Reckoning moment for Malawi civil society organisations

The Daily Times newspaper of Friday February 15, 2013 ran an editorial that correctly laid a damning verdict on lack of institutions of democracy in Malawi. It is safe to say that this includes Malawi parliament, it is an open debate whether it is fit for its purpose. The editorial decried the ‘dormancy’ of the country’s civil society organisation (CSOs) since Joyce Banda’s ascendancy to power last April following a sudden death of her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika whom she had been a deputy of from May 2009.

The Times’ editorial observed that CSOs are particularly crucial in Malawi given that “our democratic system at all its levels are not working, hence the relevance of having organisations that work to advance the position of the common man.” It added: “The CSOs have been pivotal in galvanising people into action whenever people in authority chose to deviate from the correct path.”

The editorial was a direct comment on a news story the newspaper carried adjacent to the editorial – on page 4. The news story reported on the CSOs meeting they were organising to discus their ‘dormancy’. The paper reported out that the meeting was to be headed by CONGOMA, a national non-governmental umbrella body whose chairperson, Voice Mhone, the paper said neither admit nor denied that the agenda of the meeting was to discuss the CSOs ‘dormancy’. This is an indication that the CSOs are treating the issue as sensitive and Mhone may well have avoid revealing some uncomforting information, from CSOs point of view.

Voice Mhone
Voice Mhone

The editorial recognised the important, courageous and unmissable contribution that the CSOs have made in Malawi, particularly in 2011 when the country was sliding into dictatorship, when Malawi leadership became arrogant, self-saving and intolerant of any criticism. This was a period when being a government critic, as the majority of the CSOs were, meant putting one’s life and their loved ones in danger. It was noble and plausible cause indeed; their courage cannot be underestimate.

However, the story observed that Joyce Banda’s appointment of some of the key CSOs leaders into various government and parastatal boards has weakened the CSOs and ‘dormant’. It noted that the government through Minister of Information, Moses Kunkuyu has argued that the appointments are simply to utilise available talent in the country and not necessarily to marginalise operations of the CSOs. Nonetheless, Simeon Maganga, the author of the story cites a ‘confidential’ source within the CSOs who without confirming government’s deliberate attempt to stifle the CSOS, agrees that the appointments have definitely weakened the civil society.

The source confided:

“Some of our leaders are seating on highly politically charged boards of parastatals where they draw hefty allowances more than their net salary in their NGOs. So, it’s not that the government has given them bags of money but they have access to government’s money so much that it has compromised their independence thereby weakening the civil society.”

The appointment of civil society leaders into various parastatal boards and the ‘dormancy’ of CSOs have happened simultaneously. Coincidences happen and this may well be the case but the CSOs ‘dormancy’ has understandably caused a stir in Malawi, especially among middle class business owners and white colour workers who have a better understanding on the operations of the state – no wonder this was a newsworthy story. This social class has seen their business interest suffer and purchasing power deteriorating due soaring inflation that has made the cost of living unbearably high for them and almost impossible less earners.

Unlike politicians and those on taxpayer’s salaries, it is difficult for the general public to hold the CSOs to account even though they exist to work for the interests of the public. Yet the general public is their constituency, CSOs exist and survive in its name and they must be open to scrutiny and criticism. Arguing about ‘liberation’ of the poor people – wage labourers (proletariat) in a society ran by the ruling elite who owns and control all the means of production (bourgeois) Karl Marx observed thus:

“Among all classes that confront the bourgeois today, the proletariat alone is really revolutionary… The lower middle class – small manufacturers, small traders, handcrafts men, peasant proprietors – one and all fight the bourgeois in the hope of safeguarding their existence as sections of the middle class… If they ever become revolutionary, it is only because they’re afraid of slipping down into the ranks of the proletariat.”

The question of ‘dormancy’ is reflected here: have the CSOs leaders, with the government money the ‘confidential source’ told The Daily Times they have access to, settled on safeguarding their own interests not the people they claim to speak for, like Marx identified centuries ago? Only they can say, categorically. Yet very sentence in Marx’s quote reflects the status quo.

Posing this question is no a failure to honour and/or recognise the work and sacrifices that CSOs leaders have made in this country. On the contrary, it is their past success that has brought this issue – success can sometimes be catalyst of our future failures and as public figures and institutions you are judged by the status quo. “Nearly all men [and women of course] can stand adversity”, said Abraham Lincoln, “but if you want to test man’s character, give him power,” he added. CSOs need to explain themselves:

Why stay quiet only at a time when most of CSOs leaders have been given board memberships, coincidence? Unlike before, why are the CSOs quiet at a time when the country is undergoing through a painful economic crisis? Why is that most senior CSOs members publicly refused to back CAMA protests against rising cost living while agreeing with its grievances? These issues ought to be ironed out if the CSOs want to maintain their integrity and be taken seriously again by the public that rightly feels betrayed.

Let us hope the on-coming CONGOMA led meeting will address these pertinent issues and communicate them to the public clearly. It is an open secret that lack of communication bleeds rumours and speculations; silence and aloofness only succeed to affirm the same.

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