President Chakwera penned to call for national referendum on adoption of federal system of governance 

Malawi’s Federalism Institute — in liaison with other federalism stakeholders — have written a petition to President Lazarus Chakwera to call for national referendum on adoption of federal system of governance in the country.

The letter — dated January 3, 2023 and copied to the Chief Justice, Speaker of National Assembly, Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson, political parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) — asks the President, as per the law, “to immediately call for the national referendum”.

“However, if that is not yet possible, we shall take a radical approach to ensure that progress is made towards a referendum,” said the petition, signed by Lusungu Simba Mwakhwawa (Federalism Institute leader); Moses Mkandawire (States of Malawi chairperson); Dr. Bina Shaba (Federal Movement president); Rabbyce Nkhoma (Federalism Diaspora community leader); Dr. Rex Kalolo (religious leader) and political leader, Saunder Bantu Juma.

Moses Mkandawire: We need federalism now

They quote Article 12(i) of the Constitution of the Republic, that “provides for the sovereignty of the people of Malawi and states that all legal and political authority of the State derives from its people itself and shall be exercised in accordance with the constitution solely to serve and protect their interests”.

They also quote Article 12(v) that states that “as all persons have equal status before the law, the only justifiable limitations to lawful rights are those necessary to ensure peaceful human interaction in an open and democratic society”, while also referring to Section 59(i) of the constitution “that gives power to the President to proclaim referenda and plebiscites”.

“We are sure you have been following the ongoing national debate which has seen millions of Malawians go in favour of system change as a solution to the many challenges Malawi faces,” says the petition, adding that millions are living in abject poverty.

They also cite “ineffective administration” that is rocking the economy and that infrastructure framework “is in a terrible state”; that state organized corruption has captured the nation; followed by “nepotism, tribalism, inequitable distribution of national resources and abuse of state powers, amongst others”.

“This notwithstanding the long exercise of the unitary model of state structure and parliamentary model of ruling, both have proved ineffective. Since we adopted multiparty democracy, we have been moving many steps backward in terms of development which can’t be blamed on people’s failure but system.

“Malawians are honest people, they can’t be blamed to have put wrong people in the driving seat all along as they did with you. Each government that came into power since 1994 has been famous for corruption which led to state capture, including your government.

The petitioners further said have started “the process of correcting signatures from as many ordinary Malawians, home and abroad, who are demanding a referendum on this issue in line with the provisions cited.

This, as according to the petitioners, is “to ensure that the people of Malawi do not continue to be betrayed by the few greedy politicians (MPs), who represent their own interest”.

“We shall seek to work with religious leaders, political parties, traditional leaders, civil society organizations, community based organizations, diaspora community and all patriotic citizens, who mean well for Malawi to ensure that the voice of all people is heard loud and clear.

“Through the referendum, the people shall demand system change as the immediate solution from unitary to federal government in order to spur economic growth and stamp out poverty countrywide.

“In fact, change of system will ensure better service delivery and limitation of powers. This is such a pivotal issue on which every Malawian must be heard.”

They maintain that the “referendum will give opportunity to the common person at all levels, and in all corners of the country, to choose our future — in short, to exercise our right of self-determination”.

“Together, we have failed Malawi, but it takes just a right turn at any given second for a vehicle in the middle of nowhere to find its bearing. History will repeat itself.”

They quote former President of Botswana, late Quett Masire as saying: ‘The problem in politics arises not because people are ambitious, since we should be ambitious, but when politicians selfishly want things, when there is disregard for the country and for other people, or for what is reasonable and especially when they use their political positions for personal gain, then it is not only unreasonable but dangerous for the country’.

In November last year, proponents of federalism in the country — just as political, CSOs and other stakeholders have maintained — blamed Malawi’s sluggish development and systemic inefficiencies on the unitary system of government, which they argued promotes nepotism and corruption.

During a virtual discussion hosted by international expert and social media activist, Onjezani Kenani, commentators supporting the adoption of a federal system of governance to simplify public service delivery.

The contributors to the discussion included politicians Atupele Muluzi, lone AFORD legislator and longtime federalism proponent, Yeremiah Chihana and Dr. Rex Kalolo, a medical doctor and religious leader.

Atupele argued that the current system, where everything is approved at Capital Hill, is not working for Malawi, as it makes public service delivery take longer than it should, and gives power to only a few people to control the public purse.

He argued that a devolved system would provide for better accountability, transparency and equal distribution of national wealth but that it can only be achieved through amending the country’s constitution and calling for a referendum.

On fears that federation may promote regionalism and cronyism, Atupele said he would not advocate for it to be based on regions but rather population and other demographic factors that may be discussed by governance experts.

He highlighted that in 1964 when the current central government system was implemented, the population of Malawi was 4 million people and today population has reached 20 million, which is a heavy increase in the demand for public services and makes it difficult for governments to meet the development needs of its people.

On his part, Dr Kalolo urged Malawians to bury their fear of the unknown, saying even in 1993, those opposed to democracy would tell Malawians “democracy ndi nkhondo” yet it has been 29 years without any threat of war.

He opined that a federation would help reduce powers of the president and that it will provide greater freedoms and flexibilities at a local level, so that councils can work more effectively to improve public services for their area.

Dr Kalolo said this will also ensure that revenues generated within a particular area are used to develop that particular area and that Malawi’s rich natural resources benefit the people that particular area.

On his part, Chihana — who is Mzimba North Legislator and tried to move a private members motion in 2019 for the adoption of a federation — argued that this system of governance would help promote equitable distribution of resources and developments and eliminate regionalism, nepotism and corruption in the country.

He had urged the House then — but without success — to resolve that all efforts and legal framework should be put in place towards adoption of a federal system of government within a specified time period and in any case before the next scheduled election.

The social media activist Kenani urged Malawians to borrow a leaf from federal governments around the world that adopted federalism and understand both advantages and disadvantages so that people make an informed choice.

Lilongwe Mpenu lawmaker Eisenhower Mkaka — before MCP came into government through which he was appointed as Cabinet Minister — is on record to have supported Chihana in 2019 in which he argued that federalism could provide solutions to some of the challenges such as nepotism, tribalism, favouritism and cronyism.

In 2006, before he became President, Peter Mutharika was invited to present a paper on federalism during the constitutional review conference, at which he supported the idea of a federal state for proportional representation and also endorsed a view to rotate the presidency between the three regions as possible solutions of giving “each region the opportunity to develop” and also a means to addressing regionalism.

In federalism or devolution, central government delegates some of its powers to sub-unit governments permanently and is guaranteed in the constitution— so that powers of the sub-units cannot be withdrawn unilaterally by the central government.

Devolution of powers involves statutory delegation of powers from central government to govern through subnational authorities, such as counties, states, regions or provinces.

The devolved powers of the subnational authority may be temporary and are reversible, ultimately residing with the central government.

Kenya is the latest African country to have adopted devolution when it enacted a new constitution in 2010, which established of a system of devolved government with 47 lower level county governments.

The operation of the county governments started soon after the March 2013 elections, which included the election of county governors, deputy governors and representatives.

These 47 new county governments are now in charge of overseeing some functions — such as the provision of health care, pre-primary education, and maintenance of local roads — which were previously the responsibility of Kenya’s national government.

In turn, these county governments will receive a share of national revenues. The county governments will also be expected to mobilize revenue from other sources within their counties, such as taxes on property and entertainment.

Countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, USA and Canada are either federal or devolved governments.—Additional reporting by Watipaso Mzungu, Nyasa Times

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