If the Alliance for Democracy (Aford) had won Malawi’s first multiparty elections in 1994, Dr. Dennis Nkhwazi, the party’s founding member, would have led a big push to introduce a federal system of government.
In the run-up to the elections, this correspondent was assigned by two journalists who were behind one of Malawi’s first pro-democracy publications to follow Aford on the campaign trail.
Speaking mostly off-the-record, outwardly aware how much noise such talk would generate and the likely misinformation that would ensue, Nkhwazi, a political scientist, would express Aford’s intention to introduce federalism.
Broadly speaking, in a federal system of government, the power to rule is split between the national and the state governments. While the two share some powers, each has certain exclusive powers. There are other systems of government but some find federalism to be a better fit for their development objectives.
Fast forward to 2014. Twenty years later, Aford, whose founding president Chakufwa Chihana led the fight to dismantle dictatorship in Malawi, has different players but the same dream. Chakufwa’s son Enoch now leads Aford.
In May this year, Malawi held its fourth elections since the introduction of democracy. New president Peter Mutharika kept his campaign promise and announced a slimmed down cabinet of 20 ministers as opposed to sometimes twice as many but it is the composition – 15 are from the South where the president’s party is popular and the other five from the North and Center – that resurrected Aford’s dream.
Enoch Chihana does not believe the way Mutharika has stacked his cabinet bodes well for development in the country. He is not alone. University of Malawi political scientist Dr. Blessings Chinsinga told Radio France International that Mutharika’s cabinet appointments “smack of regionalism [and] patronage”.
Chihana says “when some of the [ministers] go to the North, they are…strangers. There’s no way they can represent the hopes and aspiration of the people there.”
During the one party state, the region was stuck with the unflattering moniker of Dead North despite the fact that the country’s first educational institutions were established there.
Chihana, who is the only legislator for Aford which in 1994 won all 33 seats in the North, is however barking up the wrong tree if he thinks federalism would provide the answer to the imbalance in regional development, according to critics who argue that a developing country like Malawi is too small to be divvied up to create autonomous territories.
“What they need to be pushing for is a reform of electoral laws so that [a] president should only be elected with more than 50 percent of voters,” Chinsinga was quoted by Malawi Voice as saying. “If our laws are not reformed, the calls to have a federal government will be [made] now and again.”
But the Aford leader whose views were also expressed by at least three other members of parliament refuses to budge and thinks they might have a shot, noting that Mutharika got into office with 36 percent of the vote.
“It’s not that I am raising this issue for sensational purposes, no,” says Chihana in an interview with Nyasa Times. “[Federalism] is the only way to go for our country as it will ensure decentralization.”
There are different types of federalism and it would be interesting to know which one Chihana and company would want for Malawi.
In his plan, Nkhwazi offered something which probably few have thought of before rejecting the idea of federalism out of hand.
It would not be an overstatement to say if you asked how a state might look like in Malawi under a federal system the average joe would put together districts from the South for one state and do the same for the Center and North. In fact, Chihana had this to say in an interview with The Nation:
“Each of the three regional provinces, for example, will have their regional or provincial constitutions, their own governor and, among other things regionally-controlled educational and financial systems.
“The result of the devolution will be greater ability for local-decision making and policy formulation at a localised level,” Chihana said.
But back in 1994 Nkhwazi’s approach was different. While the regions would operate as Chihana says, Nkhwazi called for the redrawing of Malawi’s map through breaking up of regions as they exist today.
When creating a state, he suggested not to group districts together along ethnic lines or those from the same region but mixing them up. What you would end up with would be an autonomous region made up of districts from the three regions or two. So a governor could have in his region Chitipa from the North; Kasungu and Salima from the Centre; Zomba and Thyolo from the South. Another region under a different governor could be Nsanje and Mulanje from the South, Dedza and Kasungu from the Centre and Rumphi from the North.
Dr. Nkhwazi died in 1996 but the dream endures.
*The author is former founding editor of Maravi Post who is now a columnist on Nyasa TimesFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :