Tuesday, December 30, 2008

No Justification for High Petrol Prices in Malawi

It is not every day that I agree with former President, Bakili Muluzi. Looking back, I can only recall only one moment when I publicly agreed with a decision of his - sending a couple of Malawi Army Helicopters to help in the humanitarian efforts during the devastating Mozambican floods of early 2000.

Be that as it may, I must say I agree wholeheartedly with Muluzi’s recent calls for a reduction in fuel prices in the country and only wish more people joined him on this crusade to compel the government to take action on the crippling and yet unjustifiable high prices of petrol in Malawi.

The rationale behind the demand for fuel price reductions is simple and straightforward. In June this year, the price of a barrel of crude oil on the international market peaked at a whopping $147 a barrel (approximately 159 litres). Understandably, the pump price for petrol products across the world skyrocketed. In Malawi, the pump price for a litre of unleaded petrol shot up to the current K251.20. In neighbouring Zambia, the same was selling at ZK9,646 (equivalent to about MK 420) a litre. In the United States, the cost of a gallon (about 4 litres) shot up to a record $4.20.

Since the peak of June, the price of oil has plummeted by more than 200 percent. By mid December, a barrel of crude oil was selling at the price of $42 (about K6,300).

In response to the declining prices of oil on the international market, most countries have responded by reducing the price that motorists pay at the pump. In the United States, the pump price for a gallon has fallen to as low $1.42 (about K213 or equal to MK53.25 a litre). And, contrary to the uninformed claims by our Finance Minister, Goodal Gondwe, the price of petrol within the region has gone down as well.

In Zambia the government has reduced the price of petrol twice within the last couple of months. In mid September, the price of unleaded petrol was reduced by nearly ZK 2,000 to ZK 7,691. And on 22nd December, the Energy Regulation Board recommended another 24% reduction in the cost of petrol, bringing the price down further to K5, 818 for a litre of petrol. Thus all combined, the cost of petrol in Zambia has fallen by about ZK4,000 between September and December this year.

Elsewhere in the region, Mozambique, Energy Minister, Salvador Namburete announced a 10.2 percent cut in the price of petrol in late November in what he claimed to be a response to “the decline in the oil price on the world market”. Meanwhile, across Malawi’s northern border, Tanzania the country’s Energy Minister, Kiraitu Murungi promised in early December that the government would very soon effect “a major reduction in the cost of petrol”.

Malawi, it would appear, is one of the few countries in the region and perhaps the globe, that seems to be bucking this trend of reducing fuel prices. A few weeks back, our Minister responsible for Energy, Ted Kalebe, responded rather casually to calls for a reduction in fuel prices by claiming that the country will have to wait for another two months or so before a decision is made on whether to reduce the price of petrol or not. And recently, Finance Minister Goodal Gondwe has come out to state that there won’t be any reductions in the near future, giving as an explanation, the unfounded and erroneous argument that other countries in the region have not reduced their prices. What a lie from an otherwise capable custodian of the national purse.

For a country that is as landlocked as ours, oil drives the economy. The bulk of both our imports and exports are transported by land , which effectively means that our trade costs are significantly affected by oil prices. Locally, the cost of living, from bus fares to basic groceries, are determined by the cost of petrol at the pump.

If we are serious about attracting investors, we need to be more proactive, especially in current economic circumstances when there is cut throat competition for investment. By being slow to respond – or indeed, as is the case, not responding at all - we might make some quick gain from the extra revenue that innocent motorists and other consumers of fuel products have to pay and yet pay a heavy price for dissuading potential investors from coming into Malawi.

At the end of the day, I would argue that the system for determining fuel prices in this country is archaic and not at all suited to a 21st century economy. Considering that we are at the mercy of global market forces, let us come up with a mechanism that would lead to the automatic adjustment of prices (both upwards and downwards) in accordance with these global market trends.

The whole set up of having uniform pump prices across the length and breadth of Malawi also needs to be reviewed. I would contend that we need to abandon the whole idea of setting a uniform national price when it is very clear that the cost of shipping oil to all corners of the country differs from place to place. Again, Zambia already has a differential price formula depending on location of the country’s major towns.

As for the larger Malawi public, it is perhaps a reflection of our timidity and inability to challenge those entrusted with exercising government power on our behalf that they act with so much impunity and arrogance. The Ted Kalebes and Goodal Gondwes of this world know that the majority of us will suffer in silence that they can give the flimsiest excuses for not reducing the fuel prices.

While not putting my own country down, I can say with certainty that the excuses given by our leadership to not reducing prices would not be accepted in neighbouring Zambia where the people are more engaged and take particular interest in government decisions and demand credible explanations for decisions that affect their lives. And they don’t come any higher than prices of petrol.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A 36 Hour Road Trip to Johannesburg

The departure point was most unusual for a resident of Zomba: Mangochi. And the coach was leaving at 6 am, which meant setting off from Zomba at 3:30 am. Although I was at Mangochi boma by 05:30 am, this was somewhat late as the bus was almost full by this time, meaning there was no choice in terms of what seat to get. In the end, I had to squeeze in at the back of the coach - in what was perhaps one of the few seats that had enough leg room.

For a bus leaving Malawi, you would be forgiven for thinking the main language would be Chichewa or at least English. But Mangochi is no ordinary place- it is the heart of the Yao nation. And befitting this status, the language of communication was also Yao. I therefore had to rely on the two gentlemen sitting next to me at the back seat to give me translations whenever there was communication from the crew. I must say I was impressed with the near universal communication in Yao among my fellow passengers. Here are a people, some of whom mostly live in South Africa, who don’t need any “Mulhako” to preserve their mother tongue.

Before departure, the conductor asked for a prayer and a lady in the middle of the bus gave a rather lengthy one and then we were on our way by 6:09 am. An hour into the journey, the crew passed around (lunch?) boxes of a cold meal of chicken and chips and a bottle of fanta. This turned out to be the only meal served on what was to turn out to be a 36 hour journey!

Three hours after leaving Mangochi, we arrived at Mwanza border. The crew gave instructions on the immigration procedures (in Yao of course). If one had no receipts for any foreign currency purchases, they had to include a fifty South African Rand folded in their passport to get an exit stamp. The same amount was also required for anyone using a new passport. It turns out that most people who travel on this route are individuals who previously overstayed in South Africa and process new passports (mostly with new names) when they come back to Malawi.

Anyway, although I had not carried my forex receipts, I didn’t include the required R 50 in my passport. Thankfully, the immigration officer didn’t ask me any questions and duly stamped my passport. However, on getting back to the bus, there was a group of four or five “officers” (not uniformed) at the door of the bus, checking the passports again for the receipts. If there was none, they would retain the passport on the door and ask the individuals to register their names with someone on the bus to whom R 50 would be paid to get their passports back. Again, my luck held and I was spared the ordeal.

My luck run out though as soon as we arrived at Zobwe border post onthe Mozambican side. Each passenger on the bus is required to pay R 17 for a Mozambique transit visa (perhaps the only country in the world that has such a dubious payment in addition to the standard road fees). After paying the fee, I was told my passport has a problem – I had committed the “crime” of having visited Tanzania “or Kenya or Uganda”, for which I was required to show a yellow fever vaccination certificate or “be refused entry” into Mozambique. A R100 payment to the immigration officer was required to get rid of the problem. And so, the first of the money that I thought I had saved for traveling by road went to the Mozambican immigration.

The journey from Zobwe to the town of Moatize, just before crossing the Zambezi river in Mozambique was perhaps the most difficult of the entire journey. The road is full of potholes and the bus has to go slow as the driver tries to manoeuvre around them. It is perhaps ironic that a country that looks for all manner of excuses to charge travelers fails to maintain its road network.

After some five hours of continuous traveling, we arrived at Nyamapanda border post at 15:30 in the afternoon. There was the usual long queue for the processing of exit visas on the Mozambican side plus the usual monetary requirements. Again, to get the necessary exit stamp without showing the forex bank receipts, a payment was required. I thus duly folded a R 20 note in my passport and gave it to one of the coach crew members to process. Given the lengthy queue, I must say it was R 20 well spent, as it spared me the ordeal of the hustling and jostling on the lengthy queue exit Mozambique. For that price, I also managed to move on to the Zimbabwe side of the border before another long queue formed on that side.

things are bad in Zimbabwe, and this is obvious from the numerous road signs and warnings about the need to be extra vigilant about the cholera epidemic there, the constant flow of people from Mozambique and South Africa into Zimbabwe carrying all manner of commodities etc. But, despite all those challenges, there is a positive story to tell from my trip: Zimbabwe is the only country where I didn’t have to pay any bribes to get both an entry and exit visa. The Zimbabwe immigration officers at Nyamapanda and Beitbridge were also among the quickest to process visas so much that there were never any queues at either end of the border- both on my outward and returning trips.

By the time we left Nyamapanda, it was already 6:30 pm in the evening. As a result, we saw very little of Zimbabwe country side. We reached Harare around 21:30 hours. We drove on throughout the night and arrived at Beitbridge at 05:30 am on Sunday.

We got out of Zimbabwe without any further drama only to find an extraordinarily long queue on the South African side of the border. To make matters worse, there were groups of frequent travellers who jumped the queue at will, so much that although we were in the middle of the long queue on arrival, it turned out that we were at the tail end by the time it was our turn to get our entry visas processed.

And more money flowed at Beitbridge. Individuals who had previously overstayed in South Africa were told in advance by the coach crew to get ready to pay anything between R 400 and R 600 or indeed more. On my part, I was again required to pay for my sins of having been to Tanzania – another payment of R 100.

In the end, and after a five hour long wait on the Beitbridge queue, everyone enters South Africa. Some were required to pay more than a thousand Rands, depending on the lengthy of their previous overstay in South Africa. The Beit Bridge immigration officials must be some of the wealthiest people around, no doubt.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. The scenery from Musina town to Polokwane was breathtaking. The road meanders around beautiful green and hilly countryside. It almost makes up for the extraordinarily long and tiring journey. We pass through Pretoria around 17:30 on Sunday afternoon and an hour later, the coach arrives at Johannesburg’s Park Station, thirty-six and half hours after leaving Malawi. I am naturally tired and look forward to a night’s rest before proceeding to Namibia the next day – thankfully, by air.

Was the journey worth it? The return coach ticket costs MK 31,500 while the quotation from Air Malawi for a return air ticket from Blantyre to Johannesburg was about MK 73,000. One therefore makes a saving of around K 40,000 on the ticket alone by travelling by road. After this journey, I can hold my hands up and say the savings made by traveling by road are honestly not worth the bother. The long hours on the road, added to the numerous payments one has to make, are worth more than the K 40,000 price differential.

Sadly, having committed myself to traveling by road, I also had to make the return trip – this time, of some 31 hours. Again, interspaced by lengthy queues at border posts and all manner of unusal payments.

In the end, this will in all probability be the last trip by coach

on this route. I might travel by road again – although this will most likely be by car. And then one can take in the scenery and the beauty of the country side. Otherwise, for anyone who is not prepared to go through the hustle, I would say: fly, it’s cheaper in the end.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President Barack Obama

History has been made. Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States of America and will on January 20th, 2009, become the 44th President of the USA and only the first African American to hold that high office.

I watched the election retains with my great friend, Blessings Chinsinga in Zomba. We shouted, clapped and thoroughly enjoyed what turned out to be a historic night. If we, who were thousands of miles away from the USA could get so excited and worked up, we can only imagine the emotions that my family and friends in the USA must have been going through, not to mention what the Obama family and the crowds in Chicago must have been experiencing.

Zomba is as excited this morning as the rest of the world about Obama’s victory. I spoke to my Grandfather in Neno this morning and he asked me about the elections in the US where he had heard “munthu wakuda akuima pachisankho”. When I told him Obama, that munthu wakuda, had won, he asked me to extend an invitation to Obama to come and visit. That just touched me to think that even my Grandfather in rural Neno was following this historic election. In his moving acceptance speech, Obama spoke to people beyond the US’ shores “huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world”- he must have been speaking to the likes of my Grandfather. This was a truly global election and has demonstrated the opportunities available to those who work hard for them. I wish him a successful presidency in the years ahead.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Zambian Politics after Mwanawasa

My arrival in Zambia on September 6th came exactly four days after the burial of President Levy Mwanawasa, who died on August 19th in France after suffering a stroke some two months previously. Flags flew at half post and the city was decorated with posters showing the late president.
During my three weeks in the city, newspapers and local television showed pictures of individuals and groups going to lay wreaths on Mwanawasa’s grave. It was a moving and sombre experience for Zambians, as Mwanawasa is the first of the country’s three Presidents to die.

In one interesting twist of events, Mwanawasa had pre-recorded a video message addressed to Zambians thanking them for attending his funeral. In the message, which was recorded in 2005 and broadcast on national television after the funeral, Mwanawasa points out that his actions were always motivated for the good of Zambia. The message ended with Mwanawasa saying he gave his best for Zambia until death and thanked all those who came to his funeral and condoled his family for making their grief easier. On a continent where some of our leaders think they ought to remain in office for ever, this message was not only moving, but also singled out Mwanawasa as one of the rare breed of politicians that thought about their own mortality and prepared for it in advance.

The end of the mourning period also marked the official start of the campaign to choose Mwanawasa’s successor. The elections are scheduled for October 30th, to elect Mwanawasa’s successor. The main contenders are Rupiah Banda who for the ruling MMD; the veteran Michael Sata for the Patriotic Front and the youthful Hakainde Hichilema for the United Party for National Development (UPND).

Talk on the street though is split. As Acting President, Banda, aka “RB”, is benefitting from the privileges of incumbency, including access to state resources for the campaign. Meanwhile, all manner of individuals, including Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda, have thrown their support behind Banda, who, at the age of 72, has been involved in Zambian politics for decades. Indeed, in the early days of the campaign, some overzealous individuals went as far as proposing that all Zambian political parties should endorse him to serve the country the need of going through yet another election.

On his part, Sata, who had mounted a formidable campaign against the late Mwanawasa in 2006, continues to draw a lot of support in the urban areas of Lusaka and the Copperbelt. However, people think of him as a “wounded Cobra”, having suffered a massive heart attack earlier in the year. Given the death of Mwanawasa, some Zambians are understandably wary of electing an individual whose health is in doubt. With both Banda and Sata over the 70s, the youthful Hichilema (aka HH), is the young blood in the elections. However, the UPND is struggling to shed off the perception of being a ethnic based party which will hamper HH’s ability to appeal beyond the southern province.

Meanwhile, it appears Mwanawasa’s status and legacy continue to grow even in death. All the major presidential candidates are framing their election campaign messages around who is best placed to continue with Mwanawasa’s legacy. Perhaps the biggest indication of this new fight for an heir to Mwanawasa was reflected in Michael Sata’s assertion in an interview with the Post Newspaper that he is the only person who was privileged to be told the vision of the late Mwanawasa in a two hour discussion earlier in the year. All will be decided on October 30th.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The View From Lusaka Part I: Getting around the City

THE flight from Blantyre to Lusaka on Air Malawi's ATR 42 on Sunday, September 6th 2008 was filled to capacity - and we even managed to depart Chileka 15 minutes early. I was happy to see that despite all the talk about Air Malawi's privatization, the company's business has not been badly affected. Air Malawi's ATR 42 at Chileka Airport before departure for Lusaka, Sept. 6th, 2008

Lusaka., I have to admit, is a city on the move- upwards. The road network has improved significantly in the fourteen years when I was last in the Zambian capital. Courtesy of a grant from the Japanese Government, the Great East road that takes visitors from the Airport into the center of town, has been transformed into a well lit dual carriage way all the way into town. The main townships too have had their roads linking them to the town centre well attended to. Only the smaller road networks within the townships are yet to undergo a similar facelift and continue to have the usual potholes.
Great East Road into downtown Lusaka

To match the new road infrastructure, Lusakans have been buying the vehicles. The traffic jams in the mornings and evenings give the impression that even after expanding the capacity of the roads, the capital requires an even more ambitious road expansion programme. While the majority of the vehicles are the usual Japanese reconditioned imports, there are also a number of super rich Lusaka residents that are driving some of the more posh models on the market. In my three weeks in the cit, I spotted three Hammers as well as a couple of Jaguars and other luxury brands.

All this is against a background of some of the highest gas prices in the region. at the time of my arrival in early September, a litre of Lusaka petrol was costing a hefty K9,646 (equivalent to about MK 420 or just under US$ 3). This was nearly twice the Malawi price of K251. however, during my third week in Zambia, the government announced new fuel prices that brought the price down by ZKW 1,800 to around ZKW 7,800 per litre of petrol- about MK 355 or $2.20. Even at the reduced prices, filling up an average tank of 45 litres in Lusaka still costs not less than $100, a factor that is forcing a good number of people to leave their cars at home and get to work on the Lusaka minibuses.

Talking of minibuses, I was equally impressed that our colleagues in Zambia have introduced measures to bring some order and sanity to the minibus business. All minibuses (and taxis) are by law required to be painted blue, and have gadgets installed that restrict their maximum speed to 80 km per hour. This, I am told, has dramatically reduced the number of ‘silly’ road accidents that used to claim a lot of innocent lives. For the visitor, the single colour code for minibuses and taxis means it is easy to spot a commercial minibus or taxi.

The Blue minibuses of Lusaka: perhaps not politically neutral in Malawi?

Besides transport, the indications of a city on the up are also evident in the number of new buildings that are coming up all over the city. From hotels, residential houses to the eponymous fences, it appears everyone in Lusaka is building. Property value too has gone up, with an undeveloped 10 acre piece of land selling for the princely sum of ZK 350,000,000 ($100,000)

The only place where things appear not to be moving is the University of Zambia, which had been closed since end July over a pay dispute between lectures and management. The buildings do look aged and can use some freshening up. From a purely selfish view, the closure of UNZA was a blessing in disguise, as the library was less busy and more conducive to some serious study on my part.

UNZA main library

*Dedicated to my wonderful hosts in Lusaka, Evarlisto and Cynthia Simwinga and their family, who welcomed me into their home and extended to me the famed African hospitality that makes me proud to be African.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ode to Respicious Dzanjalimodzi, MP

I cannot claim to have known the late Respicious Dzanjalimodzi well. Apart from a few mostly business meetings, I never knew the man on a personal level. But from the little I knew of him, he came across as that rare breed of politician, a man who gave the impression he found himself in politics by mistake.

One memory from the few encounters we ever had was over the weekend of May 18th-21st, 2006 back in mid 2006 at Hippo View Lodge, Liwonde. Together with other political party representatives, we had gathered to deliberate on the Discussion Paper that had been prepared by the Law Commission for the Constitutional Review Conference, held in Lilongwe the previous month of May.

Among the more controversial issues that were raised at the National Conference, and taken up again at the Liwonde workshop was the question of whether we should include a provision in our constitution setting a maximum age limit as well as minimum education qualifications for the office of State President. From my interactions at the National Conference, it struck me as odd that the younger leadership of the various political parties were not supportive of either proposal yet they stood to gain the most as such provisions would have opened up the opportunity for them not only to lead their parties, but also have a crack at the national state leadership itself.

Yet, despite the obvious benefits to the younger group of politicians, I detected a sense of unwillingness for many political party representatives at the conference to be seen to be publically supporting a proposal that threatened the right of the older crop of political leaders to contest for the highest post in the land. To get around the problem and get the real personal views of the political representatives at the Liwonde workshop, we therefore proposed that we should also administer anonymous questionnaires to elicit individual views on the more sensitive issues.

The findings in many respects, confirmed my suspicions: in many instances, the consensus positions in the open plenary sessions tended to diverge from the individual views captured in the questionnaire survey. Anyway, that is of course, another long story. But why I remember this workshop with respect to the late Resicipious Dzanjalimodzi is not about the findings, but rather, his openness and willingness to stand up and be counted.

The late Respicious was one of the few frank politicians at the gathering, sometimes supporting a position at odds with the majority of his fellow MCP participants. More importantly, he was also the only participant who voluntarily appended his name to the filled-in questionnaire. For a party whose leadership is among that category of long serving individuals, Dzanjalimodzi not only supported the proposal for the introduction of an even lower maximum age limit of 65 for presidential candidates, but also advocating for the introduction of a minimum of a Bachelors Degree for presidential and parliamentary aspirants.

Sadly, he is no more, having succumbed to a sudden illness while on holiday in South Africa on Thursday, August 14th, 2008 and tragically followed by his mother who died while people were holding his wake. Malawi could use more of such frank and open politicians. Unfortunately, there are not that many around. May his soul rest in peace.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Back home, same old political issues.

How time truly flies! It is already more than a month since I landed back in good old Malawi. As always, it is great to be back home, to meet old friends, family etc. Life at home is the same, attending this wedding and that; this funeral; a couple of workshops and more.

On the political front, I must say it is much better to see the reality on the ground, which I have to admit, is less gloomy than the picture we get on Nyasatimes from the diaspora. I recall a recent e-mail discussion before I left the US that I had had with my good friend and contributor on Malawi to Africa Confidential, Nick Wright. While I expressed worry about the developments on Malawi as reported in the media, Nick pointed out that he also gets the same feeling but when he travels to Malawi, always finds the reality to be different.

What this suggests is that the news that filters through to our brothers and sisters in the disaspora is usually gloomier than the situation on the ground. Yes, we are afflicted with our fair share of political problems, but these are nothing new and pale in comparison to the situation in Zimbabwe for instance.

I mean the current jostling between the government and the opposition in and outside Parliament is not itself new. Take the following paragraph from a paper I presented to the Norwegian Embassy on July 9th, 2005, a good three years ago, to illustrate my point:

"…Political tension abounds that threatens to spiral out of control… deliberations in the National Assembly convey a picture of a house out of control. The main protagonists – the government and the opposition- meanwhile continue to spurn all efforts at reconciliation. The wider public is getting restless and has already showed displeasure at the current political developments by organizing street demonstrations. Not surprisingly, donors have been jittery and the future is uncertain."


Does that sound familiar? Well, what I wrote in 2005 remains true today, but for the fact that the tension never spiralled out of control, even if a solution is yet to be found. What I can say then is that the current political wrangles in Malawi are nothing new and we should perhaps not be too pessimistic about the future.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Travelling Home

This weekend, I will be traveling to mother Malawi where I will be working from for a coupole of months. I must say I am excited to be getting back home after another year of sojourning in this part of the world.
It promises to be a great time to be in Malawi, to observe political events as they unfold. I hope to be sharing my thoughts and take on political events at home on this forum.
While I am excited to be traveling home, I will miss the US presidential campaign and will also be missing the elections in November. And while I will be returning to the US after the November elections, this will unfortunately also mean that I will be missing the Malawi elections of May next year. for one who thrives in the heart of politics, this double miss is going to be a pain, but I will make sure to follow developments in whatever way I can. for all my friends in Malawi, see you soon.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama's Speech on securing the Majority Delegates for the Democratic Party Nomination

Quote:
“After 54 hard-fought contests, our primary season has finally come to an end... because you decided that change must come to Washington, because you believed that this year must be different than all the rest, because you chose to listen not to your doubts or your fears, but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations, tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another, a journey that will bring a new and better day to America. Because of you, tonight I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States of America." link here for a full text of the speech


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Friday, May 23, 2008

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road in Malawi?

BAKILI MULUZI: Fotseki, I will not accept this nonsense. Anakuuzani ndani kuti ndiri ndi khola la nkhuku ine? The law is clear: Chickens cannot cross the road unless they pay the penalty. So how dare they cross the road? We will not allow our remaining chickens to discuss anything else until this chicken comes back, asaaa.

JOHN TEMBO: Tambala ameneyu ngwanga uyu. I cannot allow it to cross the road. The standing Orders of this House are very clear: no chicken can cross the road. The Constitution too says it clearly: any chicken that cross the road has to be to be eaten and we will not accept any injunctions to prevent us from consuming this stray chicken.

BINGU wa MUTHARIKA: The chicken crossed the road because he realised he cannot live among the animals on that side of the road. These people need to be shaken up, we will continue encouraging the chickens on their side to cross the road, no more Mr. Nice Guy. We have an open door policy on this side of the road, any chicken that wants development is welcome.

GOODAL GONDWE: whether the chickens from the other side decide to come or not, I will present the budget to the chickens that have already crossed the road.

ISHMAEL CHAFUKIRA: How dare the Chief chicken call us "Wild Animals"? We are scared and will not attend his functions.

LOVENESS GONDWE: pambere tindambe kudumba makani gha munyumba yino, SIPIKA wakwenera kuchimbizga nkhuku zose izo zambuka msewu kuluta silya linyakhe.

NIC HOLAS DAUSI: The Gallus domesticus navigated to this side of
the
highway because it is cognisant that the populace are bifurcated by bogus dogmas. As the presidential advisor on national unity, I say that these bilocurar divisons are not good for this country. This is why I myself decided to cross the highway and these new roosters are welcome to follow my lead

STEVE SHARRA: These roads are not legitimate anyway. They are an imperialist creation that hide the common u-nkhuku in us all. It is good this chicken has broken the yoke and crossed the road.

PATRICIA KALIYATI: @xy@^*!x@! Chamba eti? What chicken would not cross the road when that side is infested with chitopa? The chicken is running away kuopa kuphedwa. Mwaona kwatsala nkhuku iri yonse that side of the road? All that is left there ndi zilombo zokha-zokha. @$#!

JOSEPH NKASA: Nkhuku ya lero, nkhuku ya lero, ndi Mutharika…

GORGE NTAFU: This is not a chicken, ndi galu disguising itself as a chicken. It has to kicked out. We cannot have agalu in this House.

BONIFACE DULANI: what is worrisome is that the movement of chickens is in one direction. This is typical of Big Chicken type of politics. The Big Chicken on the other side is providing a lot of chicken feed to induce the chickens to cross the road.

*with acknowledgements to Wilson Ndovie for beefing up the entry. Yebo.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Personal Musings on the song "Mose wa Lero"

Mose walero-di?
The more I think about Joseph Nkasa's hit song Mose wa Lero, the more my thoughts drift towards the old adage that "Dictators are not born - they are made".

The thought of portraying any living being (particularly of the political kind) to the biblical Moses strikes me as bordering on the blasphemous. But it is not for me to be judgmental and assume that if I see no god-like qualities in Mutharika, then it should also follow that others should not. So If Nkasa and others out there feel Mutharika (or any of other Malawian political leaders - Bakili Muluzi, John Tembo, Aleke Banda etc) have assumed ethereal qualities, then they are entitled to their opinion.
I must confess I admire the sounds of the song, and particularly the pointed criticism of the Muluzi regime without ever mentioning the former President by name. While Muluzi himself has recently been critical of the Malawi public for having short memories, the lyrics of Mose wa Lero remind us that Muluzi should perhaps be grateful Malawians have such short memories- otherwise he would not even be contemplating to run for a further third term for the office of president in 2009. While Muluzi would like to portray his ten year reign as the golden age of politics in Malawi, Nkasa reminds us, in very short and concise language, of the many vices of that regime.

"Kumene tichokera mukudziwako…

Kodi kapena mufuna mukumbutsidwe

dziphinjo zomwe zinali muno

Kanthawi komweka mwaiwala……

Chachilendo ndichani tikaone

tikabwelera pambuyo ife…

Mafumu kumsonkhano kunyetsedwa...

azimayi kuvulidwa ma half panja……

Anthu akalira kuti zinthu zadula, umva ndilibe sitolo ine…

Tabwera ndichimanga tikugawilani

ndi K50 yogayisira....

Msonkhano usanathe kuitana shoveri,

usakhale pano zibanduka

Chimanga chomwechi nchomwe tikaonetse

ku Mzimba ku Hola uko…."

Thus far, Nkasa does a wonderful job of reminding us of the excesses and political opportunism that became the hallmark of the Muluzi era (all within a fine danceable beat!). It calls us all to be sceptical of promises made by self-seeking politicians.

However, having done such a brilliant job in exposing failings of the past regime, Nkasa embarks on a new politicking that seeks to portray Mutharika as the new Moses – Mose wa Lero. What follows is a glorification of Mutharika, that builds on what are essentially three themes: ending hunger, new infrastructure projects and foresighted leadership:

Mose walero Mose wa lero ndi Mutharika….

Waliphula dziko pamoto….

Nthaka yotembeleledwa ija yadalitsidwa

Nkhani ya njala ndi nyimbo yakale…

Ntchito za manja ake zikumuchitira umboni

Mdala wamasomphenya mtsogoleri

Nkasa is right that the Mutharika presidency has done a wonderful job in initiating several infrastructural projects. Although some road projects such as the Karonga-Chitipa road, the new Dowa road, the Nsanje road etc are yet to get off the ground, the new Ntchisi, Jali and Nkhoma roads, as well as maintenance works of urban roads, are signs in the right direction. This is an area that the Muluzi presidency failed miserably despite collecting millions of Kwachas through the road levies, money that often ended up lining the pockets of corrupt politicians.

However, given the recent reports of pockets of hunger in the country in a year when hundreds of thousands of tonnes of maize have been exported to Zimbabwe, Nkasa's argument that "nkhani ya njala ndi nyimbo yakale…"- hunger is a thing of the past- is an overstatement.

While thus far Nkasa has served as an apt commentator of Malawi politics, even if in some cases he overstates the Mutahrika achievements, he then moves into an arena that I find to be very presumptuous on his part. We are told that:

Mulungu walisekelera dziko…akukondwelera ndi utsogoleri wa Mutharika…

I find this to be an extraordinary revelation: not because Nkasa holds the opinion that Mutharika is doing a good, but the implication that the Almighty is equally approving and pleased with the Mutharika presidency. In stating that, Nkasa would have us all believe that he has the extraordinary ability to decipher who God is pleased with these days. It is one thing to state that Mutharika's works are all there to bear witness to his good deeds, but yet another to turn into an interpreter of divine thought. One assumes then that Nkasa's statement that he will soon be changing name to "Joseph Nkasa Mutharika" implies that he wants to become the son of this new deity.

While in Mose wa Lero, Nkasa has the history on his side to offer a sound criticism of the Muluzi era, I am afraid he does not have adequate comparable basis to make a sound judgement on Mutharika. Yes, I am aware that there is some tentative evidence to suggest we are going in the right direction on the economic front as well as in the creation of new infrastructure – but in acknowledging these achievements, we should not overlook the many failings in the current administration, especially on the political and rule of law front.

The increasing tendency to overlook constitutional provisions (in the appointment of government officers, treatment of legislators who abandon the platform on which they sold themselves to the electorate at election time, conventional traditions in the appointment of electoral officials), using government machinery to attack opponents and critics alike, using the public media to spin government propaganda that borders on inciting hatred of the worst kind are all examples of behaviour that to me does not come anywhere near the god-like image that is peddled in Mose wa Lero. Again, any review of our history would show that the Banda government made some commendable achievements in terms of economic performance (in the early years) as well as in term of infrastructure. Professor King's Phiri's recent essay in the Daily Times marking the re-introduction of Kamuzu Day offers a clear testament to this. However, notwithstanding all such achievements, Banda's presidency was marked by some of the worst cases of human rights abuses that to many, overshadowed the economic and infrastructural successes of his era.

It should be obvious that as much as I applaud Nkasa for doing a wonderful job in pointing out the numerous failures of the Muluzi leadership, I am disappointed with his "over praise" of Mutharika that brings to mind what Robert Rotberg (2001) in his introduction to the autobiography of Masauko Chipembere, as one of Chipembere's "fatal misjudgement" – overstating the leadership qualities of Kamuzu Banda by potraying him as a superhuman being with god-like characteristics. By overstating Kamuzu's personality, Chipembere inadvertently unleashed a personality cult that subsequently grew to the point where even Banda himself began to believe he was the superhuman he was said to be. The rest, as they say, is history. Banda assumed the presidency of the Malawi Congress Party in August of 1958 in Nkhatabay on his own terms. Not long afterwards he assumed the life presidency of the MCP, a position which made him the de-facto life president when Malawi assumed Republican status in July 1966 with the MCP as the sole legal party. This was effectively legalized with the constitutional amendment of 1971 making Banda formally Malawi's life president.

The long and short of this is that if people shout at an individual that he is god for long enough , it might eventually get to a point when the concerned individual might start believing that perhaps they are indeed a god, and therefore, infallible. I would venture that this is already being reflected in Mutharika's increasing levels of intolerance and dismissal of criticism, the increasing dictatorial tendencies that are becoming all too evident in the usage of uncompromising language. And listening to the words coming Cabinet Ministers and other DPP-party apparatchiks that embrace the theme of Mutharika as Mose wa Lero, one cannot help but think that we might be headed in the same old path to dictatorship.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Illusions of a coup plot

Call me naïve, but some things do not add up to this alleged new "coup plot" against the Mutharika presidency. Instead, it gives me a sense of déjà-vu: taking us back to the dark days of the Banda presidency.

First, we are meant to buy the argument that Senior Officers in the Malawi Defence Force were willing to jeopardize their positions to help Muluzi become president again. Yet, there is just no clear motivation for them to do so: they are already holding high ranking positions and a Muluzi presidency that short circuits the elections that are less than a year away would not change much in terms of their rank and status in the Armed Services. If the arrested active officers were in the middle or junior ranks, I could be persuaded they have had a motivation. But given their high ranking – a Brigadier General, and a Major General (the only rank higher being a Full General , the highest rank in the Malawi Defence Force, usually reserved for the Army Commander) – I cannot see what the motivation would be for these sons of Malawi.

Secondly, I am sceptical that Muluzi – notwithstanding his zeal and determination to get to the Presidency- would be so foolish as to think of a military route to the presidency when elections are only a year away. For starters, coups usually work only in instances where they are built upon widespread public disillusion with the government. Even the most ruthless dictators in the world have to rely on some public support for a coup to succeed. I doubt Muluzi has that public support behind him in the country. If anything, Malawians have proven time and time again to detest the military option. Ironically, if at all public support for military rule was at its highest, it was towards the end of Muluzi's own rule, with surveys showing up to 42 percent of Malawians in approving of military rule in the last year of his presidency. However, the recent economic upturn would have encouraged greater public satisfaction, and therefore, support, for democracy. Put simply, a coup at this time in Malawi would in all probability, not receive any significant levels of public support, even from within the UDF ranks or from any other opposition parties.

In any case, why would Muluzi have opted to spend so many millions of his own personal money to finance the recent UDF convention where he was formally endorsed as his party's flag carrier in the forthcoming elections? Some would respond that he is looking for an immediate payback, but I would need to be convinced as to why he cannot afford to wait until may 2009 – after all, he has already waited for more than three years to get back at Mutharika.

In an era when the entire world frowns on coups, anyone who would think they can carry out a coup and get away with it would have to be deluded. Pressure would not just come from Malawi's overseas friends, but from within Africa itself. For example, the African Union has taken strong positions that have even resulted in reversals of recent coups on the continent, for example, in Togo. In short, even if a coup were successful (God forbid), the beneficiaries would not be allowed to get away with it by the rest of the world (as well as by most good thinking Malawians).

So what? Well, I feel as a country, we seem to be increasingly guided by some illusions (or rather, hallucinations). In the process, we are making so many blunders that are sadly, taking us backwards to the dark days of one party rule.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

On the UDF Convention and Why Muluzi will not get my vote

I find it a sad reflection of the times we are living and the serious challenges that Malawi's democracy faces, that former President Bakili Muluzi and his UDF party are now passing as the most democratic party in the selection of their presidential candidate in next May's elections. The ruling DPP, meanwhile, appears content to approach the elections without a Convention to at least formally endorse Mutharika as their flag bearer and also allow the party membership the first ever opportunity to interact with the party's unelected big-wigs. Like the DPP, the MCP too, seems unconcerned about holding on a convention, having unofficially settled on their incumbent party leader, John Tembo, to lead them into next year's elections.

UDF have to be congratulated for organising the recent Convention to choose their presidential candidate. One can only hope the other main parties will follow suit to enable the ordinary membership to at least have some say on their choice of candidates. Although I would not expect any major upsets from such exercises, Conventions would provide important opportunities for the delegates to endorse what are otherwise predetermined choice of candidates and sprinkle the processes with some semblance of democratic credibility. It is hard otherwise, to imagine a party like the DPP going into an election when they have only transitional structures personally appointed by President Mutharika alone. Unless the political parties demonstrate some levels of intra-party democracy , it is hard to perceive them playing according to the democratic rules on the national stage. Democracy, in simple words, is not possible without democrats.

However, before we get too carried away with the recent UDF convention, we should not lose sight of the fact that Muluzi’s victory at the Convention was a largely foregone conclusion. Anyone who seriously believed that Muluzi could lose must be unaware of how much the odds were heavily stacked in his favour: he is not only the largest benefactor for the party, but he also provided a substantial chunk of the resources for the Convention itself. While Muluzi expressed interest to contest a long way back, and therefore had the opportunity to campaign and structure the Convention delegates in his favour, his lone challenger, Cassim Chilumpha, has been closeted at his Mudi House for the better part of three years as he answers to treason charges in the High Court. He only announced his candidature a few weeks prior to the elections, making it exceedingly difficult for him to mount an effective campaign against Muluzi.

I also have serious doubts about the democratic credibility of the party membership that took part in the convention itself. For a party that has not held any elections at the local level for a long time, the majority of individuals holding positions at the various structures of the party are largely appointed, mostly through Muluzi’s own patronage network. It is expecting too much, then, that these people would vote against their main patron simply because a Convention is being held. It is, to me, a joke to think the UDF has become democratic by simply holding a Convention when the delegates to the convention are not themselves democratically chosen.

While holding a convention is an important step, the top-down approach that is used to select and handpick delegates, defeats the entire purpose of a democratic convention - which is to give the ordinary rank and file party membership, a say in the choice of their party candidate. A truly genuine democratic process should have started with democratic elections at the bottom rungs of the UDF party structure to enable their membership chose who should be the eventual delegates to the Convention. Alternatively, all UDF members should be given equal say to vote for their choice of presidential candidate. Otherwise, this is a sham and cosmetic democracy.

I would also wish to comment on my disappointment that the UDF, with its acclaimed high membership across the country, feel the best they can offer is to field a candidate who has already served two terms in office. Even if I was to be persuaded to believe that Muluzi did a wonderful job in his first ten years in office (and it would not be a mean achievement to convince me), I just cannot accept that the UDF does not have any other individuals from within their ranks that are capable of leading the party into the next elections. The only way we know Muluzi has the potential to be President is because he was given the chance to serve in the first place. This only goes to show that what the country, and the UDF, lack is not people with leadership potential, but opportunities to serve. If Muluzi is so important to the UDF, he can serve an important advisory role to a different UDF nominee instead of clinging on to the candidacy himself.
I will not even venture into discussing the implications of Muluzi’s candidacy with regards to section 83 of the constitution, which limits individuals into serving a maximum of two consecutive terms of office. Suffice it to say that there are differing interpretations of the section, especially the inclusion of the word consecutive. However, before we get bogged down with semantics, I would like to ask all of us to pose for a minute and think, not about the literal meaning of the section, but rather, the spirit that influenced the framers of the Constitution into including this provision.
In my previous posting, I indicated that I would not support Hilary Clinton’s candidacy because I feel the United States, a country of 300 million people, should have myriad of individuals and families that can produce a president and not the Bushes or the Clintons alone. Maintaining that same principle, I cannot support Muluzi’s candidacy. If I am in Malawi in May of next year, I will not be voting for him.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The US primary Elections and my support for Obama


A number of people have asked me to speed up the entries on the US presidential elections. Here's my first entry, which ends with my endorsement of Barack Obama.


The process of picking up the candidates
Unlike in our mother Malawi, where all the main parties have effectively picked their candidates for the 2009 elections without even going through the required conventions, the two major political parties in the United States - the Democrats and the Republicans-follow a rather elaborate system of picking their presidential candidates. It is important, firstly, to note that in the United States, voter registration requires individuals to also indicate their party membership (they can also choose the independent option).

Each party basically calls upon its membership to choose the choice of party candidate. This is done in two ways: either there is a primary election in each of the 50 states of the United States (plus a few other territories and US citizens abroad). In the primary elections, members of each political party get to vote from a list of aspirants their choice of candidates. The second method - used mostly by Democrats is to conduct a party caucus - a system which brings together Local party members for an evening of debate before deciding who they will support for their party's presidential nomination. The process is open for all to see and takes place in someone's home or a town hall rather than a voting booth.
The rules on who can participate in which primary election or caucus differ from state to state and by party. In some states, the elections are open, meaning that an individual can choose whichever primary (Democrat or Republican) to participate in, irrespective of their party-affiliation. Some primaries are however closed to members of particular parties. The rules, however, allow people to switch their party affiliation but an individual can only take part in one primary or caucus, not both.

Based on the performance of each candidate in the party primary or caucus, the share of the vote is translated into “pledged delegates” – that is individuals who will finally take part in the Party convention to formally choose the party presidential candidate later in the year. Different states have different number of delegates, depending on demographics. In all, the Democrats allocate a total of 4,047 delegates, which means that the winning candidate needs at least 2,024 delegates to win. The Republicans have a total of 2,380 candidates. Thus for one to win the Republican party nomination, he or she has to secure at least 1,191 delegates.

The current candidates

Democrats

In the current run of primaries, the Democratic party started off with a field of eight candidates. However, following poor following in the early rounds of Primary/caucuses, six of the candidates have since dropped out, leaving Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton as the only two candidates still standing. At the time of writing, barrack Obama is leading in the total delegate count, the total number of States won and the overall share of the vote. In terms of the number of pledged delegates, Obama has won 1,418 elected delegates, compared to 1,250 for Clinton. On the surface, the gap of 168 might seem too tiny. However, when considering that the Democrats allocate delegates proportionally to the vote, it is not an easy figure to overturn. In addition to the elected delegates, the Democrats also have a total of 795 “Super delegates” - members of the Democratic National Committee, elected officials like senators or governors, or party leaders. They do not have to indicate a candidate preference and do not have to compete for their position. Currently, Clinton leads in the number of pledged delegates, with a total of 248 compared to Obama’s 226. Of the 42 states that have already held their Democratic Party primaries or caucus, Obama has won 28 against Clinton’s 14.

Republicans


The Republican Party started off with a field of seven candidates. After coming from behind, Senator john McCain from Arizona secured the required minimum number of votes to win the Republican ticket. As of April 20th, McCain has a total number of 1,331 pledged delegates, way past the minimum of 1,191 required to secure the Republican Party ticket.

The Lessons of American Presidential Selection process for Malawi

I have to say I like the way the US political parties involve the ordinary membership in the selection of their presidential candidates. Unlike the Malawi system, the US process is open to the participation of the ordinary membership across the entire country. The system compels candidates to adopt a national agenda and seek to win the support of their membership in each individual state. If this were imported into Malawi, all individuals aspiring for presidential office would be required to mount national campaigns, going to each individual district to seek the vote of their party membership instead of simply relying on delegates to party conventions, the majority of whom are themselves unelected and simply answerable to the whims of the leadership. Apart from the influence such a process would give to the electorate, it would also contribute to the building of political parties that are truly national, as opposed to regional or ethnic-based parties as is the case at the present moment.

That said, I have to acknowledge too that the US process is very expensive. What I find interesting though is that the presidential campaigns are usually funded by public donations, and not necessarily from the state. This also goes to further entrench the democratic process as it gives the ordinary people a stake in the democratic process that is perhaps missing in our politics. By contrast, our major political parties are usually financed by single individuals who in turn wield significant power and influence that enables them to become de-facto life presidents for their parties.

Obama my Man

If I had the vote in the US, I would vote for the Democrats. As those who know American politics will tell, the Republicans are largely Conservative, largely inward looking in my view and less interested in the wider world. They are less interested in looking after the interests of the common man, preferring instead to promote policies that pander to the wishes of the mega-rich in society. The Republican Party, as far as I am concerned, attracts individuals that hold bigoted views of Black people.

Of the remaining two Democrats, my choice is firmly Obama. Either of the two candidates will make history: if elected, Obama will be the first Black President in the United States, while Clinton would be the first woman President. While both candidates have more or less identical policies on most major issues, I am reluctant to lend my support to Hilary Clinton on one count and one count alone: in a country of nearly 300 million people, I cannot be convinced that there are only two households that can produce Presidents: the Bushes and the Clintons. While Clinton has campaigned on a platform of long years of public service, I have to say I am not persuaded to think that simply because one was a First lady, then they are prepared for the presidency. Firstly, this would mean no one who has not had a close relation as President would qualify as US president. In any case, I don’t think being First Lady prepares anyone for the post of the Presidency – in the same way that I cannot claim to be qualified to be a Librarian just because my wife works in the Library at Chancellor College.

Obama, on the other hand, presents a fresh breathe into politics. He has generated a new interest in politics, brining a lot of excitement and interest in politics, especially among the youth. Of the two democrats, only Obama has the potential to bring about real change in American politics as well as to change the negative image of the United States elsewhere. Judging by his foreign policy statements, I am convinced this is a man who will not only bring in a new era of international politics that is less confrontational, but would also move us away from the unilateralism that has marked US foreign policy in the last couple of years.