Three + One Ways to Look Back at Malawi’s 2017
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
It is already Christmas 2017, and another rough year comes to an end! Our small, but fast-populating country’s scoresheet of troubles grew in both size and quality. Some say we are now a nation of about 17 million individual problems.
On the economic front, the entire sub-Saharan Africa Region was only beginning to pick up after a difficult 2016, when average economic growth stalled (at 1.3%). The low level of economic activity in the Region meant the economic system would not be dynamic enough to meet Malawi’s production with the demand that she needs to keep her head afloat. Low in-country prospects have implied the system could hardly sustain itself beyond life support. Unfortunately, economics has only been one of our numerous problems. A degraded moral standing in business, politics and society hampered the tolerance a social system needs to lubricate development. Much of the positive change was a matter of political rhetoric woven to delude Malawians that all is under control.
There were some successes to take note of. For instance, industry would be at a loss not to celebrate the rebranding of Nali, Malawi’s most-celebrated chili sauce, which, for once, attains the measure of a worthy export. Nali’s bottle’s new look goes a long way towards enjoying the contents. On the social front, T/A Theresa Kachindamoto’s fight against child marriage took to greater awareness heights across the country, and the world. Older men and women shriveled in their cocoons of unwanted inhibition from partaking in rituals that expose young girls to vulnerability. Of course, Thom Chiumia of Nyasatimes being one major exception. Nonetheless, even the President paraded himself as a champion against child marriage, and took a few good pictures for it during his General Assembly participation in September. Some would celebrate the resumption of aid and development loan facilities from The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, particularly if one were frequently clad in the colors of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The icing on political platform was, well, that we saw George Chaponda off the government payroll.
However, there are three main issues that underline 2017, which this website believes require some scrutiny as we look to Malawi’s future. The first of these is the loud outcries of Malawians who have gone too many times without electricity. To reiterate our article of 6 November 2016 on the electricity situation (read it on this link), it goes against every ounce of intelligence that a country with potential of several times the electricity it produces would go without power for extended periods.
The absurdity of the energy situation does not stop at the blackouts that the privileged 9-10% of Malawians enjoy, but lies in the chocking power of outages on industrial growth when Lilongwe’s Area 44 lavishes in switches that always give light when clicked. And while we revel on a vibrant energy policy, the actors that draw a salary to make it work seem to act with much trepidation when it comes to delivery. A more depressing prospect is that the policy was effected in 2003. One self-reflects with much despair what we have been doing for the past fourteen years, investing in hydro-powered electricity generation while we have failed to adequately care for Lake Malawi’s tributary network that supports sufficient water flow. Unfortunately, we do not see this environmental aspect as a crucial piece of the hydro-electricity puzzle. This is besides the alternatives we have, some which are immediately available.
On the second comes an issue about which many ruling politicians quiver with fear as we fast-pace towards 2019, which consists the 50+1 bill particularly for determining presidential elections. For the age of democracy in Malawi, it has been any easy kill for a winning candidate declaring themselves winner using the first-past-the-post standard. But Malawians have grown increasingly uncomfortable submitting to a President whose popularity is lean, as we got awakened by the results of the 2014 presidential election in which Mr. Mutharika’s presidency was going to establish with the backing of a third of the country’s support. Although the 50+1 standard is difficult to attain, let alone costly in the event of a re-run, it is persuasive enough to reasonably justify one’s leadership of a country – what many seem to think may be a more meaningful democratic majority.
The stronger side of the 50+1 principle is the fear of a government losing its grip on at least half of the electorate, which, in itself, may be a reinforcing incentive for accountability to the people it serves. It may also break Regional boundaries on which Bakili Muluzi found himself at the presidential palace in 1994, particularly if securing 50% of the votes requires wooing more than what one’s home Region has on offer. This balance in the electorate may, perhaps, actually be good for the country. Yet the current DPP government, which should know better as most experienced (Bingu wa Mutharika’s second win in 2009), still cringes at the thought of letting the new legislation in when the younger Mr. Mutharika’s 2014 election becomes a reference point.
The final point must do with Malawi’s capacity to avert disaster. Our 13 February article on Malawi’s fragility illustrated the need for institutional strength to manage and regulate action against unexpected events. Reacting to a January 2017 incident on the M1 road in the Northern Region, our main point in the article reflected on the insistence of quality road maintenance, which, at the time, seemed like a wise piece of advice. Unfortunately, recent incidents on the same patch of tarmac have shown how inevitable the relapse of the damage was going to manifest barely a year since we last published. As climatic events continue to intensify, disasters hitting Lilongwe hard this December, disaster relief again did not address the root cause of the problem, which requires better infrastructure projects.
In the hypothetical scenario where Malawi experienced only these three doses of misfortune, they would be enough to derail the economy and dent our social fabric. Take the electricity shortages, for instance, which are likely to affect Malawi’s industry significantly. The lack of power would stifle manufacturing, agricultural, chemical, metals’ and non-metals’ production, a point the Volume 51 (number 2) of the Reserve Bank of Malawi’s Financial and Economic Review attests. Consequently, it is jobs that will face the chop, and in turn tamper with social dynamics. The universal impacts of electricity generation and distribution will surely be a central theme of the 2019 general elections. The country’s opposition parties are capitalizing on it while government is running out of explanations for their persistence. For the coming elections, we may not have to rely on a 50+1 bill for one party to emerge with a large majority, holding many factors constant.
However, it is our weak resilience to shocks that will determine the kind of launchpad our country has for 2018 and in the long term. The damage the unraveling rainy season will have on economy, society and environment has only begun, and remains an important threat in the imminent future.
It will take a government with a resolve to deal away our challenges, too many to mention beyond the three we have dedicated to in this article. The year’s developments seem to suggest the DPP government is ill prepared, or better yet, ill-focused. In the spirit of adding little value to Malawi, our State House is now occupied by two ‘professors.’ While one of the residents may attribute theirs to a PhD, the latter is an honorary endorsement of a job largely undone, and fits among the many unmet accomplishments that our politicians have always anchored their pride in. Including the one with a PhD. But Malawi’s First Lady can surely achieve a lot without a fake professorship. In fact, this website was on the brink of publishing an article to recognize her role in motivating our netballers and schoolgirls among some of the positive things emerging out of her office. Unfortunately, the accordance of an honorary professorship that a Chinese university has been asked to confer vindicates our judgement to rethink the temptation.
The noisemaking that had befallen Malawi upon Mrs. Mutharika’s ‘professorship’ demonstrates our priorities as a nation. A certificate of recognition on a leader when many indicators of progress sniff looming disaster is not only irresponsible for any university to award, but a shame on a country that takes it seriously.
In the time and place Malawi finds itself today, the 3+1 issues in this article should urge us to re-evaluate our goals. Otherwise, we miserably fail as a nation. Such introspection must follow the need to make right what we see overtly off beam, and make an attempt to change course with a sense of urgency.
If not now – as yet another difficult year comes to a close – to reflect, then when?