Sunday, November 06, 2005

Prisons in Malawi, Africa: legacies of borrowed paradigms?

On the front page of today's Sunday New York Times (Nov. 6, 2005) is a feature article, by Michael Wines, on conditions in Malawi's prisons in particular, and Africa's in general (click here to read the article; you might be asked to register before proceeding; it's free).

I can predict, almost always, that such an article will, as a rule, catalog all the social ills visiting upon Malawians, and will leave me and most other readers sad, numb and angry. While my reactions are aimed at my country and our failure to solve some fairly common problems, they are also aimed at the pattern of reporting about Africa, by both the Western and the African media. As with Mr. Wines' article, most of the reporting manages to put a human face on an intractable problem, bringing out the voices of people the politicians and bureaucrats have shielded themselves from. And that's always a commendable job.

But because the articles do not go beyond the vivid portrayal of the problems to attempt an analysis of the contexts within which these problems occur, African problems are written about in a manner that portrays Africans as having no clue as to how to solve their own problems, and making no efforts to even understand how and why we end up with such problems. The elites quoted in these articles, such as prosecutors, activists, government officials, etc, are portrayed as having no deep thoughts on how to understand a problem with such historical, ideological and global contexts as prison overcrowding and the malfunction and dysfunction of the justice system in Malawi. For instance, one reads an article such as this one without ever having to consider the fact the the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, worse than Malawi's own rate. Granted, problems in those prisons are of a different nature compared to conditions in Malawi's prisons.

I do not discount the probability that we are all clueless as to how to solve a problem such as this one, but my wish is to see a bit more of deeper thinking, questioning and putting the problem in the larger contexts that surround it.

At what point do we begin questioning our adoption of a legal and judicial system designed to work in Europe, in historical, economic and social settings different from ours? At what point do we start wondering whether we might want to work with our indigenous judicial systems, more suited to conditions obtaining in our societies? Our capacity to borrow and learn from other societies is commendable, but should it come at the expense of energy and resources needed to move our indigenous, locally relevant systems with the times, and negotiate change and innovation on local terms, rather than on terms dictated by the ideology we are borrowing from?

This is where I find Hizkias Assefa's (1996) words, referring to countries caught up in this type of dilemma, telling: "For these countries, the goals of modernisation and economic growth became receding targets. Hence these societies are caught in a tragic situation--they have given up much of what they were, but are unable to attain what they aspire to. No doubt this frustration will be a constant source of disruption, conflict and disillusionment at both the individual and societal levels" (Peacemaking and Democratisation in Africa, p. 65).


Anonymous said...


achimwene this is NOT new.
in 1995 at the mwanza trial ine and four other
hospital consultants - drs nyirenda, squires and prof harries
were asked - by the attorney general singini (i think it was
then) to go and see the conditions that mr tembo and the
mwanza 13 policemen were being held in after his british lawyer
had complained mr tembo and the 13 were being ill treated

anyway the attorney general was ingenious and he asked
us to go to Zomba central prison and see comparable
cases of 'murder charges'prisoners

we found that some in zomba had been in there FROM

i beleive [since i sometimes 'put everything in' my books] i may
have mentioned it in 'Promises, Power Politics and

i certainly mentioned it to one or two journalists
[before one specific one went to work at sanjika!]

our report showed that the mwanza 13 were being kept
in as good conditions if not better than the other
murder suspects - and their trial was jumped to the
end of the queue

personally i think it is a matter of class, cash and
and as more politics is played using the judiciary;
the less time they have for 'ordinary cases'

as malawians we have some reflection to do on the
value of life limb and liberty...

try posting it on nyasanet and see what people

john lwanda

Jack Drew said...


I agree with your comments about the West's attitude to Africa. There is a conflict of ideals between European countries and African ones. You use the word 'intractable' to describe the problem, I think it's a good choice.

With respect to the injustice associated with Malawi prisons, there are any number of ways to view it. For my part, I would want to know if there is:

1. Recognition within Malawi that this a problem - both by its citizenry and government. With the best will in the world, if no-one perceives a problem then nothing will be done to improve the situation.

2. Willingness to establish what the justice goals should be. In other words: what is the purpose of putting someone in a Malawi jail? Is the philosophy one of punishment or 'correction'? Or both? What Malawi shows - along with most other countries in the world - is unless there is a clear objective, penal policies fail.

Moving forwards, perhaps local methods of justice would be a better solution. I am unfamiliar with them, so I cannot comment. But to my mind, the two problems here are fairness (what Americans would call 'due process') and celerity of judicial action. It may well be that an indigenous approach would address both of these current obstacles.

I can add little else other than the observation that African governments have learnt to adopt foreign political rhetoric to curry favour with Western governments and, on occasion, this has seeped into policy. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to arrest this trend - if indeed it is possible. Justice policies, on the other hand, can be improved and doing this at a local level may be the key to success because familiarity between the parties involved (i.e. police, judges, victims, offenders and relatives of all) makes the seriousness of the situation real.


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