Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No More Chiefs in Malawi - with Guest Author, Blessings Chinsinga

It is time to abolish the institution of chieftaincy for it has clearly outlived its usefulness. This sounds quite a harsh prognosis but it is surely a necessary evil if we are to turn the corner in our quest for a genuine democratic polity. The institution of chieftaincy is increasingly becoming more of a liability than an asset as a dominant mode for our socio-political organization in both rural and urban areas.

This would be a great shock to most of my colleagues. They would find it extremely difficult to come to terms with my rather abrupt change of heart about chiefs. Not long ago, I published an article in one of the international journals, inspired by my doctoral research, in which I romanticized chiefs a potential anchor of the nascent democratization project.

As embodiments of tradition, my argument was that chiefs were better positioned to enable us incorporate new ideals into our body politic without losing the essential elements of our tradition which would make new concepts about democracy easily understandable.

The alternative school of thought brands chiefs as the single most important obstacle to democratization. It has completely no mercy for chiefs. They are condemned as devoid of progress especially in such areas as political organization, women’s rights, social mobility and economic rights.

However, my article gave chiefs the benefit of doubt as potential positive forces in our quest to domesticate democracy the Malawian way. The gist of my argument was that as a western concept, democracy should be anchored by institutional frameworks rooted in African imageries. This would, in turn, provide the basis for discriminating between change as progress and change for the sake of change.

I was entirely wrong and perhaps too much of an optimist. Day after day the institution of chieftaincy is becoming indefensible. The virtues of chieftaincy that I reified in my article as potential building blocks for an indigenous but robust version of democracy are simply unattainable in view of the conduct of chiefs in recent years. It is difficult to see how chiefs can be held as harbingers of progress when they are prepared to mortgage the future of future generations all for short term selfish interests.

Chiefs have distinguished themselves as the most amazing group of people. They almost always share the opinion on whatever issue comes up. This is quite strange. Isn’t it? From Chitipa to Nsanje, chiefs will have the same views on an issue. Dissent voices of chiefs, if any, are heavily censured or denied a platform altogether. Such chiefs are often threatened with dethronement since the Chiefs Act empowers the Chief Political Officer to expel incumbents if deemed necessary in the national interest.

There is, nevertheless, one single important paradox about chiefs. There is a love-hate relationship between chiefs and their subjects. Survey after survey chiefs are amongst the top most corrupt institutions while at the same time they are considered as the most trustworthy among alternative leadership institutions especially at the grassroots.

The main drawback for chiefs is that they have abused the trust that their subjects bestow upon them in search for short-term self-aggrandizement. It is no longer the question of the greater common good but rather the sheer quest for immediate gratification even at the expense of mortgaging the future of generations yet to come.

Chiefs shamelessly took turns on the public broadcasters in support for the third term. This was incomplete disregard of the popular embodied in the 1994 Republican constitution. Presidential term limit was conceived as a means of preventing the abuse of power by incumbents, a common feature when the presidency becomes like an iron bowl of rice.

This is not all. Chiefs have continued to function as handmaidens for promoting the selfish interests of the political elite. They played a major in advocating for the change of the national flag claiming to speak on behalf of their subjects. These claims may actually be valid but it is just surprising that all chiefs could speak with the same mind on the issue. Chiefs have intervened en masse in the current succession crisis in DPP. They have probably less surprisingly overwhelmingly endorsed a single candidate since their minds tend to work exactly in the same way.

Chiefs hide under the cloak of serving the government of the day. This is sheer abuse of the concept of serving the government of the day. Any citizen, regardless of their political inclination, has an obligation to serve the government of the day as long as it is legitimately elected through a free and fair electoral process.

This does not, however, mean citizens including chiefs forfeit their right to constructively engage with a duly elected government. In short, serving the government of the day does not necessarily mean giving it a blank cheque to do as it pleases. Unfortunately, this is the interpretation that our chiefs have chosen to embrace at the expense of the greater common good.

Some chiefs have been reprimanded by their superiors for being excessively partisan in discharging their jobs. However, these chiefs are defiant with a clear sense of impunity. They argue that they will continue to discharge their duties in a one sided political mode on the pretext of serving the government of the day. This is the display of a false sense of consciousness at its best.

This article appeared in the Sunday Times of September 19th, 2010 under the column, "Talking Political Economy"

Friday, September 3, 2010

The two faces of Bingu?

In my recent discussions about Malawi politics with friends and colleagues, a recurring theme has been whether we are now seeing a different Bingu wa Mutharika from the Bingu of 2004-2009. My take is that Bingu has not changed: what have changed are the circumstances of Malawi politics, enabling Bingu to show his true colors more.

Mutharika's first term as Malawi president (2004-2009) has garnered him several accolades. He is is credited for spearheading the fertilizer subsidy, reviving infrastructure construction, getting Malawi's foreign debts wiped off after reaching the completion point of the highly indebted poor country (HIPC) initiative in 2006; promoting new investments, notably in the mining sector, among several initiatives.

In his first term, Bingu had to cobble together a disparate coalition of mostly opportunistic defectors from the opposition ranks. Yet, even with this, he did not have complete control of the political agenda, as the combined opposition had a majority share of the Parliamentary seats.

To counter the opposition's influence, Mutharika was compelled to appeal to the public as his primary option for political survival. This resulted in a number of populist projects such as the fertilizer subsidy (which, admittedly, was forced on him by the opposition in 2005). One could also argue that the ambitious (but now since stalled) infrastructure construction boom during Mutharika's first term, were an example of the president's populism. Certainly, in most cases, we saw symbolic, yet popular 'Ground breaking ceremonies' for road projects that are yet to start. These and other similarly populist policies propelled Mutharika and his DPP to victory in the 2009 elections.

Not only did Mutharika personally secure the highest proportion of the presidential vote by a candidate in Malawi's last four elections (see this link for a summary of the 2009 general election results), but his party, the Democratic Progressive Party (which, it must be said, has recently demonstrated to be neither democratic nor progressive, but that is a story for another day), won a significant share of the parliamentary seats. The hitherto powerful opposition parties, meanwhile, have been reduced to role players in and outside the National Assembly.

However, recent developments - which include sidelining the vice president; bulldozing the name of the president's brother, Peter Mutharika, to succeed Bingu in 2014; increasingly dictatorial and threatening language by the president; a rubber-stamp Parliament that has oftentimes been bypassed by an overly-powerful Executive (as was the case in the purchase of the presidential jet); government machinations to undermine the weak opposition parties; irrational and frankly, stupendous policy decisions (read the quota system for university selection; flag change; relocation of the University of Science and Technology from Lilongwe to the President's farm at Ndata in Thyolo etc), have all conspired to not only poison the political environment, but have also eroded much of the public goodwill that Mutharika enjoyed in his first term.

So does all this mean Mutharika has changed? The signs and outcomes have certainly changed, but I do not think Bingu the man himself has. Instead, I am strongly of the view that what we are seeing is the true Mutharika. Because of the political climate in which he had to operate between 2004 and 2009, we could not have been able to see this true personality of Bingu, even if the signs were always there in the background. The threats against the opposition for example, were always there throughout his first term. The current ill-treatment of Vice President Joyce Banda, for example, is an almost mirror image of the treatment of Mutharika's first veep, Cassim Chilumpha, who was confined to Mudi House under house arrest for much of Mutharika's first term. The university academics, the media, business leaders, the clergy, among several groups, were all also attacked by Mutharika at one point or another during this period.

To cut a long story short, I believe Mutharika was forced by circumstances to show a different persona between 2004 and 2009. A good case in point, I believe is the recent flag change – listening to the president's comments on the reasoning behind the flag change, one gets the impression that he has always wanted to do this. However, given the precarious position he found himself in during his first term, he could not have succeeded in doing so until after 2009. Comparing the Bingu of today to the Bingu of 2004-2009, we can actually see that this is essentially the same man – a self centered individual who does not listen to advice; one who is keen to only have yes-men around him; an egocentric man who is intolerant of criticism. The main loser in the process is Malawi's democracy, which, as a close friend of mine said recently, is on life-support.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Let us revisit the issue of a maximum age limit for the President in Malawi

Examining initially the gross changes which occur in the brain with ageing, it can be observed that the normal volume and weight of the adult brain begins to decrease from about 50 years of age. This is due to a reduction in the number of cells in a wide area of the brain: the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus, the substantia nigra, and the cerebellum....". - Martin Blanchard

Some years back, I presented a paper at the Constitutional Review Conference on the Presidency in Malawi (the paper can be accessed on this link). One of the topics I touched on in that presentation was whether Malawi should consider introducing a maximum age limit for the office of president. Although there were several issues that I touched on in my presentation, the topic of a maximum age limit elicited the most comments and discussion. I found it interesting that while many justified the retention of the minimum age limit of 35 on account that one's mental faculties are not fully developed before this age, the proposal for a maximum age limit was resoundingly shot down (although in a later anonymous survey of key political leaders, there was overwhelming support for the proposal).
Anyway, why bring this issue up again now? Much as I respect our traditions and value the wisdom that comes with old age, I am sorry to say, a series of decisions and pronouncements by our President has started to make me wonder if he is not losing it.
During the period 2004 and 2009, the president made a number of rather wacky decisions that we thought could be explained by the pressure of working in a political environment dominated by a very pesky opposition (which by the way, he rubbished on numerous occasions).
Some groups of people were accused of plotting a coup against him, while yet others, including the presidents' own deputy at the time, were accused of planning to assassinate him . Civil society leaders, the media, the judiciary, his vice president, his predecessor as President were all accused of one thing or another and publicly chastised by the man. Those of us in academia were similarly dressed down, warned that we could be replaced on a count of three . And there were business leaders who were also hounded by the President for daring to go against his decrees (remember the issue of the tobacco prices and how some CEOs of tobacco companies were deported from the country on orders from the President?)

Come this second term, the man was given a commanding parliamentary majority and yet his eccentric behaviour seems here to stay. Perhaps we should have seen the warning signs earlier when he embraced the establishment of the Mulhako wa Alhomwe to champion the course of his Lhomwe ethnic group instead of becoming a champion of the all-inclusive ethnicity of 'Malawi'.
A few months back he not only ordered the re-introduction of the quota system for university selection, but he went out in public to lambast critics of the new policy which he justified by claiming that it is a way to neutralize what he alleges were the advantages that people from the region of Malawi were getting through some corner of the Chancellor College campus!
In recent times, he has spearheaded the change of the national flag under the false illusion that Malawi has transited from the dawn of development to a full blown developed nation deserving of a full sun (although the white star on the 'new' flag looks like the moon than sun!) Those of us who have been critical of the flag change have meanwhile been ridiculed as drunkards (talk of irony!).

The President is also not content with silencing critics and trumping on the already weak opposition. Instead, he has gone further to embarrass its leadership by ordering a significant reduction in the salary of the Leader of Opposition. A week later, he decides to bring his wife into cabinet - which presumably means she gets all the perks of a full cabinet minister (read that as a Mercedes Benz and a 4 x 4 vehicle, a plush office and salary to boot). Well, perhaps the savings made from reducing the salary of the leader of opposition can be used to pay for part of the salary of the new Minister of Safe motherhood!
In between, he has also tried to incite mob action by not only calling for the deportation of the couple whose dog bit the family's long-serving guard, but he has also tried to frame the matter within the context of race (never mind that dogs are almost colour blind!). Malawi's traditional donors too have borne the blunt of the President's hallucinations. Oh, and by the way, his current deputy - handpicked by none other than the president himself - seems to be falling out of favour (and her predecessor too suffered a similar fate)
Given that there is now no opposition to worry about, why does our President continue to see ghosts where there are none? Why can't a man in his final term of office not seek to build a legacy of a unifier instead of the increasingly divisive character he has become?
As we all get older, sadly, we begin to lose our mental capacities. This is a fact of science. It is perhaps high time we considered bringing back the maximum age limit. But then, as someone once said, every mad man thinks that everyone else is mad. It is perhaps my own madness that makes me think that our country's politics is being led by mad people.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Development ? What Development? An ode to the real Malawi flag

Sometimes we Malawians behave as if we do not know what else is happening outside our borders.
The country builds a simple parliament building (with loan funds), a short dual carriage way, a hotel (where the majority of our 13 million people will never sleep in). Throw in a couple of promises of a 'dream' waterway to the Indian Ocean- we all scramble to give titles to the man in State House- who is already handsomely paid to do his job!

I have not traveled much in the world, so I cannot claim that we all the least developed country in the world. But this much I know - I have been to South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Senegal on this beautiful continent of ours- and I can say that while poverty does exist in all those countries, my beloved Malawi is behind all of them in terms of visible infrastructural development.
A single hotel, a new parliament building, a few dual carriage way roads here, a uranium mine there and a few patched up roads scattered around don't mean we have all of a sudden overcome all our myriad development challenges, let alone the grinding poverty.
Which is why I am, if you can excuse my French, pissed off that the Malawi government has bulldozed this flag change on the pretext that the country has made significant developmental achievements especially under the term of the current occupant in State House.
My patriotism always longs for a better Malawi. Whatever little achievements we have made, they are just a step towards a far much better Malawi. Which is why this blog will always fly the true flag of Malawi, with its rising sun as a beckon of a new and better day.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The sports fan side of me

Ok, here are a couple of pictures from my attendance at sports events this last year. Enjoy
First, Football (the US version!)

1. MSU v Montana State September 2009. The two teams take to the field (victory for MSU)
2. Half Time of MSU V Montana State

3. Basketball: MSU v IPFW, December 20094. Basketball: MSU V Northwestern (Jan 2010) another win!5. Basketball Whiteout: MSU v Purdue (Feb. 2010 - sadly, a loss for MSU)

The Madness of Malawi politics and my political disillusionement...

In recent weeks, I have had to explain to a couple of friends why this blog is not being regularly updated. Many reasons really...
The pressure of academic work: As my studies at Michigan State draw to a close, I find myself focusing more on my research work on Personal Rule and Presidential Term Limits in Africa. Besides taking a big chunk of my time, the study is focused on all of Africa. Given the Malawi-centric nature of this blog, it is really difficult to bring in material from my research onto this forum...at the moment at least.
.....and then there is the issue of my spending inordinate amounts of time on sports - College Basketball, American Football (yes, even that!), the NBA, the English Premiership, and now, the World Cup (Actually, I will be posting a few pictures on the sight from some of the sports games attended this last year)
Other than work, I must say I have recently become more and more disillusioned about Malawi politics: a rubber stamp Parliament that has been reduced to leadership-glorification chamber; blatant disregard of court decisions by government; an inept opposition that is completely lost when one is needed most; a crack down on rights (minority rights as well as freedoms of expression and speech, children rights etc); stupid decisions such as the plans to change the national flag; overzealous government zealots who know not the bounds of their authority; the quota system....the list goes on.
I am even more depressed to see the limited critique of government, from civil society activists, fellow academics to the common people. It is as if we are all in a trance. Excuse me for my inability to speak out for there is simply too much to speak out on and very little time and space to do so.
But then the patriot in me feels I have to speak my mind and I will. Meanwhile, let me salute the few but brave sons and daughters of Malawi who still speak and write about the political challenges we are encountering. You will be heard.

Friday, May 28, 2010

One year on- thinking aloud on the first anniversary of Mutharika’s second term

How time flies. It is already more than a year since Bingu wa Mutharika stood at the Kamuzu Stadium podium, Bible in hand and took the oath of the President of the Malawi Republic for a second time. With the passage of one year, Mutharika has already spent 20 percent of his second term, leaving only four more years before he can pass on the presidential torch to a new leadership.

Speaking to the multitudes of Malawians gathered at the Kamuzu stadium on May 22, 2009, it was clear that President Mutharika saw his and the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) victory in the 2009 general elections as a reward for the achievements he had attained in the preceding five years. And in true adherence to the old Chewa proverb that claims "fumbi ndiwe mwini", Mutharika highlighted in his inaugural speech what he claimed were the achievements of his first administration from 2004 to 2009.

The public applauded, sang, drank, danced and went home, jubilant that not only had Mutharika been given a fresh five-year mandate, but also that his DPP had emerged with a huge parliamentary majority that would, on paper at least, enable Mutharika to purse his developmental agenda without the kind of shackles that had been a characteristic of the opposition-dominated Parliament between 2004 and 2009.

One year on though, the excitement has began dissipating. The optimism of May 2009 is gradually being replaced by a sense of a President who is increasingly out of touch with the people he is supposed to represent. In the last year, the most notable of the president's handwork has been the purchase of the presidential jet as well as the recent multi-million Kwacha wedding whose total cost, as well as who paid for it, still remain unclear to date.

Meanwhile in the National Assembly, there is a sense that despite the huge DPP majority, the Parliament has not lived up to expectation. In the absence of a strong and robust opposition, laws are being passed without adequate scrutiny. Meanwhile, there is a fear that the ruling party's huge parliamentary majority is being used to advance the interests of the DPP at the expense of democratic values and the interests of the country.

While the political game plays out, the ordinary people of Malawi, those individuals that were courted by the political elites to sacrifice their time and resources to stand on long queues and expose themselves to the elements in order to cast their votes in the May 19th elections, have become rank-outsiders, forgotten and discarded until such a time when politicians will again want their votes as the 2014 elections loom closer.

This scenario often leads to regular discussions on the value of the vote. In buses, markets, churches, stores, football stadiums, drinking joints and other similar places, one hears a common question: why vote, especially considering that very little returns accrue to the voting public.

Indeed, within political science, the question on why individuals bother to take time off from what would otherwise be more self-benefitting activities in order to cast their votes, has led many researchers on electoral behavior to conclude that voting is an irrational activity. Put differently, rational individuals should abstain from voting, especially since besides the economic costs, there is an extremely little likelihood that the vote of a single individual can influence the electoral outcome.

Yet, democracy rests on the foundations of people's vote, even if theory tells us doing so is irrational. And thankfully, most of us continue to exercise our right to vote, in part because we see voting first, as a civic duty, but also as an opportunity to influence government policy by choosing individuals and parties that we think are best placed to advance our personal interest to the extent that those are also the interests of the majority of our country-folk.

If voting is a civic duty, then, it follows that those elected into power have a responsibility to the voters to deliver on their promises. Elections, in other ways, entail a form of a contract, where voters put individuals into office and expect them to honour their campaign pledges. Meanwhile, the voters' role goes beyond simply voting to include a duty of holding those elected into various public offices to deliver on their promises. Without such scrutiny, politicians will promise anything, including the moon, even if they know they cannot deliver.

It is in in-line with the foregoing that it might be worth to remind ourselves at this point, the one-year anniversary of the DPP's and Mutharika's electoral victory in the 2009 elections, what the DPP government promised and to start the process of assessing where we currently stand.

In his 20-page inaugural speech on May 22, 2009, Mutharika identified eight themes from the DPP manifesto as priority areas in his second administration. These included agriculture and food security; integrated rural development; education, science and technology; youth development; transport infrastructure development; irrigation and water development; energy development; and fighting corruption.

The one priority area that has arguably received the greatest attention in the last one year has been agriculture, especially with regard to the continuation of the agricultural subsidy component which has been instrumental in ensuring food security in recent years.

However, while the president continues to bask in the popularity of the agricultural input subsidies, he needs to be reminded, as do all Malawians, that the 2009 DPP manifesto promised a more comprehensive agricultural programme that also included promises to introduce and promote modern agricultural tools and equipment as well as the development of an agricultural green belt. Suffice it to say that these promises have been honored more in rhetoric and less in actual deeds.

While it seems a great idea to promise so much during elections campaign, there is very little movement in actual delivery on many of the other eight priority areas. Most of the road construction has stalled, perhaps waiting for the next electoral campaign cycle; the energy sector continues to be beset by numerous challenges as demonstrated by the frequency of electricity blackouts and fuel shortages in the country. Meanwhile, the promises of dams as part of the irrigation and water development sub-theme have remained nothing more than glossy words printed in on expensive campaign manifesto paper read by only a few elites.

Admittedly, one year of five is too soon to make a final judgment on the overall government performance. The direction taken in the past one year, can, however, serve as a useful pointer on where we are headed in the remaining four years. The only way Malawi is going to progress is not through promises borne out of colourful dreams by politicians. Already, we have, as country, seen how some colourful dreams remain nothing more than mere dreams.

We Malawian voters need to do our part in the electoral contract – if politicians are to be judged by their performance, then we need to hold them to account on their promises and call them out when they fail to deliver. And when they do not deliver, we should boot them out and reject any other new promises because these are likely to be false too. The past, in this sense, should give us the basis to decide on the future. That future, meanwhile, can itself be shaped by today's voter vigilance.