Sunday, August 21, 2005

On President wa Mutharika's firing of deputy Chief of Staff

The two Malawi internet listservs I'm subscribed to, Nyasanet and Malawitalk, have since Wednesday August 17 been dominated by postings on what the president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, is alleged to have said about Malawians from the Northern region of the country. The president is said to have fired his deputy chief of staff, Joshua Nthakomwa, and to have angrily told him in the process: "I don't want northerners around me! Get away from me, I don't want northerners around me!"

Contributions on the topic have been charged, some expressing shock and anger, and others questioning the source of the allegation. Some have suggested that the Northern region of Malawi, long marginalized in Malawi's political, should become sovereign and self-governing. Some have spoken with Mr. Nthakomwa himself, whom they report denying that the President said the words he is alleged to have said.

I've been hoping that I'll chance upon some tangible, credible evidence that President Bingu wa Mutharika uttered the words that have dominated postings these past few days. So far there's none. All that we have to go on for want of authenticity are unnamed sources quoting other unnamed sources, as has already been observed by others.

I do understand that the story can not be dismissed on the basis that it is originating from unnamed sources; we have had true, genuine stories broken out through unnamed sources before. However there does not appear to be any other evidence to corroborate the claim that the president did say those words. None of the major, credible newspapers in Malawi have printed anything on the issue so far. Mr. Nthakomwa himself has denied the claims that the President said anything close to what is reported. We will see if Monday morning brings any new, credible evidence.

In Malawi itself, people I have spoken with have expressed surprise at the news. "I'm hearing it from you," someone, my own credible unnamed source, told me this afternoon.

Others have expressed hope that the new Presidential spokesperson, Chikumbutso Mtumodzi, will come forth and issue a statement. Let's hope he will be able to do so. But as it appears, this has so far been a "made-for-the-internet" story, with the result that people in Malawi are not even aware of the existence of the story. Should this continue to be the case in the next few days, with no major, credible paper reporting on the story, there will probably be no official press release from State House, the issue not meriting any such action. But I could be entirely wrong; a few days of waiting won't hurt.

As has been pointed out already, there are a number of northerners in key, important and well-deserved positions in the Bingu government, such as Ralph Kasambara, Goodall Gondwe, Mary Nangwale, not to mention Zikhale Ng'oma, who was chief of staff himself until recently. As for Mr. Nthakomwa, he was in his position only in an acting capacity, and knew that soon the president would be appointing someone to fill the position vacated by Zikhale Ng'oma.

Until we see more evidence corroborating the words Bingu is said to have uttered, providing more details as to where and when exactly the event took place, there's a big chance that this story was in fact manufactured for specific strategic reasons. In the process, a few well-placed netters and talkers may have been used merely as conduits, unwittingly. A few days ago we saw reports to the effect that the Northern Region Parliamentary Caucus was reviewing its support for the President, accusing him of neglecting the North in terms of infrastructure and key appointments. The Caucus's secretary, Hon. Abbie Shawa, said he was speaking on behalf of the Caucus. Later we saw another report, quoting three MPs from the North who not only disowned the statements aired by Hon. Shawa, but also revealed that the Caucus never discussed the issue, and therefore Hon Shawa should clarify that he was speaking for himself.

Whatever the truth turns out to be, Bingu and his DPP are said to be enjoying a lot of support from the Northern region, a development which is troubling other political parties. We may have to poise ourselves for more of such reports, with some of us hitting the ceiling and making absurd, inflammatory suggestions. If there will be any credibility to these stories, they will have to provide more specific, credible, corroborating details.

In no way I'm trying to claim that the President can not have uttered those words. I'm just trying to show that such reports need to be analyzed in the context of opposition politics and the politics of ethnicity in Malawi.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Malawi can teach the world too, OK?

The news this week that a delegation from the east Asian country of Tajikistan has been in Malawi to learn more about the Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF) bucks a trend common in the way some Malawians view their country. The delegation is in Malawi to LEARN from Malawians. Most of the times Malawians talk about learning from other people. Sometimes people will even reject an idea for no reason other than that no other country has ever brought up the idea before. During the campaign for last year's presidential elections, a People's Progressive Party (PPM) official was quoted on the 7 o'clock Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) news one evening as saying Malawi could not produce an independent president, because no other country had done it before. He went on to say it was inconceivable to imagine that Malawi could be the first country to do that. Malawi did not originate ideas, he said. Malawi copied other people's ideas.

It would have been a different matter had the official been regretting that Malawi didn't originate ideas, and urging Malawians to come up with fresh thinking. Rather, he was holding up this point as the way things ought to be. In other words, Malawi was a backward country and SHOULD NEVER see herself as capable of originating trends. Malawians should be content with being mere copycats.

Days after hearing that comment on the national radio, I discovered that in fact the politician was repeating an idea he had read in the newspapers. A political scientist at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, had been quoted in an issue of the weekly Malawi News newspaper saying exactly what the PPM official said. It thus appeared that not only did we have a case of two elite Malawians constructing a myth for themselves and for all Malawians, and then fulfilling it themselves; the politician was indeed merely copying a statement emanating from elsewhere.

Politicians and academicians occupy important positions in society. The responsibilities they are entrusted with call upon them to exercise extreme care with what they say. They can represent people's opinions, but they also need to be visionaries and creative thinkers, rather than mere copycats.

The MASAF story ought to serve as an example to the rest of the nation as to how Malawians are highly capable people, and have unique perspectives that can teach other countries of the world. The leader of the Tajikistan delegation was quoted by The Nation newspaper as saying: Masaf was highly held by the World Bank during the conference as one of the most successful programmes in the world. That is why we thought of coming to learn how the fund operates." Regardless of the possibility that the leader of the delegation may have actually said "Masaf was highly HAILED" rather than "HELD," the message is quite clear.

The idea that Malawi should only learn from others, based on the assumption that Malawians have really nothing to teach other nations, is quite wide spread amongst Malawians, especially the elites. In his column in The Nation newspaper, Dr. DD Phiri on August 4 wrote about what Malawians and Africans ought to learn from the West. He titled his article "The best from the West," and concluded his article with the following statement: "People of the West continue to lead the world in inventiveness not because they are naturally superior to other people. They just happen to have a culture that nurtures genius. This is the best about [the] West that Africans can borrow. We must be achievers, not mere imitators."

The message from the learned Dr. Phiri was important, not least his dismissal of the belief amongst some Malawians and Africans that Westerners are naturally superior, and that by implication, the rest of us are naturally inferior. Equally important was his call for Malawians and Africans to "be achievers, not mere imitators." Unfortunately, the bulk of the ideas in the article was based on the same mentality that Malawians and Africans need to LEARN from others. There was nothing in the article on what Malawians and African can also TEACH the rest of the world. Thus on closer scrutiny, Dr. Phiri's article serves to perpertuate the very tendency he is advising against: imitation.

The Malawian and African media will make a major contribution to the image of Malawi and Africa, and to the Afrikan rebirth, by going out of its way to find stories such as this one, highlighting the innovations and fresh thinking coming out of Malawi and other African countries. This calls for taking a critical stance against politicians, academicians and thinkers who hold one-dimensional views of Malawians and Africans as people who have nothing to contribute to the world.