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The Flipside of Malawi’s Educated Elites

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Photo by Malawi Watchdog

5 June 2018, a Tuesday Peter Mutharika promised Malawi would sublime into European-like infrastructural marvel and standards of living, is a sad day to reckon for Malawi’s future. The people at Makuwa Community Day Secondary School in Chiradzulu, who were probably most unfortunate to be the direct recipients of such a lie, even cheered at the prospect that the man murmuring in front of them had the right endowment of a leader who would fiercely transform Malawi. They would not have the knack to ask how this great feat would be undertaken, nor would they question why the past five years of his rule have brought them no closer to this end. If voted into office next year, mark these words, Mr. Mutharika will fine-tune his exact meaning of his utterances of that day.

So goes the lie that Malawians have often been told, one of unrecognizable development that, with the casting of the right ballot, all the troubles of the day would miraculously disperse at the hand of a chivalrous trailblazer. What Mr. Mutharika was coy to reveal to the crowd at Makuwa CDSS, and indirectly to the people of Malawi, was how Malawi had made third on the world ranking for the world’s poorest countries under his watch, news delivered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) barely four days before this glorious day. Such news Mr. Mutharika would find hard to discredit, as the same body that relegated his country would be the same that, a few weeks before, was praising his government by loading him with more loans through the body’s Extended Credit Facility. Mr. Mutharika would not even have the nerve – not even through his wayward finance Minister, Goodall Gondwe – to dispute the IMF’s glaring hypocrisy.

The irony of such courageous emptiness in the promises to a people counting on a miracle defeats the confidence one ought to regard education with. Mr. Mutharika is indubitably one of Malawi’s most-educated, yet the politics he plays compares well to that of many of his friends and foes who’s experience with books falls significantly short. Along with him he tags technocrats who have received the highest academic honors, Mr. Gondwe being an excellent example, and George Chaponda being another. Yet, together they have notably failed to prevent the slide down the gradients of poverty into worse situations than they found when they took to the helm in 2014. Today, among their most proud achievements are corruption scandals they seamlessly maneuver.

The per capita GDP that qualifies us for this abhorrent economic position has fallen to US$342, while under Mr. Mutharika’s public financial management, we have earned an unprecedented US$2.06 billion in external debt alone (in other words, approximately 100% of the national budget). Yet the celebration in having a man so decorated with academic degrees is supposed to be how the piles of academic conquests would enable him to see the iceberg before his ship hits it. The current outlook of his ship, a.k.a. Malawi, is one of steadily being on the path to hitting the iceberg.

Now, available UNESCO data (2015) illustrates that Malawi has only 62.1% of a literate population, the bulk of whom fall between the ages of 15 and 24. Out of Malawi’s literate, a minute proportion enrolls and graduates from tertiary institutions. This makes it possible that Malawi’s people will continue to venerate the credentials of leaders while investing hope in their abilities for some time to come. They will treat with almost godly reverence even the mention of a doctorate degree that is earned by way of honorarium than academic sweat and blood, if they will be lucky to tell the difference. Thus, the credibility of Bakili Muluzi, Shanil Muluzi, Gertrude Mutharika and, more recently, John Zenus Ungapake Tembo, falls in line to assure Malawians of all they are capable of. All the while the genuinely educated, like Mr. Mutharika himself, have taken full advantage with very little else to offer.

Someday this public confidence in leaders parading with credentials will wane. Researchers in Malawi who have had the luck to interact with villagers across the country will tell how they are slowly becoming skeptical of believing everything they hear. The research report following the post-2015 national consultations perfectly revealed the disappointment Malawians had in the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP), a highly politicized program that once factored heavily in how an election would turn out, at least as far as the 2009 elections would demonstrate. The conduct of studies in rural Malawi, where most of the modestly-educated reside, also show how Malawians are beginning to take advantage of what is offered to them in material terms, even when they hold their true feelings and opinion about the viability of what is being promised. The evolution of the work of non-governmental organizations attests to this as they have increasingly seen how difficult social mobilization has become in the absence of food or monetary incentives. This, all because most Malawians may be uneducated but not necessarily willing to play stupid any longer.

The education card will likely lose its value if the results of the efforts of the educated do not transform lives and livelihoods of Malawians. Mr. Mutharika should not carelessly let it get to that, although his noises at Makuwa CDSS show he is more interested in the contrary. The risk he seems to be willing to take is one where the short public confidence in education will cripple the ambition to educate the nation’s young population for the country’s own good for the sake of a vote into comforts of Kamuzu Palace in 2019. His wingmen and women seem resolute to defend this ideology with their lives, with Grizelda wa Jeffrey ranting bosh on the one hand while others like Welani Chilenga of Chitipa probably think Mr. Mutharika has already achieved unprecedented development.

Education should not fail Malawi in spite of the fact that the educated leading the country show our aspirations and desires for better are in limbo at their beck and call. Mr. Mutharika must test the real feeling of the broader Malawian population today to see if he is candidly loved, the easy answer of which is indicated by the rebellion of his own inner circle that would rather bet on Saulos Chilima for the presidency in 2019.

Our President’s address on 5 June should have focused on how hard it is that Malawi will inch towards the collective hopes and dreams. It should have called for collective action to deal with poverty.

But wisdom eludes our dear leader as his cronies shout louder before him, leaving him no choice but follow their bandwagon.

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