Why issue-based politics is critical for better service delivery in Malawi

On 4th August 2013 I was one of the two panellists on Capital Radio’s Sunday Roundtable – a weekly current affairs programme tackling socio-political and economic issues affecting the Malawi. The theme was service delivery, concentrating on water and electricity supply. The programme theme followed a horrendous week of water shortages in Blantyre city where residents of areas such as BCA Hill went three consecutive days without water supply in their homes.

Minister of Irrigation and Water Development, Brown Mpinganjira was meant to be on the panel to discuss what his ministry and the government by extension were doing about water shortages, which has become a perennial problem. Mpinganjira did not show-up. He did not send his apologies either; at least by the time aspirant MP, Fawzia Osman who was the other panellist, and I left Capital Radio studios.

It is not known why the Minister failed to show-up, he may have genuine reasons but given the way democratic Malawi runs, it is not out of question to speculate that Mr Mpinganjira could have turned-up if the discussion directly concerned his political party (People’s).

British envoy Michael Nevin: Pleads for issue-based campaign
British envoy Michael Nevin: Pleads for issue-based campaign

One of the main problems with the current political setup is that people in leadership positions owe their allegiance not to the people they claim to serve or their country as a whole, but their political masters who own political parties. Mpinganjira is operating in the system that has got its priorities wrong, thus his no-show was not surprising. In Malawi leaders value bad politics more than good governance.

Trading political insults is what Malawi politicians know best. This is all over the DNA of Malawi politics – no policy issues on political podium. No wonder calls for issue-based politics are getting louder by day. I advocate for issue-based politics and I know a lot of Malawians advocating for the same, even though the calls for such have made it into the public discourse following a joint statement from British and USA representatives to Malawi: High Commissioner, Michael Nevin and Ambassador Jeanine Jackson, respectively.

The two representatives have particularly bemoaned filthy language and personal insults by politicians. Yet it is important to add that policy based politics does not only deter name-calling and politics of insults, it is also a catalyst for better service delivery and development, as political leaders tend concentrate on issues affecting people and the country at large. It is a myopic country that lack policies; it means no future planning, effects of which were laid bare for all to see during the Roundtable programme – Water Board and Escom have insufficient and old equipment to provide effective services.

Malawi has experienced tremendous population growth since Kamuzu Banda built infrastructure that the Water Board and Escom are currently using yet the national economy and infrastructure has not grown with the population. Malawi had only 4 million people when it became a republic in 1966, jumping to 14.8 million in 2012. There has also been rapid urbanisation, especially from the mid 1990s but there has not been infrastructure development to reflect these changes. This has contributed immensely to Water Board and Escom’s deficit in service delivery, mostly in urban areas where there services are highly concentrated.

One of the callers for  Roundtable pointed out that the current infrastructure is archaic, as it has not been upgraded since Kamuzu Banda built it. It should be clear that any old equipment does not work desirably. Indeed, it was pointed out on the programme that Water Board have conceded that their equipment needs upgrading. Attributing the constant bursting of rusty water pipes to lack of upgrade. These problems have since become even more pressing due to the popular growth. There is more demand on limited and ageing equipment – hence Escom’s invention of the “load-shedding” system. “Load-shedding” is not and cannot be a solution and instead of seeing it as a wake-up call we are getting used to it!

Meanwhile, a World Bank 2010 report indicates that only 9% of 14.8 million Malawians had access to electricity by 2009. On the other hand, Water for People, an NGOs working on improving access to safe water, projects that only 62% of people in peri-urban Blantyre have access to water that meets government standards, while in a rural district of Chikhawa only 45% of people have access to safe drinking water.

Given the current state of service delivery – constant power cuts and water shortages, it is unlikely that those without such services will access it any time soon – perhaps donors will come to our rescue, again, and politicians will take the credit? As for service providers all efforts, if any, will have be replacing the archaic equipment. In the meantime, the population is growing. The current projection is that Malawi will have 23 Million people by 2025 – in 11 years time! These are issues that we will never hear from our politicians, yet they are always on the road conducting meetings. Other meetings are even called “development rallies”.

Politicians are not responsible for day-to-day running of parastatals, of course. Chief Executives Officers are. These ought to take the responsibility. Yet it is up to the appointing authority, the one who hire and fire – the president to ensure that these service providers are running efficiently. The Weekend Nation’s Backbencher of the 3rd August 2013 put it poignantly:

“… It’s also time government put the interests of the citizens above the partisan interests of the ruling party by ensuring that whoever is appointed by the President to the board of any parastatal is screened and endorsed by the Public Appointments Committee of Parliament. Otherwise, the old mistakes are being made so the burden can continue being pushed to the citizen. This simply is neither fair nor moral.”

I once quoted Mal Mupa’s Twitter update where he pointed out that “being politically mature means voting for what the election candidate stands for not what party they are.”

A friend on Facebook told me that illiteracy levels in Malawi makes this impossible. It is a common argument among the literate. However, I do not believe Malawians are incapable of understanding policy issues, in fact I think such suggestion is condescending.

You see not long ago even the idea of having democracy in Malawi was far-fetched. Today it is making inroads and Malawians are guarding it jealously. Malawians said no to Bakili Muluzi’s attempt to extended presidential terms of office, aka ‘third term’. The rule of law also took its course eight years later when the ‘midnight six’ tried to stop Joyce Banda succeeding Bingu wa Mutharika following his death in office.

Even illiterate people have language they understand. The poor service delivery affects also them; they feel it; they have feelings, too. It is a question of reaching out in language(s) they understand. Yes, majority of Malawians may not read policy documents but they know what they want. If Bakili Muluzi can promise shoes why would they not understand a promise of a better future for their children and grandchildren? The issue is that politicians should offer policies, short, mid to long term. We cannot afford to shift the blame on the voters.

If anything, it should be a responsibility of all enlightenment citizens to educate those considered dark, not dismissing them. Every vote counts equally, there is no such a thing as literate or illiterate vote. How do folks feel when it is the illiterate vote, by virtue of majority, that decides the country’s fate anyway?


  • Note: Jimmy Kainja will be writing a weekly column on Nyasa Times, please make sure you check it every Wednesday.

Feedback: [email protected] – twitter @jkainja


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