspicion and misgiving from some quarters of the society, with some questioning the credibility of the Civil Society.

This observation is clearly reflected in Nation On Sunday’s editor Gracian Tukula’s  “We should all take the blame” article of February 3 2013. While acknowledging the remarkable unity our civil society showed when the fuel and foreign exchange situation reached crisis levels during Mutharika’s regime, Tukula observes that the civil society have slept on duty while people have been dying in our public hospitals. “Should we still call our civil society the voice of the voiceless when the voice of the poor has remained mute as lives continue to be lost”? , wonders the seasoned editor.

Certainly, Tukula’s sentiments, which I believe are equally shared by a cross-sectional of Malawians, act as an eye opener to the recent state of the civil society particularly those in the democratic governance realm since Joyce Banda ascended to the throne. Bluntly speaking, the civil society has tended to either withdraw from its necessary usual critique of government policies or taken more of a passive role on some matters which have been deemed as of national importance.

Besides, there have also been cases whereby the civil society has enjoyed bad publicity of because of its internal squabbles or divisions – a scenario that might act as a possible explanation to the recent failure of the Civil Society to speak with one voice on various issues of national interest. The status quo has therefore been of great concern amongst a cross-section of Malawians who have all along developed much trust and confidence a vibrant civil society as their mouthpiece.

The emerging concerns over the silence or “faint” voice of the civil society [in  the face of the prevailing economic hardships – instigated by Mutharika’s political and economic arrogance but aggravated by JB’s recent economic policies – , drug shortages in hospitals, the Presidential ‘extravagance’ through high cost frequent travels and many other challenges rocking the country] should not be viewed negatively by our civil society but rather a signal of the high levels of trust and confidence that the civil society has amassed to itself over the years from the general public in as far as championing human rights and democratic values is concerned.

Malawians have certainly learnt from our recent history [especially since 2003 which has been marked by a vibrant civil society as well illustrated above] that the civil society remains a reliable channel for bringing their grievances to the attention of those in authority, and any noticeable “passivity” or “silence” by the civil society in the midst of national crisis would certainly be perceived as betrayal.

It is therefore in view of all this that our civil society should jealously guard or protect this good reputation, and allow nothing to erode the highest credibility it commands from Malawians. Malawi’s young democracy, as has been the trend in the past, groans for a vibrant civil society especially as the country approaches the much-anticipated 2014 Tripartite General elections.

When all is said and done, a vibrant civil society remains the bedrock of our democracy and “an important part of the country’s governance architecture”.

  • The author is a social and political activist working in a human rights and democratic governance realm in Malawi

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