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We deserve the politicians we have

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Do our political leaders, both in power and in opposition, have the welfare of the general population in mind? Or are they more concerned about their own narrow political agendas?

I ask this question because, in this country, it does not matter whether the opposition have the numbers in Parliament to block legislation or not.

Only last week, the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) announced the addition of several basic necessities including food items to the Value Added Tax (VAT) list. The statement from MRA makes it clear that our elected politicians from both sides in Parliament agreed to this list.

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I do not remember even one of our elected politicians in Parliament raising an issue of the devastating consequences on the poor at the time when the country has inadequate food. My last count of parliamentarians gave me the impression that the opposition had the numbers in Parliament.

I have lived long enough in this country not to be surprised any more. There have been times in the past when the opposition had numbers. Unfortunately, when they have the numbers, they focus their energies on narrow political interests. Remember the time when the opposition squandered the advantages of their numerical power in Parliament to focus on narrow party interest like the impeachment drive of Bingu wa Mutharika. Their conduct has also demonstrated that their narrow personal interest always, and I mean always, overrides the national interest. Do not be fooled by the mantra “serving the people”. If that was the case, how does one explain the always unanimous agreement when it comes to debating their so-called “conditions of service” even to the point of boycotting Parliament?

The Malawi Constitution created a number of institutions that were envisaged to either protect the people from the narrow interests of decision makers or to advance realisation of the people’s basic rights including economic rights.

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These institutions include the Parliament. If these institutions worked very well, the tendency to prioritise personal gain at the expense of public gain would be checked. It has also been proven that those countries that did well in their economic development like Singapore and others had institutions that were not only on paper but were able to carry out their functions effectively.

Malawi has the right institutions to deliver benefits to its citizens. However, having institutions and having those institutions deliver is not one and the same thing. While there is a general understanding in Malawi that these institutions are not performing to their potential, it is a known fact that these institutions matter for the country’s economic development.

The sad fact in Malawi is that these institutions are not working to their potential not by accident but by design and complicity of our politicians on both the opposition and governing sides. These institutions are what they are because the political actors in Malawi have an interest in keeping them that way. Bad or ineffective institutions are the product of political systems that create private gains for, even if by doing so they impoverish the broader society.

The political actors in Malawi have a huge potential to develop the necessary institutions, rule of law, accountability and transparency and ensure that the country moves up the development ladder where the fruits of growth could be enjoyed by all, and not a selected few. One way to start is to ensure that these institutions have the right people to do their work effectively. It also means making sure that the structures and systems within which institutions operate allow them to perform their jobs well, and do not stifle their initiative or their professional autonomy. I believe that Malawi with a population of over 16 million has people with the right qualities, skills and values to do what is right in these institutions.

Parliament is another place where the “political football” is played without regard to the ultimate objective. Those of us old enough can remember that the Public Appointments Committee of Parliament rejected to approve Professor Brown Chimphamba to serve as Malawi’s permanent representative to the United Nations on the basis that he was “overqualified” for the job. Overqualified to serve the nation but qualified to grow kachewere in Ntcheu. Meanwhile, the same committee was busy approving people to serve as Malawi’s representatives whose qualifying attributes included failing to win a parliamentary seat or some relationship to those in power. Did we not see sons and daughters of leaders of opposition serving in embassies simply for reason that some political party wanted the support of their parents in Parliament?

As others have said before, we deserve the politicians we have. These people did not force themselves into Parliament, we elected them and we have the power to determine the next class of politicians to be in Parliament in 2019. We cannot continue to suffer mentally, physically and financially for the ineptitude of our politicians. For how long are we going to let our politicians, both in power and in opposition, continue to compromise the welfare of the general population while focusing on their own short-term gains?

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