In all fairness, as of the year 2003, I do not think A. Peter Mutharika, as he preferred to refer to himself, imagined he would be President of Malawi. Never mind the fact that dreams tend to be nebulous and often without limits, I am pretty sure this wasn’t amongst his dreams. He probably imagined retiring as a scholar and spending his later years in the USA. Mutharika’s ascendancy to the Presidency is deeply inter-twined with the changing fortunes that his deceased brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, enjoyed subsequent to his joining the United Democratic Front (UDF) and being made the party’s presidential candidate in the 2004 General Elections.
I have been prompted to attempt to paraphrase President Mutharika due to recent media reports indicating that the government has finally paid out the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) that were ‘demobilised’ during Operation Bwezani. Interestingly, a list being circulated on social media shows that a sitting minister [Nicholous Dausi], who has MYP roots, is amongst the beneficiaries.
Writing in 2003, the scholar that our current President used to be, argued that there had been no accountability for political abuses occasioned during the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) rule in this country – the full publication is ‘Accountability for Political Abuses in Pre-Democratic Malawi: The Primacy of Truth’ (2003) 16 Third World Legal Studies 203-218.
The main argument(s) in the President’s 2003 article remain(s) as true today as it was in 2003. One of the flaws of the transition from the One-party State to a multiparty democracy was our failure to hold accountable those that had been responsible for serious human rights violations during the MCP rule.
Let me hasten to add that the National Compensation Tribunal (NCT) was a monumental failure on this score. Just to illustrate the point, its focus on monetary compensation was wrong and in the end, even with the monetary compensation, only a fraction of the claimants were fully compensated.
Additionally, there was also the manipulation of the NCT by politicians which distorted its operations. By the way, the Ombudsman released a report last year which is also a good read on the failures of the NCT.
What has struck me as odd at the moment is that Mutharika’s government has authorised payment of compensation for a group of people, MYP members, who, in all certainty, were responsible for some of the gravest atrocities ever committed in this country. From what we can get in the media, these payments are being made with no conditionalities. For example, have the people being paid these monies made honest confessions about their role/involvement in the various abuses that occurred in this country?
Let me remind us of some of the things the President wrote in 2003, which I believe, remain relevant for dealing with the MYP scenario. A fundamental premise of Mutharika’s argument was that there is always need for accountability where a previous regime engaged in widespread brutalisation of its people. The President correctly identified Kamuzu Banda’s regime as one whose demise required full accountability for the various abuses occasioned on Malawians.
Accountability, according to Mutharika, was necessary to facilitate full reconciliation among Malawians but could also be understood simply as a fundamental principle of good governance. In the President’s view (I remain alive to the fact that he was not President then) with the exception of the Mwanza Accident Commission of Enquiry and the subsequent trial there was/has been a marked resistance to truth finding in Malawi, especially about the excesses of the MCP regime.
In part, and again as correctly pointed out by Mutharika, the regime succeeding the MCP was, in a sense, something of a continuation of the MCP. The ugly reality confronting Muluzi and others that succeeded Kamuzu Banda was, of course, that a thorough dig through history could very well have implicated some of them. Their reluctance to support general truth finding is explicable on this basis.
So where do we find ourselves? We find ourselves in the rather ignoble situation where, as a nation, we have failed to properly accord fair justice to countless victims of the MCP rule and yet here we are ‘rewarding’ some of the very perpetrators of those abuses. Is this the type of accountability that A. Peter Mutharika wrote about in 2003? The victims of MCP rule are still entitled to know, for those who were detained, why the government actually detained them; for those whose relatives went missing, what happened to their relatives, if their relatives were killed, why their relatives were killed and where they are interred, and if they wish to retrieve their remains for reburial, assistance in exhuming them and re-burying; among other things.
A related irony here is that Kamuzu Banda has a mausoleum and statue in Lilongwe, do we even have a day when we commemorate the victims of Banda’s rule? Well, the tokenism of naming a street after Masauko Chipembere or Orton Chirwa, notwithstanding, the truth is that we still have to properly unravel what happened during Banda’s time and its effects on the people of Malawi. As A Peter Mutharika argued in 2003, while accountability for human rights violations can be achieved in many ways, long lasting accountability can only be achieved through the revelation of meaningful truth.
Well, the responsibility to fix this mess lies with whatever government is in power at the time. Responsibility for such violations, in law, does not die with a change in government. And before you start screaming that we should let sleeping dogs lie, please know that it is the voices of the victims that matter the most in such a discourse. It is not for the very violators of human rights or their proxies to dictate amnesia for the nation.
So, ask the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all those victims of the Forfeiture Act whether they have forgotten and/or forgiven what they endured before claiming that sleeping dogs should be left alone. Actually, the dogs may not be sleeping at all.
- Mwiza Joe Nkhata is the Associate Professor of Law, University of Malawi