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A Hope for a Miracle in Malawi’s 23-Year Old Democracy

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Patricia Kaliati, Photo by Face of Malawi

Many times when Hon. Patricia Kaliati’s lips begin to move, it is time for every Malawian to run and hide.

On 8 March 2016, Nyasatimes reported Mrs. Kaliati’s sentiments, in reference to the persistent calls to abolish the Decent and Affordable Housing Subsidy Programme, as a way to avert a MK7 billion (approximately $10 million) disaster headed in Malawi's way. To this, she reasoned that these appeals would best be addressed through the reallocation of the benefits towards constituents that support the government. This, of course, may well be considered one of many careless statements our political system is so attuned to in the course of the hard-won democracy that Malawians received in June 1993. And, indeed, as you will see, this article is not about Mrs. Kaliati, but of a much deeper problem in Malawi’s democracy.

Some things seem not to change – from whichever angle one tries to see it. Much of Mrs. Kaliati’s utterance is a reflection of our understanding of democracy and the missed opportunities that a democratic dispensation is expected to deliver to its citizens. Although some see wisdom in such statements, it is clear they are using it as a soft cushion for their insatiable thirst for aggrandizement and the enjoyment of power. Unfortunately, the costs are too big to bear any longer.

A painful and long 23 years of democracy in Malawi are yet to see the political system truly representing the will of the masses. In part, this is because we have instead only cut dictatorship into five-year chunks separated by an electoral process as our blueprint for democratic practice. This consequently implies that we are only geared to celebration of small wins (those practically attainable only within a five-year period) and foregoing the large long-term gains that we would make with a 'national' strategy as the Vision 2020. Yet, we find ourselves praising leaders for executing the work they are already expected to be doing, giving them little impetus to exceed expectations. It is not by chance, then, that we have narrowed our longer-term aspirations to consumption rather than production, to trading rather than creating opportunities for innovation.

An accidental shortcoming of our democratic system ushered Malawi into tasting the five-year stint of prosperity with Bingu wa Mutharika, which only manifested the sheer possibility that Malawians can take charge of their own development and, with even a little dose of political will, can realize progress. It remains the only glimmer of hope that shall stay in people’s memories, and for many, more than they would ever come to experience in the reality of their lifetime. An important lesson that we learnt from this stint was the regime’s imperviousness to ethnic, political and other differences. As many pleasantly realized, the political system seemed, for the first time, to work for all. Five years later, evidenced by the voter turnout in 2009, democracy confirmed that the will of the masses could breathe life to a new Malawi full of energy to receive its glittering future.

The honeymoon lasted all too short a time.

By 2010, Malawi had evidently failed to embrace one important lesson from the fact that a sustained display of “the work of my hands” could nurture the populace's favourability of the political system. From lavish weddings, relocation of university projects, nepotistic tendencies in the governance architecture, to the belief in the god-send were all robust enough to steer the nation towards sure disaster. That sudden loss of hope disenfranchised many that had their faith in the ability of politics as the resilient vehicle to drive livelihoods from one success to another. Our political masters had long forgotten that adding fuel and oil to the engine called government was probably all they needed to do to prolong the glory years that were critical to their survival.

In 2016, while one ponders where the source of pride in presiding over poverty, perennial outcries and mediocrity lies, it is shame that continues to characterize the raison d’être of many a Malawian in this age.

Nothing seems to change. Many faces in political circles that Malawi’s millennials see today were there when they were toddlers. Some wear the cloak of opposition and promise to deliver assurances they have not delivered in over 50 years they have been on the scene. Scandal and questionable logic in the opposition machinery are at an impressive scale, and reflect the same fears that we see in those in power today. A change of regime in Malawi now only holds promise to color coat the same patterns that we painfully continue to observe.

Something’s gotta give.

The saying “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the next best time is now” remains an age-old adage bearing meaning for times to come. It is not enough to watch, kick back and relax when our children’s futures are being experimented their way into jeopardy. The sad reality is that the joint pains we enjoy with our children today, will surely only get worse tomorrow.

As a country, we need to urgently let go of the mentality that “remaining in power until 2024” is that sole salvation the country is yearning for, instead of inspiring new knowledge and ambition and reversing the diminishing sense of pride in being Malawian. We can guarantee that this shift in thinking is what will make any political party a force to reckon with as we rewrite our history. The myopia of clinging to power for all the leaders that have gone by, and worrisomely evident in the incumbent regime, will not develop Malawi. There is no room for leaders to tolerate irresponsibility, even among their own.

We need to wake up to a new era where there is reason to step out of our houses to face the challenges of the new day in an office or trade that is geared to delivering change for more than one person – for everyone. A change that gives Mrs. Kaliati’s lips a time to pause and take a step back to listen to the rationale behind the voices contradicting her government’s campaign for unproductive public investments.

Malawians, ourselves, are by no surprise part of the big picture problem. Relishing on nonsense cuts very deep into our souls. The power of the collective is what the democracy we brought into our country was meant to bring. We have now succeeded at succumbing to the power of the few elites holding (our) wealth and of those holding political power while we mask this with our devotion to a vote we cannot defend in its stead. We have failed to defend a vote gutted by fire at an Electoral Commission warehouse in a contested election process. Our timidity at challenging the political system, in such occasions, with our lives is a pathogen that runs in our societies. Again, Mrs. Kaliati is right when she brands the unpatronized civil society demonstrations as “pathetic” in the face of all demonstrations.

Working Malawians need to realize that the government cannot fire all Malawians if we only challenge the reasoning behind the commissioning of development projects, particularly those that our great grandchildren will be burdened with lifetimes of amortizations to foreign banks. We need to remember that mobilizing ourselves at instilling accountability today will likely reap benefits for many of us before we retire into history. The enjoyment of prosperity in the 2004-2009 period quite supports this belief.

That miracle we hope for does not begin in the OPC at Capital Hill. It does not end at the polling booth, but only starts there.

It begins with us.

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