We are all northerners in Malawi: Of Chaponda’s remarks

Nyasa Times is reporting a demand by George Chaponda (DPP) that MCP leader Lazarus Chakwera withdraw a comment made on arrival from his recent American tour, or else face legal action (see:[highlight style=’pear-green’]  http://www.nyasatimes.com/2014/03/08/chaponda-demands-apology-from-chakwera-or-face-lawsuit/). [/highlight]

Apparently Chakwera cited remarks attributed to Chaponda in an unnamed media outlet to the effect that Chaponda had predicted his party, the DPP, would win the May elections even without votes from the northern region of Malawi. Chakwera avers that Chaponda’s alleged remarks have the potential to promote marginalization of the northern region. For his part, Chaponda denies making the regionalist remarks.

The interesting point here is not so much whether or not Chaponda made the offending remarks. Clearly both parties have not been good to the northern region, and the region has the scars to show for it. When they were respectively in government, both parties marginalized the region and their leaders made remarks and/or took actions that either pulled the north down or offended the sensibilities of northerners.


The issue of national unity — and its polar opposite of tribalism/regionalism, as well as any discrimination and segregation based on it — lurks shallow beneath the surface in Malawi elections. Its low profile in this election belies its reality and should not lull the nation into smugness. This has to be the reason Chaponda is exercised about the allegation against him, apart from its obvious potential to lose the DPP votes in the north. Indeed the issue should be exposed and discussed. That is why, as Chaponda and Chakwera slug it out, it is useful to look at their respective parties’ records as they appertain to northerners.

‘Mzuzu Corner’ Speech

Whether or not the system of allocating regional quotas for entrance to government-run tertiary learning institutions is a good one, is a separate debate. The important point to make today is that most people from the northern region believe that such a system, when it was implemented by either an MCP government or a DPP administration, worked against students from their region more so than against students from the remaining two regions.

That policy was more recently re-introduced by George Chaponda’s party, the DPP, soon after it won a second government mandate in 2009. In fact, in the debate that followed, then President Bingu wa Mutharika blasted northerners on national television in a speech that has gone down in infamy as one of the most abhorrently hateful, tribal and regionalist discourses ever delivered by a Malawian leader.

Apropos nothing, he averred that students from the northern region do well in exams but are not more intelligent than those from the two other regions. He said, rather, they steal exam questions and thus know the answers in advance. He insisted that university lecturers from the north leak questions to northern students in advance of exams through Mzuzu Corner of the University of Malawi at Chancellor College. He made all these allegations without any proof of them and with clear hate in his body language.

Mutharika’s Anti-Chimunthu Rant

The Mzuzu Corner speech was not the only one laced with tribalism and regionalism from the higher echelons of the DPP. The then president’s brother, Arthur-Peter Mutharika, while bulldozing his way to become his brother’s successor, was himself recorded in a telephone conversation dismissing the possible candidacy of a rival, Henry Chimunthu Banda.

Chimunthu, he said, spoke unlike a Chewa from any other region but like someone from the northern region and therefore presented a less serious challenge to Mutharika’s own candidacy. Arthur Peter Mutharika was communicating that, for that reason, Chimunthu’s candidacy was not viable. The insult to northerners was obvious.

To Malawi’s shame, Arthur-Peter Mutharika, who is also a Treason suspect, is a presidential candidate in these elections; the same elections in which a senior member of his party, George Chaponda, is alleged to have declared it can win without the northern vote.

MCP Pot Calling DPP Kettle Black

But the leader of the MCP, the man today oozing self-righteous indignation against what George Chaponda.allegedly said, needs to tread carefully on this issue, too. The MCP’s appointment of northerner Richard Msowoya as Vice Presidential candidate on its ticket in these elections is a welcome change from its past behaviour.

It is the MCP, after all, which, in a 1989 presidential edict, ordered all teachers to go back and teach only in their respective regions of origin. The edict was widely believed to be targeted mainly at teachers from the northern region who were, by all accounts, the most negatively affected. The MCP leader of the time, dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda, even alleged that teachers from the north were deliberately sabotaging educational standards in the centre and south by encouraging students to spend more time at traditional initiation rituals rather than at school. He presented no proof of his allegation.

As correctly reported by Africa Watch in its 1990 report on human rights in Malawi, since independence in 1964, the MCP pursued a policy of systemic exclusion of northerners as well as Yaos from political influence and power with a few token exceptions. Africa Watch notes that this exclusion was achieved via arbitrary detentions and periodic purges of the civil service, as well as via manipulation of entrance requirements to secondary schools and tertiary institutions of learning including the University of Malawi. The MCP also struck down the dominant language of the north, Chitumbuka, from the status of a national language. It did the same to the dominant eastern language, ChiYao.

For more details on this, read Chapter 7 in the 1990 Africa Watch report entitled Where Silence Rules: The Suppression of Dissent in Malawi.

We are all northerners

 The north is part of Malawi. It belongs to all Malawians including citizens resident in the centre and south. The centre and south, too, are the common patrimony of all Malawians including those living in the north. Migration patterns, intermarriage and resulting offspring over generations render these administrative boundaries ethnically meaningless to a great and increasing extent. Therefore, the fact that the north constitutes the last frontier in Malawi’s infrastructure development impoverishes all Malawians, not just the so-called northerners. We are all northerners.

Apart from the people resident in the north themselves, who have infinite value to the nation as humans individually; there are also highly valuable inanimate assets in the region. The Nyika Plateau, mineral deposits hidden underground, golden Lake Malawi beaches in the lake’s northern segment – all present tantalizing prospects for hugely bankable exploitation if the infrastructure were improved. What other country in the world would leave a pearl as magnificent as the Nyika National Park, for example, without a decent tarmac road access 50 full years after attaining independence? Think tourism tourism tourism.

New governments should build on what the UDF government under Bakili Muluzi (1994 – 2004) started in the north. Muluzi established the first university there by converting a teacher training college into a university college at Mzuzu. New governments should improve on that by erecting new buildings. Muluzi established new auction floors, a new Reserve Bank edifice, a spanking new referral hospital and digital telephone exchange installations to replace old, dilapidated ones. He also increased the mileage under tarmac and brought ESCOM electricity to remote places such as Embangweni which, hitherto, depended entirely on diesel powered generators. The difference reliable electricity makes to schools and hospitals, for example, is enormous. That is development, my friends.

Instead of bickering, therefore, the leader of the Malawi Congress Party, Lazarus Chakwera; and the senior member from the Democratic Progressive Party, George Chaponda, should reflect upon the harms their respective parties have visited upon the people and places of the north. They should be apologizing for those harms and promising improved approaches in administering the region its people in future.

  •  The author, Ambuje che Tom Likambale, is from Balaka Township, Malawi

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