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"


Unknown said...

A very good analysis of chiefs. They can really be seen rebels of the multitudes since almost all chiefs carry views contrary to common belief as indicated.but how best can the democratic institutions be sustained in a highly illiterate society like malawi.

David Kayuni said...

I find the extreme switch by the prof to be interesting. Every time I see the blame being put on Chiefs I wonder whether that would help anything. For me I insist that politicians are big big culpits in all this but also the rules governing our society.

There is need to review the institutional setting in Malawi because of existing institutional conflict and vagueness. An example of vagueness is the requirement for traditional leaders to ‘serve government of the day’. This would also help in controlling conduct of traditional leaders but also offer concrete basis for addressing people’s concerns on this leadership’s involvement in politics.

Traditional leadership has shown signs of strong resilience and adaptability to the changing times. It has survived within different political regimes. Despite the controversies it brings to democracy, it still enjoys notable support. In addition some people would want its influence to grow and that these leaders should have a sit at the district assemblies. People’s interest in maintaining traditional leadership cannot be answered by abolishing it in Malawi.

It is a fact that continued existence of traditional leadership brings with it some challenges to democracy. Different factors are to blame for this including politicians who have perpetrated the same by failing to develop an institutional setting that guides traditional leadership to positively contribute in a democracy. They have instead capitalised on manipulating this leadership using its traditional powers to consolidate their own power. There is need therefore to harmonise the institutional setting in a way that clearly guides roles of traditional leadership in democratic Malawi. It means that that the 1967 chiefs act among others is outdated and needs a thorough review.

There also seems to be no good reason apart from purposes of control that traditional leadership has remained directly under the Office of the President and Cabinet in Malawi. The drive towards decentralization should ensure that these leaders identify more with the district assemblies and not the central government. This would possibly help to take them off the political trap they are in by taking off the central government’s direct enthronement, dethronement and elevation powers over this leadership. Personal gains that motivate traditional leadership into politics like ‘the gifts’ during campaign periods can as well be defined along the lines of corruption. It would be helpful if rules regarding corruption were made clear especially for the campaign period.

Legislation clearly defining the role of traditional leadership would help guide conduct of this leadership. In essence, if indeed there is public consensus in Malawi that traditional leadership should remain politically neutral, a law clearly stipulating the same would be helpful.

Unlike those that solely focus on blaming traditional leadership, I am of the view that other political actors and factors share the blame on traditional leadership’s conduct.

Politicians as manipulators of traditional leadership should share the blame of its conduct. This calls for a rethink on the way forward. It highlights the fact that politicians may as well also manipulate any other institution and still confuse democracy, but it does not follow either that in that case there should be no politician in a democracy. Mamdani (1996) and other scholars’ solution (including Chinsinga new stance) therefore do not fully solve matters. Much as getting rid of confusing institutions of leadership sounds straightforward and attractive, it also has wider negative implications for the society. An example would be the gap that would be created by removal of the traditional leadership institution. It operates in an environment where the people consider it as ‘real leadership of the community’ (Chinsinga 2006).