Updated: Jan 20, 2020
Dr. Saulos Klaus Chilima must be applauded for taking responsibility and apologising for the ruffing up of Malawi Electoral Commission (EC) reporter, George Banda, by some members of his United Transformation Movement (UTM) on 6th February 2019 at the COMESA Hall in Blantyre. This was the day the UTM presidential candidate presented his nomination to the EC to compete in the forthcoming tripartite elections. Luckily for Mr. Banda, he was treated at QECH as an outpatient. Nonetheless, the actions of this day have shown that some members of the Party are yet to embrace the ‘transformation’ they stand for and represent neither change nor transformation from the status quo.
With the 21st May elections around the corner, there have already been many reported cases of political violence and it is feared that, if a casual approach is taken, this may become the order of the day. To mind comes the recent violent attacks on a Malawi Congress Party (MCP) supporter in Blantyre and two UTM supporters in Mangochi, which included the shameful undressing of a woman. These are among the cases almost every political leader has strongly condemned yet for which none had either taken responsibility or apologised to the victims and the nation.
Incidents of political violence are not new to Malawi. Ever since attaining democracy, overzealous individuals have risen above the law and committed acts of terror on political opponents or those with opposing views, with a blessing of their superiors. The Young Democrats of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Youth Cadets of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have made for themselves quite a reputation in this regard. And yet, in all the over twenty years of democracy, it has been so rare, if at all, to hear of an apology on such actions. If anything they are celebrated. The fire is further funnelled by just as overzealous party elites.
Memories are still fresh on the minds of many Malawians of the pictures of panga-wielding DPP Youth Cadets driving around the streets of Blantyre on 19th July 2011, a day before the famous nationwide anti-government demonstrations. This was aimed at intimidating would-be demonstrators. These cadets were actually seen and pictured driving around in a DPP vehicle and the best the DPP could do was to distant itself from the incident. To this day, the nation has received no apology on this terrifying behaviour that could take us back to the reign of terror. Neither have any promises to deal with the behaviour been made.
It was, thus, a breath of fresh air to witness a political leader taking responsibility and apologising for violence perpetuated by some of its excited members. It helps his case, then, that Dr. Chilima is an ardent preacher and true leader of transformative change. To own up and apologise for the violence that took place at COMESA Hall on that day was not easy, yet it reminded us of the meaning to serve. And such transformation is an ideal our society must conform to, where political tolerance truly happens. He did not wait to get into government to change things. When the opportunity to demonstrate change presented itself, he seized it. In his letter to the MISA Malawi Chapter Chairperson, Dr. Chilima expressed his utter disgust and shock over the incident. “I am truly sorry,” he remorsefully wrote. Dr. Chilima, among all others, has walked his transformation talk. He - even pledged compensation for the loss of a mobile phone and cash that Mr. Banda suffered. By this, he has given hope for a better Malawi.
Save for one thing: he made a qualified apology. It only applies to MISA Malawi and its members. As for the rest of us, it’s no apology.
In the supposedly well-intentioned letter of apology, Dr. Chilima states that the incident emanated from a case of mistaken identity. What is this supposed to mean? Was there someone else as the right target for the assault? Had the assault been on any one of the general population, would it have been okay? It’s a “sorry, but not sorry” situation that we found ourselves in. Sorry MISA. But not sorry to the rest of you. Target or not, violence is a crime and needs to be punished.
While government will itself not be without blemish, Dr. Chilima gave it the right fodder to jump on the juicy error without any delay. He had provided the opportunity to rightfully interrogate Dr. Chilima’s position to name the intended target of the assault. Of course, government will capitalize on every blunder a political adversary makes, especially UTM, considering how much a threat the ‘rebel’ that Chilima is to it. Yet that does not take away the legitimacy of the question of “who was the target of the assault, Dr. Chilima?” And despite the demand for clarification and criticisms from even well-meaning Malawians on this careless statement, neither Dr. Chilima nor the party’s spokesperson has come out to provide clarification on the matter. Simply put, no matter who the ‘target’ is, violence has no place in a democratic society. It’s not okay even when it’s targeted.
The silence to clear this mist from UTM is wrong. In some way, it normalizes violence by the UTM, which we know would have been called out – by the same UTM – if it were one masterminded by the DPP or anyone else. But it raises another deep concern in our politics, which is the case of fisi kusintha tchire, where perhaps political culture remains the same (say, same DPP people) under different party colours. Would we be justified to expect that, come May 21, were Chilima to make it to Kamuzu Palace, the status quo would be maintained? Is this transformation talk a mere show meant to hoodwink the desperate-for-change Malawians to vote for them only to turn out as business as usual? Is it not embarrassing that throughout the nominations presentation week, the only incident of violence was registered under the banner of the UTM?
It is actually unsettling that UTM supporters believe that so long an apology was given, it is okay. Yet we know how noisy they would have been if it were the other way round. If it were the DPP, they would have been up in arms demanding clarification and painting them all the devilish colours you can think of. And they would have been right in doing so, because violence is wrong. But now that it is UTM, violence somehow seems okay so long as the victims are not scribes. This is so so bothersome.
In our quest for democratic maturity, we seem to be changing too slowly. As a colleague wrote the other day, “until we learn to criticise even those who we support so much, we are still so far away from where we are supposed to be.” One would have thought that the supporters of UTM are enticed by the party’s ideology of transformation and would, thus, question if things do not reflect the same. But alas! We are the same sorry lot that follows for the sake of following. Either because one is from same district, region or religion as ourselves, or we drink together, or we play golf together, or we were once school mates or college mates.
But before DPP zealots feel vindicated in this isolated instance (cue the DPP spokesperson making a press statement), their contribution to terror has been a notable ordeal for Malawians.
Our country needs real change. And no one will change it for us if we will move forward together as a nation. It’s time we became serious about claiming the change we want to see. We can no longer afford to keep a casual approach to things and, at the same time, feel disparagement for always being at the bottom of every global chart. Save tourism. Calling evil by its name is right but far from adequate. We must demonstrate that we mean it. Any sorry should be sorry, without qualification.
Meanwhile, like in all other cases, we except the law to take its course on the assaulters.