Reflections on 49 years of Malawi independence from British rule: Rafiq Hajat

We have now meandered down the road of ‘development’ for 49 years and have very little to show after receiving billions of dollars of aid from our well-wishers? The statistics tell a grim tale of woe.

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 160th out of 182 countries on the Human Development Index. Progress towards reaching the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty has been limited. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report for 2009, about 74% of the population still live below the income poverty line of US$1.25 a day and 90% below the US$2 a day threshold. The proportion of poor and ultra-poor is highest in rural areas of the southern and northern parts of the country.

Access to assets, services and economic opportunities is profoundly unequal across the population. Larger households are more likely to be poor, particularly those with many children. Access to education, a major driver of relative wealth, is highly inequitable as well.


Almost 30% of poor children do not even start primary school, which is free in Malawi. Secondary and higher education is largely confined to non-poor households, mainly due to the required enrolment fees. Indeed, less than 1% have access to tertiary education. Limited access to markets and services is another constraint. Poor rural people tend to live in remote areas with few roads and means of transport, which limits their economic opportunities. Access to financial services is severely restricted, especially for smallholder farmers. Only 12% of households have access to credit and only 6 % of the populace have access to electricity.

This appalling litany goes on and on, but the question that should be asked is: why are we in still this abysmal situation despite all the help that we have received over the past 49 years? Why are our people still suffering in the throes of unremitting poverty & hunger despite living amidst such fertile land & abundant water bodies, that virtually any seed planted here, will grow with minimal care. Is our poverty solely due to extraneous factors, or has it been largely self inflicted?

For 49 years, we have sung our national anthem, which implores God to ‘put down each and every enemy….hunger, disease, envy!’ And despite having sung it with such passion and fervour, what are the major challenges confronting us as a nation? Hunger, disease, illiteracy, and, oh yes…….jealousy! Makes one think…doesn’t it? And what happens when you condemn people to live in such degrading circumstances for 49 years? They become dehumanised and lose that wonderful sense of dignity that differentiated us from our neighbours all those years ago….and that, my friends, is the ultimate crime that can be inflicted by man against man. It could indeed be construed as an unforgivable genocide against the popular spirit by a ruling elite, who must atone for their sins one day.

In my humble opinion, the current quagmire is a result of years of cynical social engineering within a framework of neopatrimonialism (the Big Bwana syndrome), which gave rise to the hedgerow mentality, the culture of silence, the atmosphere of fear and insecurity, the suspicion and jealousy, the greed and avarice and the culture of impunity, which have prevailed for so long that they have become virtually embedded into the very fibre of our society. In short, my theory is that our current situation has been deliberately cultivated by power elites, who subscribe to the dictum which states: “if knowledge is power, then all knowledge should be mine” and are guided by the philosophy which expounds that masses who are kept poor and ignorant are easier to rule with a few discretionary crumbs brushed off the elite table.

This imperturbable facade has, however, begun recently to show signs of disintegration due to the advent of democracy and the inculcation of the belief that true power really rests with the people, thus only responsive and accountable governments can really have any hope of successfully withstanding the vicissitudes of the unforgiving ballot box every five years.

That, my friends, is the beginning of the reverse swing of the pendulum, the clock is ticking and the wheel is in spin but no one knows yet where it will stop.

However, it is yet too soon to celebrate and rest on our laurels…for we stand at the threshold of a long and arduous journey which requires zealous vigilance against all onslaughts to ensure the inculcation of a truly participatory democracy that our grandchildren may one day, enjoy and remember us with fondness – and that day will surely dawn… sure as day follows night!


Viva Malawi – Viva Democracy!

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