Has Malawi’s Independence only liberated us into instruments of the ballot?
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Written in commemoration of Malawi's 54th Independence
In the inevitable discourse on Malawi’s state of maturity as an independent nation, someone asserted on social media that it is not important to use independence celebrations as a stocktaking opportunity about where we stand developmentally. Rather, he ranted to all the skeptics of the worth in celebrating a country headed for a downfall, a better use of our time as citizens is to use the occasion to celebrate the heroes and heroines who fought so hard to earn us the ability to rule ourselves. According to him, it did not matter whether we were going to lead ourselves to ultimate ruin. That would only be a consequence of free will. Just as manifested by the Mzuzu Independence Celebration banner!
In a matter-of-factly way, he was right. However, this website reckons the inevitability of celebrating the 6th of July by pondering deeply and hard on what the freedoms of self-rule mean to the quality of life, a very obvious product of almost every birthday celebration. Indeed, two main political economies have been born, nurtured and applied since the so-called Malawian independence in 1964: the first, a sort of socialist regime that was chaperoned by the long arm of dictatorship. It worked. And the second, an open democracy that came with too many freedoms that kept us warm enough to continue investing confidence in a system that has hardly worked for the masses. It is from this existential question vis-à-vis today’s democratic dispensation that this Independence Day article departs.
Probably the only and genuinely free and fair elections Malawi has ever had comprise the 1993 Referendum and the first multiparty elections in May 1994. And, although managed by a political party and government that ostensibly had much to lose in case of failure to clinch the popular vote, the Malawi Congress Party government graciously handed the reigns to a clueless yet jubilant Bakili Muluzi, ushering the country into an abyss that would only be filled with great anxiety for years to come. The machinations every subsequent government has orchestrated since the 1994 vote have been worthy of only one thing, which is our unavoidable loss of confidence in politics and government. In this vein, our challenges transcend corruption, which is only a manifestation of a decayed system of institutions that, according to this website, should really be an easy fix. “Easy” because all it will take to eliminate corruption is a political will to rid our public system of the appetite to reward mediocrity while strengthening institutions even at the risk of one’s loss of executive authority. Or some good friends. A really hard sell for many political party contesting in 2019!
In our article of February 27, 2017, we discussed an important foundation to our current state of degradation of which our habitual political, economic and social errors are merely manifestations of the electorate’s state of mind. Embracing democracy without fully understanding what it means for us if we are to stride forward, Malawians repeatedly rise to the polls every five years to make choices that will end up hurting them, their children and their great grandchildren. The rationale behind the choices is usually petty. In some instances, we elect leaders that identify with our tribal belonging, while in many others reason abounds in the foolish admiration of the industriousness of thieves. Because their lifestyles are beyond our own means. And that we are not too careful to examine the implications of voting greed into our government offices on our healthcare, education and employment, just to name a few key bare necessities.
This is why talking about our Independence exclusively from development conveniently conceals an honest assessment of the multiplicity of errors we have made as free people. For it is one thing if our country were in the fragile state it is – although Peter Mutharika and Goodall Gondwe would rather you know how Malawi has never been in better shape – under the tight grip of foreign oppression. But to make the sort of judgements we have made on investment, governance, agriculture (and its subsidies), infrastructure (and its ESCOM), national security, financing hospitals, etc., as a free people, shows how shallow the true meaning of the freedoms we fought for is. And yet, in an election year like this one, we are attuned to the same rhetoric geared to court our vote beyond anything else. And prediction may very well go with the possible outcome of maintaining the status quo.
We, instead, have excelled at having and acute limitation to learn. Not at passing exams but being really educated about things. Even as more of us go through the corridors of universities today or being led (twice) by presidents who have lived and accustomed to the sweet smell of development, we still enjoy the pleasure of bowing to half-baked jobs that any sweet-talking politician will have done. We learn nothing about demanding high standards from the people we elect into office at all levels of governance. And our institutions are quick to understand that jailing an influential politician is not a good idea, even when the jailer will be having a relative dying at a public hospital because the resources they could use to buy the right medication was re-routed to the politician’s pockets.
So, our Independence commemoration will remain a constant nudge to keep aiming for the triumph over the poor quality of life that both the poor and the well-off experience in our dear country today. Our true independence is still barred by the sort of evils our National Anthem keeps insinuating when it sings of hunger, disease and envy, all of which have been effective drivers of extensive corruption. Our fight for independence seems not over. It seems to have not ended at when we were done with the almost 70-year rebellion against British rule that John Chilembwe and others before him launched in the early 1900s, but one that firmly manifests as a battle we must fight against the side of our free selves that needs to address our indecency.
So, here we are. Fifty-four good years of self-rule, half a century in which every single day has been a fresh opportunity to change our country for the better. That is approximately 18 thousand days of opportunity to add value to our every effort. Our only unbeaten record remains the multiplication of our offspring. Yet, today, we appear to be deeper in need of a foreign power with perhaps a similar ambition to colonize (as the United Kingdom did) if our baby steps to development would ever bear fruit. As a nation, we are left with more desire for change we can only hope for than the capacity to make the change we want to see. To this day, if your name does not amount to much in the in the realms of the country’s elite, your odds of a life of dreams and a secure future of your children stand highly against you.
But, since 1993, the miracle of democracy granted us a tool to solve every one of our collective challenges that was not accessible during Kamuzu’s life presidency. The vote. And how we use it next year matters dearly if our independence celebrations will be filled with a different story.