His gaze, abstracted and uncurious, cannot be missed on the portrait above the stage of the Great Hall of Chancellor College in Zomba, a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima).
Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika
President of the Republic of Malawi.
Reads the portrait of a man who, powered by the portrait’s blue background, keeps looking straight at you regardless of whichever part of the room you are in.
For him to be there, people had to vote. That is why May 2014 is fresh in people’s minds.
To get there, the man had to woo people. He had to use a party document, the so-called 2014 Democratic Progressive Party Manifesto.
Is he living up to expectations?
“Well, if we consider the prolonged closure of Chancellor College, I think the President is not doing what is expected of him. If he does [what is expected of him], he does it too late. I think the prolonged closure of Chancellor College has been aggravated by the fact that the current administration does not seem to appreciate the importance of labour issues.
“To say the truth, what is happening in the universities is not new. I remember that, in the early 2000s, there was an industrial strike at The Polytechnic [constituent college of Unima]. The then president, Bakili Muluzi, had to institute a committee, which I chaired, which had to look into the issues and solve them. The college [The Polytechnic] was closed for some months but we managed to resolve the issue. Why? Because the former president realised that labour issues can best be solved by people who understand labour issues. That is why he contacted me and asked me to help solve the issue because, apart from leading the main labour union in Zambia, and having served as president of the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions, I was better placed to help in bringing a solution,” says Kenwilliams Mhango.
Former Speaker of the National Assembly, Sam Mpasu, cannot agree more.
He says the problem with Malawi politics is that leaders become know-it-alls the moment they ascend to power.
It is unlike the humble people who plead with the ordinary people for a chance, and then forget about the very people who put them in positions.
But Mpasu observes that solutions to Malawian problems are in Malawi, with people competent in all facets of development all over the place.
But, leaders aside, citizens themselves have been playing a role in setting Lilongwe on fire. Take, for instance, youths who, as pawns in a game of chess, have always been used to perpetuate violence.
Instead of advancing the battle of ideas, they move around with machetes, often in the presence of police. July 2011, when Malawians, having had enough, thronged the streets in anger, comes to mind.
Up to now, the daring youths who brandished machetes in Blantyre have never been apprehended, let alone counselled. For it takes wild courage to carry a machete, let alone threaten to use it on someone.
What is needed, as Malawi slides down the slope of democracy, are mechanisms for enforcing peace and co-existence. Yes, peace— that word of great beauty and power which has rung down the long ages, but never with more force than during periods of impending elections.
To Malawians, peace serves as the benefit of 53 years of cooperative living.
The absence of it has had drastic consequences and eaten through the four-fold increase in human numbers since the 18th Century. During this little time (from the 18th Century), for instance— and this is according the essay, ‘Enforcing Peace in polarised World’ published in 2016, war-deaths have increased 22 times; there have been over 140 wars since World War II. These, more and more savage than those before them.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Mhango— that man of many faces: trade unionist, child rights activist, women rights activist— feels that democracy, presumably designed to insulate political conflicts at national, regional, district and community levels, has, in fact, united the Malawian population in a position of precarious mutual vulnerability.
This is something unforeseen in 1900, when half of the world’s population lived under another form of leadership- colonial rule, one of which features’ being that no country gave all its citizens the right to vote.
Today, over three-quarters of the world population live under democratic regimes, a development given much impetus by the adoption in1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for the first time in history acknowledging human rights as a global responsibility.
Political developments no longer follow parallel paths in both concept and action as the aim remains the same; to govern.
An analysis of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Reports reveals that democratic regimes have more commitment to honouring the full and equal rights for all citizens, though some democracies like Malawi remain relatively poorer than some autocracies, as indicated in the Human Development Indices.
As more people have come to understand, sometimes dimly, peace – a product of cooperative living— is indivisible from this living interdependence. That with it (peace) comes the full the realisation of ‘structural peace’, which, according to the United Nations, is the positive presence of human well being, justice and freedom.
The United Nations realises these freedoms in the contexts of freedom from discrimination, freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom to develop and realise one’s full potential, freedom from injustice and violations of law, freedom to decent work without any form of exploitation, and freedom from fear.
Are we, in Malawi, enjoying these freedoms?
“We seem to be doing relatively well in terms of the other freedoms but not on those pertaining to political discourse. In this area, we only seem to be doing well before any major national election as experience has shown that Parliamentary and Presidential Elections, which are mandatory every five years, seem to be affecting all our other freedoms because of the violence that always accompanies these constitutional processes. The bad thing about it is that a crucial component of the population, I am talking about the youth, is thrown into the violence fray instead of being encouraged to take part in participatory, constructive democracy,” chips in Mhango.
Then, why not just do away with democracy?
One political analyst, Joseph Chunga, is on record to have said:
“There is no democracy without elections; but, not every election heralds democracy.”
Free and fair elections remain one of the tenets of democracy, along with sovereignty of the people; majority rule and minority rights; guarantee of basic human rights equality; social-economic and political pluralism; constitutional limits on government; and government based upon consent of the governed. To these are added those luxury symbols of a nation-state- a national anthem, a national currency and a national flag.
Well, this story started at the university [Chancellor College], where a presidential portrait greets people in The Great Hall. It must, therefore, end with something about the university, wherever it may be.
Universities have played a great role in political change, including calls for democracy. Examples are plenty.
One just needs to factor in the historical element that political change in almost all African countries was conceived by university students within and without the continent. Remember the first generation of African leaders: Kwamme Nkrumah, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Jomo Kenyatta, and the impact of the University Students’ African Revolution from Kenya, Zimbabwe and Tanzania (the likes of Kileo, Msoma), Ethiopia (the Gaul Garants), Uganda (Yoweli Museveni) Mozambique (Frelimo) and Malawi (the likes of Kapota Mwakasungula).
It all boils down to one thing, the enviable responsibility of the youth in national development which, unfortunately, they often forget to remember.
And, yet, the youth are looked upon as opinion leaders, have better understanding of democracy and multiparty politics by virtue of being educated, remain the most powerful electoral bloc as they major most populations and are hardest hit by social, political and economic problems.
Sadly, Malawian youths have lost sight of their enviable role in development. Instead, they are crammed in such roles as maintenance of order and discipline at public rallies (synonymous with violence and hooliganism), general policing roles, providing moral support, and actors or entertainers at political rallies—all made worse by perceptions that they lack experience to take up challenging roles, are childish and playful and that like stand-by generators made to be used in times of emergencies only.
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