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Silence of discontent

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A pre’s moi , le deluge! president Charles de Gaulle of France and a popular general declared confidently. He was so certain of his indispensability that, if he left the political scene, France would be swamped by a deluge like that which destroyed everything in the days of Noah.

The youth, particularly university students, were not impressed with his performance on the economy. They took their discontent to the streets. Within days, president de Gaulle was out of office. He resigned. There was no deluge. The police did not go on the streets to shoot demonstrators dead.

This lady is not for turning! Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, said in a notable speech. Those words summed-up her uncompromising stand on what she believed in. She was nick-named The Iron Lady. Others called her The Only Man in Europe. She had tamed the disruptive trade unions, privatized scores of government enterprises, cut the fat from welfare, put the sick economy back on its feet and humiliated Argentinean generals with a defeat over Falkland Islands.

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Success went to her head. After leading her Conservative Party and Britain in successive election victories, she made up her mind to introduce Poll Tax in Britain. Her ministers saw nothing but electoral disaster in that move. They ganged-up and forced her to resign. She went. The police did not go on the streets to shoot demonstrators dead.

President Bill Clinton of the USA was brilliant, handsome, articulate and an amateur trumpet-player. The economy was booming under him. The electorate was happy. But he had a strong weakness for beautiful young women. He paid them his respects on the carpet in his office. One day, a certain young woman revealed to the press the affair she had with him. Suddenly, it was an avalanche. Even those he had when he was Governor of Arkansas, came out in the open. One Monica produced a dress which had some evidence of her tryst with him.

His political opponents launched an Impeachment Trial in the Senate. It failed by a few votes. Can you even imagine impeaching an African president for womanizing? Everyone expected his wife to divorce him. Instead, she stood by him. I was impressed with her love and loyalty. She made me wish I had an American wife.

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In France, Britain and USA, the national institutions work. Leaders respect them. The police, the courts, the political parties, the legislatures et cetera are not personal instruments of leaders. They are used for national interests, even against the leaders.

In the 70s, president Kaunda of Zambia sarcastically said that the president of Malawi leads dead people. He was referring to our docility in the face of one-party authoritarian rule. We were docile but he had no idea of the barbarities we suffered.

We had a political party we could not vote-out or demonstrate-against. The human cost was enormous. The one-party regime had a prison specially designed and constructed for its critics. It used the police, the traditional courts, the Youth League and the MYP against critics. Nearly a million Malawians fled into exile. Even there, some were hunted down like rats and killed.

From January 1975 to February 1977 I was a political prisoner. I had written a novel with a wrong title. There were about 500 of us in Mikuyu Maximum Security Prison for Political Prisoners. Without any charges or court appearance, people were just swept in by the Special Branch.

One of the most shocking barbarities was physical abuse. Imagine being surrounded by six warders for a savage beating with their hardwood truncheons. Imagine that, instead of being taken for medical treatment afterwards, you are dragged into a Punishment Cell, stripped naked, chained hands and feet to a metal hook on the concrete floor and then having four, 20-litre pails of cold water poured over you. Imagine being left in that water and unable to rise up or turn, for three days without any food to eat or water to drink. If you died, they wrapped you in brown paper and tossed you on a Landrover for Zomba Central Prison. There was an average of one death per month.

Yet we were lucky to be in Mikuyu. Others were caught, bagged and tossed alive into the Shire River the same day.

In May 1983, three senior Cabinet ministers and a Member of Parliament were slaughtered with gruesome barbarity. The police hooded their heads, lined them up on a dirt-road near Thambani in Mwanza and smashed their skulls with steel-bars. Their bodies were delivered to their respective families for immediate burial without mourning or funeral rites.

In early 1992, eight intrepid Catholic Bishops published a Pastoral Letter which was deemed critical of the government. Their printing press at Balaka was fire-bombed. They were arrested and kept at Kanjedza to await a death-sentence from Lilongwe. An extraordinary convention of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) passed the death-sentence unanimously. Before they were slaughtered, the news leaked out to the international media. The spotlight was trained on Malawi.

A trade unionist, Chakufwa Chihana, said what everyone thought was foolhardy. In Lusaka and in Johannesburg, he told BBC that he was flying back to oppose the MCP regime. On arrival, he was snatched from the steps of the plane.

The economy was sick. Fed up with suffering, workers at David Whitehead, City of Blantyre and other companies, went on the streets for higher wages. It was unheard of. The strikes spread to Lilongwe. Government promptly sent the police after them, with blazing guns. Sixty-four lay dead and hundreds bleeding. Malawians were not docile!

In August, the Alliance For Democracy (Aford) came out as a pressure group. In October United Democratic Front (UDF) came out as a pressure-group. The day before, government announced a National Referendum on the single-party system.

Soon after Malawians voted for multi-party democracy, there was a heated discussion at a drinking joint in Mzuzu. One of the people was a senior member of the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP). He quickly left the place, got a gun from the MYP offices and waited for the others to pass by. He shot them dead and boasted about it to the press. They were soldiers from Moyale Barracks.

Incensed, junior Army officers took matters into their own hands. They chased away the Army Commander and his two deputies. Then they took the MYP head-on. Within days, all the 36 MYP bases throughout the country were reduced to rubble. All their highly-sophisticated arms and ammunition were seized. Everyone thought it was a coup but the boys went back to their barracks.

If the MYP had not been disbanded, Malawi would never have enjoyed political stability. They were trained for blind loyalty and unquestioning obedience personally to the regime.

In May 1994, Malawi started to enjoy multi-party democracy, complete with freedoms of press, worship, association, movement, speech, demonstration et cetera.

If you go on the streets, I will meet you there, thundered President Bingu wa Mutharika. On 20th July 2011, 17 years after Malawi achieved multi-party democracy and freedoms, Malawians thronged the streets of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu to demonstrate against their economic hardship.

Bingu kept his promise. He sent the police after them, with blazing guns. Fifty-eight were mowed down with 22 dead. The devil sat on me, a somber Bingu said, when the gun-smoke cleared and the bodies counted.

The irony was not lost on some of us. Bingu fled in 1964 and picked up a job under the Zambian quota at the UN. He never risked life or limb to fight the dictatorship. By a quirk of fate, he was reaping from our sacrifices of sweat, blood and deaths. Yet, the only politics he knew were politics of arrogance, intolerance, plunder, violence and killings.

He used the police to shoot the people they should protect. He used the courts to jail his critics. He used thugs to burn down offices and homes of his critics and torture a university student to death. He used his office to plunder the Treasury and extort bribes from businesspersons. He died a multi-billionaire, wallowing in luxury in a dirt-poor country. His 30 years in exile had not made him a democrat.

The rot he set continues. Our hospitals have no drugs, not because the government does not buy drugs, but because officials steal them. Every year drugs worth K5 billion disappear. The government over-spends and yet has no money to employ needed doctors, nurses or teachers. It is crystal-clear; our political leaders and public servants are in there for self service rather than public service.

The gruesome murder of Issah Njauju, the Anti-Corruption Bureau official, is a loud and clear message. The culture of rampant fraud, waste, theft, plunder and corruption in our public services is here to stay. In a silence of discontent, we must helplessly accept as normal, Cashgate and other eye-popping, criminal shenanigans of financial indiscipline that the press continues to expose.

  • Sam Mpasu is President of New Labour Party, former Speaker of National Assembly and Cabinet Minister
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