Sunday, March 04, 2012

Killing the Chief to Spite the Village: The Erosion of Traditional Leadership in Modern Malawi

Several traditional leaders in Malawi have lately taken to the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) TV to argue on the president’s behalf about why the Malawian currency, the Malawi Kwacha, must not be devalued. The suggestion to devalue has been prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and Malawi’s bilateral donors, and has been supported by several Malawian economists and pundits. It has been offered as one of the measures necessary to stem economic decline whose most visible effects, among many, are severe fuel shortages and rapidly rising prices of commodities.

The traditional leaders have, in the process, unwittingly drawn attention to a very unflattering opinion in which many Malawians from the educated class hold the chiefs. The first time I noticed the traditional leaders’ foray into the economic theory debate was on Sunday February 19th when MBCTV rebroadcast a press conference by a group of chiefs. The chiefs said they were reacting to statements made in parliament by some MPs, and to a news article in The Nation of Wednesday February 15th, written by  Bright Sonani and Edwin Nyirongo, whom they mentioned by name.

I did not hear the remarks uttered in parliament, but I saw the article in question. It was titled “Use of chiefs to fight IMF naïve—opposition” and appeared on page 3. The article reported on various statements made by several opposition legislators and civil society activists. They included former ruling party United Democratic Front’s (UDF) Friday Jumbe, Lington Belekanyama of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Dan Msowoya of the Alliance for Democracy (Aford), and Martha Kwataine of the Malawi Health Equity Network (MEHN). The article quoted Jumbe as saying the IMF did not force countries to adopt particular policies, and that it was the task of managers of a country’s economy, not chiefs, to talk to the IMF. Belekanyama is reported to have said President Mutharika was “wasting his time talking to people who do not understand the economy,” instead of talking to experts. On his part, Aford’s Msowoya is quoted to have decried the “misinformation of traditional leaders about the economy, politics and social issues in our society.” Martha Kwataine used the same word as Jumbe, “naïve,” in reference to President Mutharika’s resort to chiefs in advancing his “anti-devaluation cause.”

In the intervening days more chiefs have come out to do the president’s bidding, and to also react against the “insults” they have incurred for wading into the political arena. What seems to incense the chiefs most is what they say is their being characterized as ignorant and uneducated. As if to prove otherwise, some of the chiefs take to the mic and speak in English in varying degrees of competence. They argue that they have not been told what opinions to hold over the devaluation debate, as they do not need anybody to tell them what the effects of a further devaluation would be. They have already seen the effects from the August 8, 2011 devaluation. Maize which was selling at K1,000 (US$6) per 50kg bag is now at K3,000 (US$18), and bread and most other things have also gone up. One chief said he was not bothered by the insinuation that chiefs are ignorant and uneducated, while another said chiefs were the bedrock of democracy. Democracy existed in Malawi long before colonial rule, said the chief.

It is common knowledge that chiefs and traditional leaders in Malawian society are widely believed to be “ignorant” and “educated”, particularly by the “educated” and “political” class. In his Sunday Times ‘Muckraking on Sunday’ column on February 19th, Raphael Tenthani captured this widely-held opinion of chiefs in Malawian society, when he wrote: “. . . there are a number of chiefs who went beyond A.E.I.O.U in school but most of them are humble villagers who use the thumb-print as their signature in order to get their state-funded honorarium. How do they begin to know the politics, the intricacies, let alone the economics of devaluation of a currency?” I am sure Tenthani’s views resonate with a lot of “educated” Malawians. On Monday February 20th Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) Radio’s regular letter from O’Bwande made sarcastic remarks about chiefs in a similar vein. Several other pundits have added to the onslaught against the chiefs.

It will be naïve to deny that chiefs in Malawi are responsible for the sorry image and character they have crafted for themselves. And the chiefs have made matters worse by being willing accomplices in the president’s campaign to resist calls for devaluation of the kwacha, which many Malawian economists and social justice activists have concluded will be the lesser of two evils.

However it will be even more naïve to see chiefs as solely and wholly responsible for the abuse that has come to characterize their functions. It is the politicians and the educated class that bear the larger part of the blame for what has happened to the structure of the chieftaincy and traditional leadership in Malawi. It is politicians and educated Malawians who willfully led the country on the path that abandoned traditional forms of leadership at independence, and adopted Western models of governance. It is politicians and educated Malawians who have reduced the structures of traditional governance to the moribund, unchanging state they are in today, while strengthening and perfecting the models of governance and leadership we copied and pasted from our colonizers. Structures and institutions can only grow and become better when they are practiced, critiqued, researched on and improved upon. That is what has given Western models the power and global influence they wield. Left and abandoned on the mistaken belief that they are inferior and borrowed ones are superior, traditional structures will decay and become prone to the kind of abuse that has come to characterize the Malawian and African chieftaincy. 

As they spoke in the press conference, the chiefs who chose to speak in English did so as a counter to the cruel and misguided notion of Malawian chiefs and traditional leaders as uneducated people. Many Malawians believe that no one can demonstrate a high level of intellect and education using local languages. No wonder parliament prohibits the use of Malawian languages in an institution that is purported to represent ordinary Malawians. Our private schools prohibit the use of Malawian languages on school premises, allowing only the languages of our former colonizers. Very few Malawians are aware of the linguistic prowess and plasticity of children, who are known to be capable of learning multiple languages in the first twelve years of life. Instead of promoting both English and Malawian languages, the practice has been to think of English as a language with innate, divine qualities of intellectual rigour, believed to be naturally denied to Malawian and African languages.

Again, it is Malawian politicians and the educated class who have advanced this poisonous and dangerous practice, for which the country is paying a high price in the general absence of democratic participation and knowledge production in the majority of the population. It is mostly in formerly colonized countries where only European languages are considered capable of intellectual and scientific rigour. Yet there are millions of people around the world who have mastered profound intellectual and scientific knowledge, and do not speak a word of English or a European language.

Malawi is in dire need of traditional leaders who can demonstrate a profound expertise in traditional governance models while being equally adept at the forms of governance we have borrowed. Malawi needs traditional leaders who can stand up to the machinations of the political leadership while expounding the complexities of traditional models of governance and how they can reshape the country’s political and social structures. Malawian politicians and the educated class will make a lasting contribution to the country’s future if they can stop abusing chiefs, and leave a legacy of wise, educated and sophisticated traditional leaders. 

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