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Who are you to criticise?

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By Z Allan Ntaka

 

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A central principle of my engagement with the Government, whether now or in the past, has been to support a vibrant and healthy civic space where patriotic citizens are able to give advice and freely form, assemble and express their opinions so that diverse voices of Malawians are engaged in the national, regional and local governance systems.

At the same time, I support the Government of Malawi’s expressed priority of ensuring accountability, particularly, financial accountability, for all organisations.

The challenge is for national laws to find the appropriate balance between these two priorities. When I say engagement with government, I mean both privately and publicly. My several years of experience doing this has made me realise that duty bearers in government are never amused with public advice and analysis of government performance, especially if they feel it negatively affects their chances for winning the next elections.

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However, under the current Malawi conditions, a common citizen like me cannot just turn up at some government office to offer advice. This is because Malawian duty bearers prefer only to be approached when it suits their political agendas. Once they have what they want, they regard private visits to offer advice as a thorn in their flesh.

As such, in the absence of the right conditions and channels for private engagement, I offer my advice and analyses publicly, freely and at no cost to anyone according to my experience in different fields of governance and political leadership.

Social accountability refers to the wide range of citizen actions to hold the state to account, as well as actions on the part of government, media, and other actors that promote or facilitate these efforts.

Social accountability strategies and tools that help empower ordinary citizens to exercise their inherent rights to hold governments accountable for the use of public funds and how they exercise authority.

My lessons from the writings/opinions I have penned since the DPP regime in 2004 and via my books, demonstrate that although social accountability approaches are strongly influenced by many underlying legal, social, cultural, and economic factors, they can still be implemented in difficult political environments.

They point to the overriding problem of access to information in Malawi and the low reader engagement with the information when it is available. They demonstrate what can happen when governments and civil society work together to institute accountability measures and the implementation challenges they face in environments ranging from the decentralized to the more centralised.

Against this background, it seems to me that there is a need to remind the Tonse Alliance that part of their reform agenda was mostly enriched through civic society needs and actions/analyses by citizens who have been writing and obtaining opinion polls and feedback from social media, radio and other platforms. The mere fact that they are today in power is that they promised to serve the interests of all Malawians based on the principle of social accountability.

It is on this premise that I find it sheer alarming that less than one year in office when they are reminded of the very promises they promised to keep, these reminders are suddenly taken in a negative light.

The truth of the matter is that it has rarely ever been more important for individuals to be able to speak out and share information with one another than in this moment. In a crisis— especially under government regimes that seem to have problems with accountability and transparency, and in the It should come as no surprise at all then when I take issue with the failure of an administration to implement the campaign promises that proved so popular and were in fact responsible for tipping the scale in the minds of most voters.

There were promises that were made regarding custom duty and taxation, the creation of one million jobs and my particular favourite: Anticorruption, accountability and good governance.

But as individuals like myself comment on how the government is handling the situation—either to praise, critique, or ask questions— and as people share potentially critical experiences and information with one another, it seems to me that there are elements of consternation over this within the government.

Supporting one’s country policies and decisions is one part of keeping it on the path of prosperity and development, while keeping track of government activities, being vigilant about them and highlighting loopholes in policies are also needed in a democracy.

In our country, we have people with different ideologies — some criticise the government policies and some support it, while others remain at the top of it appreciating the good policies and highlighting the drawbacks to improve governance.

It’s common nowadays to see society divided into segments each with a different perspective about the policies undertaken by their governments; it is something which keeps the true essence of democracy alive. There are many instances in the past of governance and society improving because of the positive criticism by some people or a group of them.

These examples give our democracy in this country a chance of improving the quality of governance and hence creating a better society. People should realise that it is not the driving force of praise and overwhelming support which keeps the wheels of a government moving but also the steering force of people’s participation which keep a check on government, and modify it, if the policies fail to meet the expectations of society as a whole.

If people’s criticism reaches the government’s ear at an appropriate time and in significant numbers, then a lot of resources of the governmental machinery can be utilised wisely for some other activities which are brought to notice by the people itself.

Some experts believe that praise and support of people are very crucial for maintaining efficient governance as it keeps leaders and bureaucrats motivated to work more to increase the overall output of governmental activities on the ground.

Although this is true in practice too, from experience I prefer to keep in mind that the power vested in the hands of people in a democracy is not only utilised for blindly praising the government but it should be used as an aid, to advise and correct the government whenever required so that the efficiency and quality of governance is maintained.

I once worked in government, so I am speaking from experience. Our governance framework has made it so easy to automatically go into the siege mentality every time someone criticises it.

The result is that the leadership closes its ears to relevant and useful advice because praise singers and party loyalists brand any change agent an enemy of the state. Instead of considering the soundness of the message, they attack the character of the messenger.

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