Of Machiavelli, Orwell and ‘Bingu’s burden’

Those who know me, both friends and foes, know me as a satirist, known for my forthrightness and bluntness, which, of course, I am judicious enough to use sparingly on the former and quite liberally on the latter. And I am a courageous satirist, too, whose most favourite biblical verses happen to be those that contain the phrases “Do not be afraid” or “Fear not” and, make no mistake, no one should take this aspect of me too lightly. I write this article in a spirit of the patriotism that my state president, Bingu wa Mutharika, religiously calls upon all of us to show towards our country. Sometime last year I wrote another article which was published in both the Nation (shorter version) and Daily Times (longer version).

In that article I was pleading the case of my brother Gabriel Kondesi of Mulanje who was ingenious enough to set up his own radio station using simple technology but who was subsequently sentenced to a prison term for failing to have his station registered with MACRA. What was ironic about the Kondesi case was that here was an obvious genius who had in fact applied for a licence with MARCA more than two years prior to his arrest ─ on instructions from the same MACRA who had not attended to his application in all that time. I saw in his sentence a disjuncture between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

I am made to believe that that article found its way to some very important desks and I am following it up with the present one which seeks to be both a sequel and a clarification of the first one ─ but as applied to different contexts. Why clarification? It would seem that some aspects of my first article were grossly misunderstood both in its intent and spirit. Because I had argued that the sentence seemed excessive and legalistic, and I called upon all of us, including the judiciary, not to look at our laws as if they just fall upon us or cast in stone, some people my have seen in that call a cue for them to follow the law only selectively as their convenience and not principle dictates. They, in carte blanchefashion, arrogated to themselves the privilege of which laws to follow and which to disregard, apparently with impunity. It is very clear that such an injudicious attitude towards the duly constituted laws of this land would lead to widespread lawlessness in this country. Meanwhile, these people have also pushed for laws that suit their selfish interests, what effrontery!

Malawi ruler Bingu wa Mutharika

I still maintain, though, that it does not make sense for our courts to hand down custodial sentences, needlessly filling our prisons beyond their capacity thereby, where community service or financial reparation would be more appropriate. It is a gap in our judicial system that needs urgent redress (─ recently I heard about the operations of what are called “camp courts” and I think that is a step in the right direction). But, having made that observation, I must also call upon all of us ─ from the highest to the lowliest ─ to uphold the rule of law in this country otherwise we risk becoming a mafia state.

Since my previous article a lot has happened in this country ─ which is as it should be, especially in a country of 14 million+people. Most of what has happened in the interim is unattractive and disheartening. Malawians have been taken for granted left, right and centre by the very people who are supposed to show exemplary conduct in this country. Of great concern is the rate and pervasiveness of the blue lies (no pun intended) that keep being churned out of state machinery on an almost everyday basis.

I first had a feel of these lies when I travelled to South Africa by coach on 28th September, 2010, just the morning after I had heard the story of how dozens of fuel tankers had been stuck at Tete Bridge because of the construction works there, thereby causing painful fuel shortages in this country. To my utter shock, when we got there, I did not see even a single fuel tanker waiting to cross that bridge!! I knew there and then that as Malawians we were up against something possibly ignoble and potentially very dangerous, not only in terms of us not having the fuel we so desperately needed, but that even our very moral fibre was at stake. We risked being utterly corrupted by these shameless blue lies; that the rot would infect us all, coming as it did from a clique of very highly placed people in the land.

In situational and relative ethics, Moral Philosophy distinguishes between a blue lie and a white or “holy” lie. A holy lie is the kind that does no one any harm; if anything it is actually told to prevent a greater evil from happening. A common example that is given is that if your mother was hiding from someone who in a moment of a passionate rage is hot on her heels, brandishing a murderous weapon, seeking to kill her, and you know where she is hiding but when the would-be murderer asks you for her whereabouts you lie that you have no knowledge of her hiding place thereby preventing a greater evil from taking place.

That is a white or holy lie and it does no one any harm; in fact it both saves the life of your mother and it also saves the would-be murderer of a spell in jail, if not the hangman’s noose altogether. At the end of the day everyone benefits. But a blue lie is one which is deliberately calculated to make a fool of someone or a group of people with the intention of buying time or escaping duly deserved moral censure; it borders on moral turpitude. No mature person expects those people in government to be perfect, not even the Church people would have such an expectation being fully aware of the frailty of human nature.

Nevertheless, there are certain minimum standards expected from every person and this includes those holding public office from the highest level down to the plebeian in Wenya in Chitipa or Muwawa in Machinga. Truthfulness and honesty is what the citizenry of this country deserve from those it elected into various offices and not the peddling of blue lies. Anything less would mean taking Malawians too much for granted; suggesting that they are “foolable” people. Let us be serious, there are so many respectable gentlemen and ladies across this country, God fearing people  for the most part, and to simply think of all these people as “foolable” personages is vanity of the worst kind ─ and it does not reflect very well on the perpetrators of these blue lies themselves.

How would it feel for one’s kids to know that their father or mother is a shameless, a broad-day liar? Or as a zealous defender of the indefensible?  Seriously, do we still in this day and age need the Goebbels or the Orwellian Squillers and others who kept up the juggernaut of state lie machinery in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm? Do we have to sell our souls to the devil, like Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus? Dr Faustus is the man from whom we get the term the “Faustian hero”, an anti-Promethean man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the Devil’s false promise of unlimited knowledge.

The difference in our case, though, a difference no less noxious, is that the lairs are not churning out the blue lies in pursuit of something as noble as knowledge ─  as Dr Faustus unwittingly did ─ but we seemingly seem to be in search of unlimited foolishness simply because, for a time at least, such foolishness can bring one material benefits. But there is a catch, and it is that it does so only for a limited time after which you become a pariah and anathema to your own people. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul, people?

Which brings me to my next concern and it is that the broad-based development of any nation is a result of collective responsibility and effort; broad-based development of a nation does not come from the ingenuity and benevolence of a single individual or a small clique of individuals. Muluzi and his minions had tried to present all Malawians as Madeya once, where is he now?  As a country we need to pool our resources, mostly in the form of knowledge and ideas, from a whole range of the human resources at our disposal, from the plebeian in Nsanje to the highest level of scholarship in the land and beyond.

This should happen all the way from the generation of ideas to their crystallisation and implementation as developmental projects with a sense of ownership by all of us. No single person has a monopoly on knowledge. In his 1987 novel titled Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe incisively argues exactly this point about the need for the democratisation of not only governance but of development as well.  As things are in Malawi at present, one gets the feeling that Bingu wa Mutharika and a small clique within DPP entertain the illusion of being the best minds and hands whom God has chosen to bring development to us poor and supposedly ignorant Malawians.

Recently Bingu asked us to “trust” him that he would not champion policies and take actions that would hurt us, an attitude which points to the man entertaining fantasies of omniscience and omnipotence. It’s like he believes himself to be carrying the developmental and governance weight of all 14million+ of us on his lone shoulders ─ a sort of “Bingu’s Burden” or let us call it “The Mutharikas’ Burden” (given that the two Mutharikas seem intent on allocating such a burden on their shoulders in consecutive succession).

Such an attitude is reminiscent of the theory of “The Whiteman’s Burden” that had misguided colonialist policies in Africa according to which all Africans were deemed pathetically uncivilised and the burden of civilising them, from scratch, fell on the “benevolent” whites. This was before Germany, under Hitler, took the colonising mission to new heights by deciding to colonise Western Europe itself! Most historians now agree that the drive to decolonise was started in Europe itself after Europe had realised that for any group or a people to impose itself on others is morally questionable.

Post First World Germany, smarting from their defeat during that war and having to pay reparations could only boost its ego by resorting to the very thinking that had brought about the first World war itself namely, the Darwinian Survival of the fittest doctrine. To this the Germans added their own Heideggerean-cum-Hegelian ascending meta-historical consciousness theory of history in which historical events were supposed to be the process of consciousness coming to know itself thereby giving rise to a view reminiscent of the theodicy satirised by Voltaire in Candide whose conclusion is that “this is the best of all possible worlds and everything in it is a necessary evil”.

Equipped with such warped thinking Germany began to conceive itself as the epitome of Aryanism and arrogated to itself the duty of purifying Europe itself of what they regarded as inferior Aryans hence the slaughter, first of the Jews, and then the intended colonisation of Western Europe with the view to civilising it. The grim irony of this move could not have been lost on the rest of Western Europe, itself engaged in a presumptuous and hypocritical civilising mission of its colonies. It was clear to Western Europe that finally the chickens had come home to roost. So when the colonies, one after another, began to demand self-government after the Second World War their demands resonated with what had happened to the project of colonisation in Europe itself when she was faced with possible annihilation at the hands of a rabid Hitler who wanted to colonise her in turn.

Similarly, the seeming imposition of Peter Mutharika on Malawians is morally questionable and unless the playing field is levelled both within the DPP and across the country’s political landscape, his possible ascent to power in 2014 (be it by hook or crook) might prove for him to be more of a pain that a joy because it will be perceived as an imposition on most Malawians ─ besides the unfortunate perception that is being created that casts everyone else in this country as Madeya at the moment. Such a perceived attitude among the Mutharikas is not only patronising towards Malawians but it also smacks of the self-righteousness of what one would term do-gooders ─ or is it perhaps “wolves in sheep- skins”? It is very clear that some policies of this government are actually going to hurt Malawians very badly indeed if they are not discontinued.

Even the so-called food security policies championed by Bingu wa  Mutharika for several years now are not as ingenious as they seem on the surface. Where is the ingenuity of subsidizing fertiliser using donor money when most of that fertiliser is also not locally sourced resulting into the depletion of our forex reserves which could be channelled towards better things? Are we food secure in such circumstances in the long term? One would have thought that if we resorted to local solutions we would be better off than these cosmetic voodoo tactics. For instance, if we switched to tubers and legumes which require no fertiliser at all, and intensified our livestock production, we would be more food-secure in real terms than what is currently the case. So, where is the supposed monopoly on knowledge in this matter, for instance? I for one don’t see it.

Which is why you need to pool knowledge resources from a cross section of the citizenry before implementing policies of national import. While there are other factors that have affected our forex reserves, it seems we cannot entirely rule out the role that the buying of the presidential jet has played in all this ─ this mistake must be acknowledged whether publicly or quietly and be remedied. We should sale the jet and recoup some of the losses we have so far made ─ it appears to have been not only a very bad decision but also vanity of the extreme type.

There are many development ideas that some of us ordinary folk have which, if implemented on a national scale, could bring unprecedented broad-based development to our country if only we were given an opportunity to articulate them on the national platform ─ and that we would do without stealing the show from or trying to upstaging anyone. Do we as Malawians, for instance, realise that we spread our limited resources too thinly on the ground to make any meaningful developmental strides? We need just a few strategic focus areas to achieve long lasting and enduring development in this country.

Which brings me to the issue of representation. It will be the greatest day in the history of Malawi when as many of us as possible come to understand what it means to hold public office. When you hold public office, at whatever level, you are doing so on trust, that is, on behalf of those you represent who must as regularly as possible be consulted to determine their will. But what we have in this country is that after elections the elected officials begin to represent themselves rather than those who voted for them. Or anyone holding any form of public office, whether appointed or otherwise, begins to think that he or she is, by virtue of holding that office, the people’s BOSS.

Our representatives, at various levels of government, quickly degenerate into our monsters, hounding us almost to death as happened to Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelly’s novel of the same title. Look, man or woman, you’re supposed to be representing these people and not bossing or lording it over them! What is the matter with you? What ignorance you display! One is entitled to be BOSS at their private enterprises but not in public office. At the rate at which we are going it has become necessary that we subject every decision of national importance to referenda rather than look up to our self-representing MPs and public office-bearers.

* Damazio Mfune-Mwanjakwa, a philosopher and a Doctoral student at Rhodes University, South Africa.


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