Why African stories must be told by Africans: Allan Ntata on Malawi treason discourse

Speaking to Global Business Leaders at World Economic Forum in Davos on 23 January 2013, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame told a panel discussion that to change the global perception of Africa as a trouble hotspot, its story “must” start to be narrated by Africans.

President Kagame observed that there was a major problem in that the Africa’s story is written from somewhere else and not by Africans themselves, and asserted that the rest of the world looks at Africa and Africans in a certain way, and wants to define and to shape the perception about Africa.”

This assertion is not without merit, and is a state of affairs that Africans need to recognize and understand. Unless they are vigilant about telling African stories themselves, the world perception of African events and African dynamics will be shaped by others.

Recently for example, Edward Paice, Director of the African Research Institute published a paper entitled “A “Gang of Three”, the “Midnight Six” and the death of “Daniel Phiri” – anatomy of an alleged coup attempt in Malawi”. In his paper, Paice makes a gallant effort of connecting the political crisis that allegedly almost took place in Malawi following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012 to the impediments in the pursuit of democratic ideals articulated in the Malawi Constitution, the consequences of poor institutional commitment to law reform, and the vulnerability of the law in Malawian politics.

Ntata: Why not arresting Chiume
Ntata: Why not arresting Chiume

As commendable and well articulated as Paice’s paper may be, it is also a critical demonstration of the problem observed by Paul Kagame and echoed by most Pan-Africanists across the continent, that as long as Africa’s stories are told by non-Africans, global perception of Africa will be fundamentally flawed and Africa will continue to be presented in a less than ideal light.

This point can be very well demonstrated by a close analysis of Paice’s paper.

For instance, Paice’s academic and abstract examination of the Singini report is thorough enough in that respect, but fails to appreciate the political factors surrounding the formation and the selection of the members of the Commission of Inquiry that produced the report. This is excusable because the author is not a Malawian and it is unlikely that he would have gone to Malawi to investigate these factors before writing his paper.

Yet to Malawians, and indeed to most Africans well familiar with the dynamics of African politics, these factors are as real as and influential as the report itself. Paice probably has no way of knowing that the Chairman of the Commission, Justice Elton Singing is a close relative of the infamous Ephrain Mganda Chiume, who is a close confidant of President Joyce Banda as her current Minister of Foreign Affairs, and was Minister of Justice at the relevant time. And he is today part of the inner circle that formulates decisions and strategy of President Banda.

The Singini Report goes out of its way to protect Chiume from any appearance of wrongdoing and goes as far as citing his actions as commendable and instrumental to averting the political crisis, in spite of the evidence that it was in fact Chiume, as minister of justice, who was first on the scene in instructing the Attorney General and other government lawyers to take out an injunction that would prevent Joyce Banda from ascending to the presidency.

The relationship between Justice Singini and Chiume, and Chiume’s significant influence in the current Joyce Banda Administration is a factor that must be taken into account when considering the legal and political implications of the report. Furthermore, almost all Malawians know that the commission was composed almost in its entirety of individuals that had had less than happy times with the previous DPP led, Mutharika administration. These inner workings of Malawian politics have an important bearing on the tone and the thrust of the Singini Report. Unfortunately, Mr Paice, writing from his London office, is not best placed to take note of and take such factors into account when writing such a very African story.

In another instance, while making a worthwhile recognition of the fact that the political crisis stemmed from self-exclusion of the vice president from the government after she was fired from the then ruling Democratic Progressing Party, and the subsequent confusion caused by her formation of her own party, Paice seems to be unaware of the fact that there was at the time of Mutharika’s death a constitutional referral matter made by late Mutharika asking the Malawian Constitutional court to interpret the constitution on the apparent resignation of the vice-president, which Mutharika considered had manifested itself through Joyce Banda’s conduct of excluding herself from all government operations and the formation of her own party. Paice makes no mention whatsoever of this factor, which played an important role in the transition process and was the basis for the notion that was considered by the attorney general of challenging the succession in the courts.

Further evidence of detachment from the realities of the matter and unfamiliarity with the accurate facts of the case is Paice’s claim that  “a twelfth alleged conspirator, Allan Ntata, President Mutharika’s former legal adviser, has been asked to return from the UK to face unspecified charges”. This is not in the Singini report, and whatever Paice’s sources for this information, it is simply not true.  The Government of Malawi has not as a matter of fact been in contact with the said Allan Ntata and as such has not asked him anything.

Even if that were the case, where does Mr Paice find the basis for attaching with such finality a tag on Ntata that he is a “conspirator”. Where was that finding made? If it is because of the mere mention in the report that he was associated with the transitional issues of seeking a court intervention of a valid point, does conspiracy still retain its English language meaning? If it still does, then what does Mr Paice make of the Minister of Justice who was issuing the instructions; and what does he say about the other members of the Joyce Banda cabinet who at the time, being ministers also, were part of the meetings that agreed on the instructions that were given to Chiume to get the wheels of the judicial processes spinning?

Demonstrably then, Paice’s paper is yet another example of the dangers of non-Africans purporting to analyze African politics and tell African stories. Such observers and remote analysts would not be ideally placed to appreciate, for instance, the fact that after the release of the report, members of the Commission have since been given lucrative government positions. Joseph Aironi, a member of that commission, has been taken from his retirement to become Joyce Banda’s Director of National Intelligence. Jabar Alide, another member of the commission has now been appointed as Executive Director at the Millenium Challenge Corporation by Joyce Banda. Did it come as a coincidence to Mr Paice, for example, that a pathologist who implicated the DPP administration in the alleged killing of a university student in an earlier inquiry was also selected in the inquiry in reference? These are developments which are familiar to Africans and tell the story of African Politics, which a remote observer from London might easily fail to appreciate.

The assertion that “it would be difficult for any impartial observer to discern overt bias in the manner in which the commission undertook its work” betrays the writer’s desperate unfamiliarity with the political dynamics prevailing in Malawi. Paice fails to recognize that the commission, for example, did not hear Ntata’s testimony. The commission deliberately underplayed Ephraim Chiume’s role in the matter- a factor that is missed by Paice because of his unfamiliarity with the political dynamics and undertones that were certainly brought to bear on the commission’s work.  This unfamiliarity, bordering on the naïvety, is grounded in the perception and belief that there is in African politics an objectivity that could be comparable to that prevailing in the United Kingdom. This, unfortunately, is simply not the case.

As an expose underlining the need for urgent review of the Malawian constitution, Paice’s paper is commendable. However, as a commentary on the events surrounding the so-called near political crisis that could have happened in Malawi after the death on Late Bingu wa Mutharika, the paper is yet another example of the need for African stories to be told by people that fully understand African political dynamics, and whose perception is not grounded on standards and systems that are prevailing in their own well-developed countries. Paice’s paper is another reason to conclude that there is now, more than ever, an urgent need to echo the observation of Paul Kagame that African stories “must” be written by Africans.

-By Z. Allan Ntata, Barrister,

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