Malawi: How the mighty have fallen!

AMBUJE’S DIARY 2011 PART I: 

Adalanda ufumu kalero, naupereka kwaoledzera! (The kingdom was long confiscated and awarded to a drunkard!) – Blantyre street urchin’s rendition of a Lucius Banda tune; July 24th, 2011.

Exhausted from a long series of flights through Burlington (Vermont, US), Washington (D.C., US), Addis Ababa, Lubumbashi and Lilongwe, I did not count on being alert enough to comprehend the word on the street after alighting from an Air Malawi-chartered DC9 at Chileka International Airport outside Blantyre in the late afternoon of July 23rd, 2011. But then this was a mere two days after the milestone 20th of July anti-government protests in which an estimated 19 peaceful demonstrators were slaughtered in cold blood by Malawi Police and scores brutally injured. A palpable feeling of dispondency, anger and a sense that the other foot was about to drop — a sense of unfinished business – hung in the air. From the airport to town, this was a Malawian mood I had never observed before; a Blantyre atmosphere as I had never beholden it.

“Your wish is now granted, Tom Li,” my friend Mackenzie (Khenzo) Kundiwali teased me over a bottle of Carlsberg Green, Probably the Best Beer in the World, at Club XL on Chikwawa Road later that evening after I had showered and eaten supper at home. “The majority here in Malawi now hates this government. So am sure you are happy, not so? This is what you wanted all along, not so? So are you not very happy now, Tom Li?”

This is a make-up picture of Bingu on comedian Mr Bean's Holiday

I tried to protest that I had never wanted any government of Malawi to be hated, only that it respect the Constitution, the rule of law generally and human rights in particular; and that it address the genuine concerns of the people who elected it — in all of which this government had shown staggering deficiences since 2004 when President Bingu wa Mutharika came to power.

But Khenzo was having none of it. “You’ve been writing against this government since day one, Tom Li. At first you were the only one, maybe one or two other people. Now all the newspapers are against Bingu. So you have succeeded with your objective to demonize the government, not so? Just accept this instead of denying. Your wish has been granted. But are you happy about it, to see your country against its own government? Is that gonna bring you peace of mind, Tom Li?”

Despite my protestations, I have to agree with him now on one point having just spent a month and a week in Malawi. I am convinced that there is a herd mentality in Malawi’s intellectual community among editorial writers, political columnists and civil society. I was in Malawi when President Bingu wa Mutharika was elected to a second term of office in 2009. I read all the editorials and political columns then. Without exception, they were brimming with praise for Mutharika; flattering him profusely. One needed a nuclear powered microscope to find any criticism of Mutharika then, even on Internet media. I found this unusual, unhealthy and unreal considering his abysmal record on rule of law and human rights in the first term.

Mutharika showed his dictatorial instincts then, only that he did not have a Parliamentary majority to fully implement them. For most of his first term, and just after his re-election in 2009, I was often a lone critical voice crying hoarse in the wilderness versus his numerous false charges of Treason against his perceived political opponents; his selective use of anti-corruption laws to falsely accuse and victimise his foes; his ill-treatment of his then Vice President (which he is now repeating against his current one); his prorogation of Parliament to avoid impeachment procedures and his obstinancy on Section 65 and the budget, among others. Yet the media and civil society were behind him throughout those abuses. Civil society and some university students even went as far as camping in Lilongwe and throwing stones at cars of some opposition politicians to support Bingu in his first term. How soon we forget!

Today the picture is totally different. In the month and a week that I have just spent in Malawi, I saw just about no editorial or political column that was complimentary of Mutharika. Civil society is organising demonstrations and vigils against his regime. University students and lecturers are in revolt against the Mutharika regime’s stiffling of academic freedom and illogical closure of colleges. Mutharika is reduced to making whistlestop tours begging Malawians to desist from repeating the July 20 demonstrations against him. How the mighty have fallen!

All this confirming what I consider to be an unhealthy state of mind in the intellectual community of the country. Something is wrong – symptoms of an unhealthy conformity – when all media and civil society were in favour of Mutharika barely two years ago; and the same entities are almost uniformly against him today while his personality and behaviour have not changed. It bespeaks a herd mentality; and that cannot be good for the vibrancy and durability of a requisite positive debating atmosphere in our fledgling democracy. Something is clearly dysfunctional about our intellectual class and I can’t quite put my finger on the reasons for its penchant for sameness. Speaking for myself, however, I find intellectual sameness – the bandwagon mentality – revolting. I find it, I might add, rather shallow and vacuous.

“If Mutharika is able to act callously today and show no remorse,” I told Khenzo, “it is because he feels a lot of confidence and infallibility having gotten away with so much malfeasance in his first term. The blame for this lies squarely with the generality of Malawi’s intellectual community comprising of reporters, editorialists, political columnists, Internet chatters and civl society organisations who all pampered and cuddled him as he illegally abused his perceived political opponents then. Those of us who opposed him at the time were labelled traitors and, in some cases, including in my own case, hunted down like wild animals.

Now that he has a parliamentary majority, thanks in no small measure to the same intellectual community, there is no check on his power and suddenly the intellectual community is realising its mistake. More so because he now abuses even those who supported him in his forst term of office. Yes, the penny has dropped in the mind of our intellectual elites,  but this is a little late — like realising, when your home has already been robbed, that you hired a burgler to guard it.”

“Perhaps there is a lesson in all this for the intellectual community,” I lectured. “Let us learn to criticise or offer support where due instead of first looking, for example, at how unpopular the opposition was in the first term; or how unpopular the government now is in its second term. Bad is bad, no matter who commits it and no matter how popular or unpopular they are. Bingu’s bad deeds in the first term spoke for themseves. Just because the opposition was less popular than he at the time shouldn’t have made the intellectual community turn a blind eye to his evils as it did. Learn to call a spade a spade, wamva tsopano (kapisch)?”

Having thus emptied my chest, I asked Khenzo to drive my exhausted body home to sleep.  Which he did.

Atupele stages love-in at Ndix

The next day, July 24th, I decided to attend an opposition political rally in Ndirande. The previous night at Club XL, Khenzo had let slip that opposition UDF members of Parliament would stage a rally on Nyambadwe Grounds, so named because they straddle the boundary between Ndirande and Nyambadwe. I heard that a convoy would leave Atupele Muluzi’s house in Nyambadwe and head towards the grounds following a circuitous route via Southern Bottlers on the Makata Road, and curving northwards at the new Carlsberg warehouse as we go towards the Kamuzu Stadium, and then swinging back west through Ndirande Market to Nyambadwe Grounds. I parked my brother’s blue Mercedes Benz sedan close to Atupele Muluzi’s residence and followed the convoy as it left, horns blazing, UDF colours flying, onwards towards the grounds following that route.

Atupele Muluzi: Together we can!

I was particualrly interested to hear the comments of pedestrians and onlookers as the convoy snaked its way towards the venue. “Atupele yemweyo kuti wa wa wa wa”  (we support Atupele wholeheartedly) was a common refrain. “Bingu watha mapulani” (Bingu has outlived his usefulness) was another. “Abingu paulendo” (Bingu is on his way out) was also heard.

The rally itself dished out a feast of political rhetoric. Former Blantyre Mayor Ng’ambanizikopa Chikakwiya hailed former President Bakili Muluzi and asked rhetorically, “Kodi mkango umabereka ng’ona (does a lion beget a crocodile?)” to which the crowd roared a loud “Iyayiii” (Nooooo!)! The unmentioned reference to Atupele’s leadership qualities was not lost on the audience. And it was a mammoth crowd. Eric Chiwaya emphasized party unity and what needed to be done to achieve it. Alfred Mwechumu’s speech was largely drowned out by equipment malfunction. It might be useful to mention here that police had tried to dismantle the podium and the equipment before the rally. Apparently some DPP yahoo had tried to obtain an injunction stopping the rally. The injunction was overturned in the eleventh hour and the rally received a late go ahead. Fortunately for the rally organisers, the crowds had waited partiently.

Other MPs spoke, but the penultimate speaker was Ibrahim Matola, UDF House Leader. He wowed the crowd with zingers rejecting the governing DPP’s accusations that the opposition sponsored the July 20 anti-government demonstrations or that the opposition favoured mathanyula (homosexuality). Matola insisted that it was a DPP government which arrested homosexual couple Steve Chimbalanga and ‘Aunt’ Tiwo, and then later pardoned them. He reasoned that therefore mathanyula was really a DPP issue, and if people wanted to know the bastion of mathanyula, they needed look no further than the DPP itself. The crowd roared with laughter and approval. (Rumour has it that a prominent DPP official, possibly a future presidential candidate, is a veritable mathanyula). Matola concluded by leading the crowd in a paraphrase of a popular song: Ukamwa mowa, usayendetse dziko iwe, ukamwamowa (don’t drink and govern).

And then it was time for the main event, Atupele time. I was in the general audience and had my ear cocked to pick up crowd comments and reactions. More than one person had already commented how like his father Atupele looked. And then he spoke:

Amayi ndi abambo, msonkhano uli pano siwamasewela iyayi!” (ladies and gentlemen, this rally is no child’s play) in a voice eerily reminiscent of his father’s. The crowd went wild, and that was just the beginning. He went on to explain UDF policy on the ongoing crisis in the country, declaring that what the country was going through was not what Malawians wanted when they voted for multi-party democracy in the referendum of 1993.

He explained that many people were approaching him to run for the Presidency in 2014 and assured that he would make an announcement in that regard sometime after Ramadan, the Islamic period of fasting and spiritual dedication. He declared that he was not a baby as some had referred to him, adding that he was a two-term member of Parliament for most of which time he had ably chaired the legal affairs committee in the House. In any case, he said, the youth movement was now leading the world citing British leaders in government and opposition as well as the American President.

Some of the  best crowd responses came when he extolled his love and sense of belonging to Ndirande, declaring, “Ndix, I love you!” to which the crowd responded, “We love you too!”

Bwinotu bwino, amayi akunyumba ali pompano!” (be careful now, my wife is right here with me) He intoned. “I don’t want to have to be explaining myself later tonight…..”

And the crowd laughed.

*Tom Likambale is a Malawian writer based in Canada 

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