29 April, 2014

Promises and Lies: Politicisation of Socio-Economic Issues ahead of Malawi's General Elections

by Harvey C.C. Banda

“There is nothing so strong or safe in an emergency of life as the simple truth”.
~ Charles Dickens ~

In May 2014 Malawi will hold tripartite elections when, for the first time, Malawians will elect Councilors, Members of Parliament (MPs), and the State President at the same time. In most general elections the Councilors have been left out despite being central on issues of governance and local development. It is sad to note that the campaign period ahead of the general elections is characterized by promises and lies by those vying for the different political positions. In fact, this has become a trend twenty years after Malawi adopted multi-party politics in 1994.

With elections around the corner, it is easy to predict what message politicians bring to political rallies: empty promises and lies. This is true of Presidential hopefuls and aspiring MPs alike. In fact, if these politicians were to deliver in line with their ‘promises’, Malawi would really have been the warm heart of Africa – relatively well developed. However, this is far from the reality on the ground. What remains of the warm heart of Africa is the fact that Malawians remain kind-hearted, cheerful and welcoming to outsiders. Looked at from a different angle, it is this soft-spokenness that is part of the problem; that is why these politicians, once voted into office, get away with their laxity, deceit and corrupt tendencies. I wish Malawians were a little bit 'militant' (positive militancy, in the sense that they are ready to confront these political crooks and cronies in the event that they are not delivering on their promises).

In 1995 most newspapers carried articles titled ‘TEBA won’t work’ (TEBA sitheka) following the realization that what the United Democratic Front (UDF) had promised before the general elections in 1994 was not actually going to take place. Former President Bakili Muluzi and his UDF party had, among other issues, promised Malawians that once voted into office, the UDF would ensure the re-opening of TEBA, that is, the engagement of Malawians in the South African mines following inter-state negotiations and agreement. As most people are aware, mine migrancy in southern Africa was in decline in the 1980s following a process of internalization (localization) of mine workers by the South African Government during the period. Consequently, many Malawian migrants working in the South African mines were retrenched and returned home. Cleverly, Bakili Muluzi took up this economic issue during the campaign period, promising ex-migrant workers an automatic return to the South African mines.

Former President Bakili Muluzi

Sadly, the opposite was the case during the aftermath of the 1994 general elections: Malawian migrants were being deported in droves by the South African Government authorities with a view to creating space at the workplace for the South African nationals. In this connection, it was reported in The Monitor (Vol. 3, No. 193, 15th December 1995) that the President (Bakili Muluzi) actually distanced himself from the issue when he lamented: “the issue of TEBA is in the hands of the South African Government”, implying that there was nothing much that the Malawi Government could have done about it. This can as well be interpreted as playing with the minds of innocent Malawians. The pertinent question here is “when did the Government know that there was little it could do about the TEBA issue?” Additionally, “why make empty promises during elections before entering negotiations on such a bilateral issue?”

Despite our democracy maturing over time, politicians are still fond of making such empty promises whenever elections are drawing close. In fact, this is the order of the day. Sadly, they do this without shame or remorse. Surely most Malawians can vividly remember former President Bakili Muluzi promising ordinary Malawians that once voted into office, he was going to buy ‘his people’ (banthu bake) pairs of shoes! After elections, he had the audacity to shout at ‘his people’: “Some of you expect me to buy you pairs of shoes, are you crazy? How can I know the shoe sizes of Malawians from Nsanje to Chitipa?” This was too much, to say the least. In fact, it was more than ‘playing with the minds of the people’, in that it was taking advantage of lack of political awareness; civic education; human rights; and literacy among the mass of Malawians then resident in the rural areas.

The above case study (UDF) does mirror the situation in almost all ruling and having-ruled political parties in Malawi: Malawi Congress Party, Democratic Progressive Party and now People’s Party of President Joyce Banda. Almost all these parties have largely failed to deliver on most of their promises, for instance, in the field of infrastructure. As a case in point, it is astonishing to note that most roads, bridges and buildings are in bad shape despite infrastructural development being on top of the development agenda of these parties.

What lessons can one draw from such political promises which in the end fail to be implemented? First, this is part and parcel of the ‘big man syndrome’ in Malawi’s politics, as argued fervently by Brian Shawa, among other scholars. It is sad to note that a political figure would be blatantly lying at a political rally and yet he or she in response would get all kinds of praises (viwongo) and ululations (nthungululu): “You are the greatest; in fact, there is no-one like you in Malawi’s politics!” In short, people are, due to this syndrome, generally less critical. Second, politicians know that such utterances (promises) can hardly be implemented, but take advantage of illiteracy levels among the populace largely resident in the rural areas. Obviously if the majority of Malawians were literate, such promises and lies would not germinate and grow in Malawi’s political soil. Third, in line with Basil Davidson’s argument (in Modern Africa: A Social and Political History, 1994, p.216), what is at stake here are the basic tenets of democracy:
...the important question is not the number of parties, for a many party (multi-party) system …can
also degenerate into abuse. The important question concerns the degree in which ordinary people
can really influence their governments.
In short, the argument here goes back to the basic definition of democracy: ‘people power’, as defined by the ancient Athenians, the originators of democracy. Clearly, in Malawi’s politics the ordinary people do not own power, rather it is in the hands of (elected) leaders and, what is worse, it is as if the latter are doing the populace a favour if they are to deliver on their political promises! Shame.

It is, however, encouraging to note that the level of awareness amongst Malawians has improved steadily over the two decades of multi-party politics. Credit has to go to the civil society including the churches for the role they have played in bringing about political awareness and civic education among Malawians over time. Malawians show signs of political maturity in many respects, for instance, they are able to compare one’s promises and what one is able to deliver thereafter. In the event that there is a mismatch between the two, then the political days of the politician in question ‘are numbered’: they actually gang up against and start de-campaigning (silently) him or her. Consequently, such candidates hardly make it during the next elections. Most MPs and Presidential hopefuls have lost political mileage this way. The electorate does the opposite of what politicians do: they make promises that they would not vote a political liar and crook back into office, say as MP, and lo they actually deliver on their solemn promise, as the candidate actually loses miserably! One would describe such promises as ‘promises and truths’.

Malawi’s democratic politics is surely maturing over time: the electorate is delivering on their promises (promises and truths). Once politicians do away with promises and lies and, instead, start delivering on their own political promises, surely Malawi will be a better place to live in for all: the elite and the populace alike. In short, Malawi will truly be the warm heart of Africa!

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