No place for tribalism in Malawi

Cultural dances

By Greenwell Matchaya:

Tribalism is too bad and laws against it must be enforced when necessary- but the (fake) Chewa Heritage Foundation (Chefo) letter was not tribalistic.

I rarely write on any Malawi matters since June 23 2020 except for formal research pieces, but I think it is important to join the voices that seek to outlaw tribalism as sparked by the (fake) letter from the Chefo. In my view, that letter, whether it is fake or genuine, has come as a blessing so we can debate these issues openly and perhaps at length too.


First, it is important to note that our democracy is founded on the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. It is also founded on the value of non-racialism and non-sexism, supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law, among others.

So, in whatever we do, the key should be to ensure that our actions do not unfairly violate these values. It is thus straightforward to conclude that any conduct that unfairly discriminates a section of the population based on constitutionally listed or non-listed grounds including gender, race and disability tribe, etc is inconsistent with the constitution. Therefore, tribalism is evil, has punished many and must end.

With the above in mind, let us consider the letter allegedly from Chefo (but Chefo has also categorically distanced itself from it) that has sparked controversy among some people. What are the issues? Is it genuine or fake? If it is genuine, why are some people unhappy with it? Is it wrong to have such an undertaking? Are groups like Chefo good? Are they constitutional?


I think answering these questions would be useful in evaluating the seeming despondency. I obviously do not have all answers but I will attempt to discuss them using the law and logic, below. I thus promise that for some of you, this will be good, and yet for some this will be underwhelming. I have no control over that evaluative process, but I just request that where you differ in view, you may offer alternative insights for enrichment of the debate using facts, the law or both, virtuously.

What are the issues?

I have read the letter on Facebook and it calls for members of Chefo to submit the details of their education and experience to certain people in order for the latter to constitute a database of skills existing among Chefo members. The letter does not go further than this and does not say much on other goals.

There is some outcry from people who are not members of Chefo and some who may be. The reasoning behind the outcry appears twofold:

  • From the recent experience with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the seeming tribalism they advanced, those complaining about the letter feel this may be the first step for the Chefo to try and get a foothold in government affairs. This may be a start of them preparing to get organised, something which may lead to the same things we complained about under DPP.
  • The second reason is that we have seen since 1994 that all tribesmen have tended to monopolise opportunities to themselves and their tribes or cronies whenever they have a chance. We do not have to name any specific tribes because it is all of them although degrees differ. On the labour market, it is unlikely that a Lhomwe will easily get a job if the recruiter is non-Lhomwe, and the same applies that if the recruiter is Yao or Tumbuka, the likely people to succeed will not be from outside those tribes, while the probability may also be low for a Chewa recruiter to favour a non-Chewa in some cases and indeed a Chewa stands a zero chance of being favoured by a Lhomwe, Tumbuka, etc.

So, there is chaos of tribes and this appears to be what is sparking fears.

There is some merit in these fears. When you look at the composition of various departments in Malawi, it is easy to see that the selection processes have largely disadvantaged some groups and have advantaged others over time. Where the key person in an institution is of one tribe, he or she will ensure all strategic posts are given to her tribesmen.

Unfortunately, in the letter, there are two challenges or factors that make the outcry a bit unsupported or only pre-emptive. The first one is that it has been rejected by Chefo and so this discussion is academic. But secondly, even if it were genuine, the letter did not say the purpose and thus, any outcry is based on the extreme assumption that the unknown objective ought to be evil, which may be untrue.

That tribalism is evil and that the country has eyes on Chefo to see if they too will become tribalists is no secret for many of those in Chefo and they would know that writing such a letter with an evil intention would spark outcries from many. I do not think they are that less logical that they would want such an unnecessary discussion.

Thus, if the letter was genuine (now we know it is not), it would have come from a noble undertaking, for example (just from a theoretical view point) the need to have a skills set of its members as a starting point for division of labour in the activities they need to be doing with those in Zambia, Mozambique etc. If the latter was the case, I wonder how many would think it is a bad undertaking. If they are allowed to form a grouping, they have to be allowed to function efficiently too including organising their skills set in such a way that they divide tasks easily etc.

Further, a government has at least three branches including the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature. Any attempt for Chefo to dominate as alleged by those crying would only succeed if Chefo convinced those three branches. How would they? Would they go to the head of the Legislature or head of Judiciary or the Office of the President and Cabinet to demand ‘Chewalisation’?

Who would listen to them? The Tonse is a complex potpourri of tribes, interests, political parties, regions etc and if there may be any Chefo person who would think they would influence the government in that manner, she/he would be fooling self. I opine that no such a fool is there and thus indeed I conclude that that letter is fake; but even if it was not, the intention for calling for the curriculum vitae would not be to dominate government, for that goal is manifestly unattainable and would not work at least from first principles. Chefo is separate from government, separate from Tonse, separate from Malawi Congress Party. It is just as any Ngoni or Yao groupings, just a cultural group and predates this government- at least one can conclude from the factual information out there.

Is it genuine or fake?

Fortunately, this question is settled. They have issued a statement rejecting it.

Is it wrong to have such an undertaking?

While the letter is fake, for any group to have an audit of its skills for a noble reason is not, in my view, wrong so long they do not intend to abuse the process to violate any of the values in our constitution. Getting organised in groups of people in all societies is a good undertaking so long they are not abused to engage in activities that violate the constitution for example to deny others of their freedoms.

The Ministry of Tourism can leverage on cultural dances, among other tools, to rake in millions of kwacha from foreign tourists and create jobs at various nodes of the tourism value chain. I cannot remember how many times I have gone to visit cultural places in countries of Asia, Europe, North and South America and indeed here in Africa.

I bet many of you have done the same. In some countries it is the case that almost each province has some cultural village run by government together with that province’s custodian of culture, where they showcase their culture and you spend when you visit those centres. So cultural strengthening cannot be, prima facie, bad.

Are they constitutional?

In Malawi, cultural groupings are protected by section 26 of the Constitution which provides that “every person shall have the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of his or her choice” and the same can be derived from section 19(1) of the same constitution. Thus, the many groups we have seen among the Yao, Tumbuka, Ngoni, Sena, Lhomwe and Chewa among others are actually constitutional.

As always, the only time these can fail the constitutional consistency test is if they engage in acts that are counter to the values of the constitutions. For example if any of those groups start human trafficking, killing people etc, the group cannot be said to have a noble goal and may have to be disbanded.

Way forward: Ban the groups?

As it stands, association of person through those cultural groups is highly protected by the constitution of the republic as provided above and there are likely other enabling pieces of legislation. Thus, ending them is not a matter of a wish but a parliamentary action.

If we want to outlaw them for the sake of solidarity or whatever reason, we need to amend the constitution and ban them there. We should then embark on a massive project of mindset change to erase the feeling of being a northerner, southerner, from the Central Region, a Tumbuka, Chewa, Ngoni, Yao, Sena, etc from the minds of people and have laws that punish any reference to tribes and groups. Rwanda has done a bit of that.

I must, however, state that many countries in Africa and elsewhere have tended to allow culture to flourish among people. The only caveat is that the enabling law must be enforced to ensure that groups of culture act in accordance with constitutional principles and values.

If Malawi elects to suppress culture and groups, it will be among the very few that have attempted that route. If we, however, decide to allow cultural freedoms but exercise within the bounds of the Constitution, we will be joining the majority of the international community which views culture as useful so long it is enjoyed within the bounds of the Constitution

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