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Malawi's 53 Years of Loyalty to the Ancients

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Published in celebration (or not) of Malawi's 53 years of independence!

In 1994, Malawi had the opportunity to marshal in an aspirational future, fully latched to the individual and collective freedoms that would bring the robust development the Malawi Congress Party’s (MCP) three-decade rule had failed to deliver. We, instead, elected an old timer in the name of Elesoni Bakili Muluzi, whose political resume was filled with 30 years of the ruses of the MCP’s dictatorial rule. In other words, Mr. Muluzi would not fathom much beyond the blueprint of the MCP’s ‘handbook of leadership.’ Nonetheless, on Mr. Muluzi’s shoulders, we happily heaved the burden of bringing us the change we keenly anticipated. In this year’s 53rd independence celebration, or 23 years down the multiparty trail, this error could never be clearer before us.

President Muluzi will so far rank as the youngest leader Malawi has ever elected (see Figure immediately below). Normally, a good thing. To date, this is a major variance with the rest of his peers we have welcomed to the office of the Presidency. The other presidents, well, not as akin to youthfulness as one may like. The similarity they share is one of having experienced Malawi’s revolutionary and independence days, a factor that today, makes Mr. Muluzi appear just an element of history on Malawi’s “hierarchy of wisdom” as the rest.

Between 1958, when a 'youngish' Dr. Kamuzu Banda arrived to fire up the national momentum against oppressive colonial rule; and 1966, when he was installed the first President of the Republic, all past and present presidents Malawi has registered ever lived to tell the tale. Many Malawians under the age of 20, then, Mr. Muluzi, the two Mutharika brothers and Mrs. Joyce Banda being no exception, experienced the fascination of the unprecedented changes the country went through. And so they are, today, Malawi’s senior citizens well in their twilight years. Our beacons of wisdom.

To the younger generations, these leaders remain the only generation that has had a major opportunity to develop Malawi. Yet, the Malawi they will leave behind is one of increasing aesthetic shame, economic and social degradation, and poised to take us to a place fast becoming all so familiar: doom. The icing on the top of this narrative is how this older generation remains very much the apex of power, five decades after we gained our independence. And severally we have wondered why nothing seems to improve, when, as the figure below demonstrates, we seem to lean towards leaders whose experiences resonate with Malawi's darker past.

It is no wonder that visionaries and nation builders, in other places where development success has happened, were intimately concerned with legacies they would build for future generations. They not only witnessed physical and mental maturity; they have also found ways of preserving their cultures amidst the modern allures of development. Some have shared their successes and cultures with the rest of the world, in part to celebrate their journey, and in part to influence yet other peoples.

In Malawi, however, legacy is a notion stuck to paper and hovers in ideological realms, while leadership has had little pride in forging a legacy that forms the building blocks of a prosperous nation. Fifty-three years on, a cadre of silver-lined leaders parade the highest and most demanding offices that determine the future of Malawi, the scary prospect being the tendency to continue applying tools and principles that only worked in the olden days. Even petrifying, their only basis for comparison is how different Malawi looks today from the young, naïve country they saw immediately after independence (see Malawi’s impression at 10 years of independence in this feature's picture above). They see great advancement. Which many of us will not have the opportunity to cherish.

Data from the World Bank and UNDP

The evidence of their legacy is appalling. With the aid of these visionaries, Malawi’s biggest achievement has been the transformation from self-sufficiency to dependency on other nations who grow weary by the day of our never-ending troubles. The graph above illustrates clearly how we have, except for three years, failed to free ourselves from food imports in our democracy years, while our economy has stagnated and even fallen at the turn of 2016. No Malawian wants to know what the curve would look like once the recent #Maizegate import numbers are factored in for 2017. On the side of politics, the rhetoric has habitually consisted of high praise of leaders for championing economic development and growth – a successful fight against the vices gripping the country as a result of either opposing views or bad luck (also brought by those in opposition). It is scarcely about the systemic factors gifting us these statistics.

Of superior concern, however, should be the growing levels of income inequality, which is a manifestation of shrinking economic opportunities to support even basic livelihoods. Although available data covers only six years since 2010, the relentless growth of income inequality is a good proxy of how very few Malawians are enjoying at the expense of the masses. Unfortunately, this narrows the prospects for the economic activity needed to keep the economy vibrant, as much as it indicates some worrisome issues. First is how the system has eventually conformed to serving the needs of the rich and powerful, through the destruction of a once formidable education system, the only sure gateway for many poor Malawians towards economic justice and security. And, while not belaboring the point, corruption ranks very highly among explanatory factors of the transfer of resources from the poor to the rich.

Why do we ask, then, how we recently claimed a top position on the pack of least developed nations in the world?

The cause of all the stagnation and regression has mainly been one of Malawi’s religious loyalty to the past, and resistance to a future that adapts to the shifting tectonics of global development. The same generation of Malawi’s visionaries, during this time, has benefitted from envious education and an exposure to the world, and to all the opportunities for learning that could have been applied back home. Yet, all the evidence seems to show that they have learnt very little from development success stories in the lure of the comfort they have enjoyed in leadership. Such idleness has bred in them another major problem.

These post-colonial boomers failed to unite Malawians of all tribes and clans, and rather chose to draw the lines that keep showing every time contemporary Malawians have an opportunity to comment on social and electronic media. Ethnicity was invoked in defense of self during Hon. George Chaponda’s (also in the league of old timers) Parliamentary hearing on his role in #Maizegate. Sadly, the one thing many of our old timers have accomplished should be the expansion of ethnic exclusion among their younger generations, which has assumed center stage in key development matters.

But District or Regional boundaries are not a credible tool for favoritism in Malawi’s development. It is almost foolish when measured against the unified political structure we have, as opposed to a federal state, because inconsistencies of development in one area impacts the gains of development in another. Indeed, five decades after independence, it sounds like great use of time to castigate each other on tribal lines, instead of celebrating our diversity and demonstrating how the collective has potential to nurture a robust labor force geared to tackle the challenges poverty presents in a changing world.

To all lovers of progress, the age of political leaders is probably no reason to despair. But it matters for a developing poor country as ours. And it seems reasonable in our case, especially seeing how all our dictatorial and post-dictatorial leaders have exhibited the same affinity to dictatorial tendencies, love for personal aggrandizement, and praise in the face of so little ambition. There is an obvious swing in perspective our leadership needs to espouse so time is expended on issues that matter, and matter to all Malawians.

There must be a turning point. It starts with embracing this gullibility to an ancient code of management that has proven, now for 53 years, that Malawi will not advance beyond one vicious cycle of poverty and social degradation to another. And it should reflect willingness to shift the population, 64% of which is youthful, from the cunning reliance on a leadership style that should remain in history.

The question of what legacy the old timers leave behind to us should be left to them to answer. We, on the other hand, should wonder how this year’s independence celebrations should be built on how we need not suck at governing ourselves.


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