Sunday, June 03, 2012

Can new media transform the lives of poor Malawians?

At the recent World Press Freedom Day debate on 5th May, 2012, Arnold Munthali, online editor for Blantyre Newspapers Limited, lamented that Malawi government press releases can only be relayed to the Malawian media via a 20th century relic, the fax machine. This belies the strides the world, including the African continent, have made in harnessing the power of the Internet. Going by her recent State of the Nation address, President Joyce Banda aims to maximize the potential of ICT in general, and the Internet in particular. But the digital divide in Malawi is so severe it dumbfounding to imagine what can be done to make new media work for the transformation of poor Malawians.

As of March 31st, 2012, there were 140 million Africans on the Internet, out of approximately one billion people, according to the Internet tracking website This translates into 14 percent Internet penetration on the continent. Of these 140 million Africans on the Internet, 40 million were on the social networking site Facebook. In terms of sheer numbers, Nigeria has the biggest number of Internet users, 45 million out of a population of 155 million. In terms of proportion, Morocco has the best percentage, 15.7 million people on the Internet out of 32 million, representing half the population. Egypt and Kenya have one in every four people on the Internet.

Malawi’s presence on the Internet is one of the lowest in the world. Out of a population estimated between 14 and 15 million people, only 716,400 Malawians had access to the Internet as of March 31st 2012, a 4.5 percent penetration. Of these, 127,780 were on Facebook. Our neighbours fare a little better than us: 6.4 percent for Zambia, 11.5 percent for Tanzania, and 12 percent for Zimbabwe. Mocambique trails Malawi at 4.3 percent. South Africa has 14 percent of its population on the Internet.

Taken as a whole, the growth of Internet usage in Africa is the fastest in the world, mostly due to the fact that the Internet is entirely new here. Between the years 2000 to 2011, Internet usage in Africa grew by 2,527 percent, according to the November 2011 issue of African Business magazine. Compare that with the rest of the world where Internet usage grew by 480 percent. African Business magazine puts the percentage of Africans on the Internet at 11.4 percent in November 2011, but by March 31st 2012 this had increased to 14 percent, going by the figures presented by In the rest of the world 30.2 percent of the global population is on the Internet.

In Kenya Internet usage is growing more rapidly than in most parts of the world. In two years alone, the number of Kenyans on the Internet has grown from 2 million to 12.5 million. Up to US$7 billion is transacted through the Kenyan mobile money transferring system, M-Pesa. A mobile application used for conflict alerts pioneered by Kenyan bloggers and software engineers during the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, known as Ushahidi (witness), is now used in 128 countries around the world.

A number of important points were raised during the question and answer session following the WPFD debate. Pilirani Semu-Banda, communications manager for UNFPA Malawi observed that in Malawi the Internet was still dominated by men. The audience murmured in agreement, with one person pointing out that even on the debating panel, there was only one woman out of five panelists. The woman in question was Catherine Chawezi, Information, Education and Communication officer for the National Commission on Science and Technology.

Other members of the audience expressed concern with the abuse that the Internet makes possible. False rumours spread very fast, and others use pseudonyms with the sole aim of attacking and badmouthing certain individuals. One audience member pointed out that before he died, the late President Bingu wa Mutharika had suffered several early deaths, all of them maliciously spread through social media. A listener called in and said new media was contributing to a lot of wasted time, with students spending the entire day on Facebook instead of studying. People were busy browsing on the Internet even during church. Each of the above concerns is a genuine problem.

It is true that Malawian women are disproportionately underrepresented on the Internet.  A big part of this comes from the gender gap in office employment. Most Malawian offices, whether in government, private sector or civil society are dominated by men. Even in professions like primary school teaching, men outnumber women by 62 percent to 38 percent, as of 2010 figures. In addition to the gender digital divide, there is also a class digital divide. I remember one primary school teacher complaining that every time they step foot into the computer room of a teachers’ college, lecturers makes it clear that primary school teachers are not welcome to use the Internet. This is a common problem in Malawi where people in superior positions monopolise the Internet, regarding themselves as more deserving than their subordinates.

The problem of false rumours is a product of unnecessary government secrecy. Late President Mutharika believed that he had a right to disappear from Malawi without explaining to Malawians his whereabouts. Rumours of his premature deaths could have easily been thwarted by simple announcements about his holidays or private trips. Several world leaders now use social media very effectively. Several African presidents are on the micro-blogging site Twitter, or facebook, or both. They include Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, and Jonathan Goodluck of Nigeria.

If President Joyce Banda means every word of what she said about new media in her State of the Nation address on May 18th, she will not only use Facebook and Twitter, she will also encourage government ministries and departments to use social media to communicate with the growing number of Malawians who are taking to the Internet. The Kenyan Police and Army have Twitter accounts. Recently the Kenyan Police used twitter to communicate details about an accident and arrange for emergency help. By far the most efficient user of Twitter is the Mayor of the City of Newark in New Jersey, in the United States. Cory Booker uses twitter to send ambulances, police help and other emergency rescue services for residents.

It is true that a lot of time is wasted on the Internet. But it is also true that a lot of crucial information is shared on social networks. Most breaking news nowadays first appears on Twitter or Facebook. Women have groups where they share knowledge about childbirth, child care, relationships, cooking and lots of other topics of interest to women. Educators share knowledge on subject matter content, new research and classroom practices. Lawyers share legal knowledge, as do many members of many professions and professional interests.

An ambitious goal for Malawi would be to start working towards equipping Malawian primary schools with Internet access. Knowing how expensive and almost impossible this would be at this stage, a more realistic goal would be to start with Teacher Development Centres. The National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development, completed in 2008, already recognizes this, although currently there is no actual plan to identify the necessary funds. Individuals and the private sector can also play a role here, as some are already doing. 

Part of this entails changing our attitudes about social class entitlements and perceived benefits. The challenge for Malawi is to find ways of making the Internet not only accessible for Malawians in rural areas, but also useful, with relevant Malawian content available in Malawian languages. Only then can we meaningfully talk of harnessing new media for national development. 

Was the Bingu Africa Saw the Bingu Malawians Knew?

Several comments made about the departed president by a number of Africans from various countries, and a few non-Africans, seem to paint a picture of a man Malawians do not seem to recognise. He has been called a visionary leader, a Pan Africanist, and an anti-imperialist, among many other colourful adjectives. Is that the man Malawians knew?

Landing at Chileka International Airport for the funeral of the late president on April 22nd, Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete gave a glimpse of how differently Mutharika appears to have been perceived by Africans outside Malawi, particularly in his last days. Kikwete said Mutharika was a visionary leader. He said every time they met, Kikwete learned something new from Mutharika.

Speaking at the burial, the Dean of the diplomatic corps in Malawi, Zimbabwean High Commissioner to Malawi Thandiwe Dumbutshena, repeated the statement about Mutharika being a visionary who had big ideas for Malawi and Africa. She said Mutharika liked to question conventional wisdom, and asked for evidence before accepting anything, a trait also mentioned by Raphael Tenthani in his ‘Muckraking on Sunday’ column (Sunday Times, 22nd April).  Dumbutshena said this made Bingu look as if he never listened to other opinions.

On April 12th the state-run Zimbabwean newspaper, The Herald, ran an opinion piece by two Zimbabwean academics, Darlington Mahuku and Bowden Mbanje. Mahuku and Mbanje wrote that Africa had lost “one of its illustrious sons.” They found it “disturbing and shocking . . . that some sections of the Malawian population celebrated his demise.” To them, Mutharika was a “radical Pan-Africanist” who sought to wean Malawi out of donor dependency. For his part, American academic and advocate of more aid for Africa, Jeffrey Sachs, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that pointed out Mutharika’s first term achievements and second-term failings. It ended with the sentence “Mutharika helped put Africa on a path out of poverty and hunger.”

How did Mutharika manage to create such contrasting images between Malawians and other Africans? Even in his last days he talked of how outside Malawi people stopped him to ask admiring questions about how he had transformed the country. What was it that other Africans saw in the man, that Malawians didn’t? And what did Malawians know about Bingu that other Africans didn’t? Some have opined that he lacked diplomacy in his public speeches. Others have said he had a very poor public relations machine. Yet others feel that he blundered in choosing to directly respond to each and every criticism leveled against him, instead of letting his cabinet and other officials do that for him.

All three explanations risk being interpreted to mean that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with Bingu’s presidency, it was all a matter of appearance. A lot of the debate on Mutharika’s leadership style has been characterized by a bifurcation of two extremes; either he was Malawi’s worst president, or he was Malawi’s best president thus far. Dualistic views are always unhelpful in trying to understand a complex problem, but they are an easy resort in the absence of handy explanations.

Mahuka and Mbanje are correct to observe that Mutharika preached an end to donor-dependency, but they seem unaware that Mutharika only started talking about this after he had exposed Malawi’s pathological aid dependency himself. Mutharika was rightly concerned about the extreme vulnerability of the country to donor whims, but such notions made little sense to people losing relatives because hospitals had no drugs, and to motorists spending weeks at fuel stations without getting any.

But perhaps Mutharika’s biggest failure was his inability to engage his fellow citizens in a discussion on his deepest beliefs, and to lead a life that reflected those beliefs. A few months before his death his outbursts grew in ferocity. He said donors could “go to hell” for all he cared. He appeared deeply angered. This came in the wake of a foreign relations offensive in which his own brother, Professor Peter Mutharika, and a few high ranking cabinet ministers toured Western capitals, including London and Washington. They were on a mission to make amends for the diplomatic spat that resulted in the expulsion of the British High Commissioner to Malawi, Fergus Cochran-Dyet, and to restart negotiations with the IMF.

It appeared that Malawi’s donors had said they were willing to resume aid, but not with Bingu in office. Mutharika saw that as a coup plot against him, funded by donors. Attempts to make deals with non-Western countries such as Qatar, Angola and Nigeria yielded nothing. The Nation newspaper of 2nd March, 2012 reported, in an article by Kondwani Munthali, that the president was incensed by high profile sabotage of his plans to obtain relief for the country. Some Malawians speculated that Qatar, Angola and Nigeria may have abundant oil, but not many Malawians seem aware of who controls the oil companies in those countries. It is not the Qataris, the Angolans or the Nigerians.

Mutharika had trouble communicating his frustrations in ways that would have endeared him to ordinary Malawians. Instead, he issued threats to Malawian civil society, shouted down donors, and spoke with careless abandon. Whatever Pan-Africanism he may have believed in never became a topic of cordial, educative debate in Malawi. Talk of weaning the country out of donor dependency was not matched by a personal lifestyle that would have shown Malawians how to live within their means. He shopped in Hong Kong, holidayed in Australia, and flew in a presidential jet believed to have been bought using diverted donor money. Days after his death the Malawian cyberspace was awash with unsubstantiated rumours about the extent of the looting and plundering Mutharika was alleged to have perpetrated.

Many leaders preach Pan-Africanism abroad, while promoting a parochial, ethnic nationalism at home. This creates a convoluted understanding of a concept that once powered a movement that set a continent free. The future of Africa is sorely in need of a twenty first century Pan-Africanism not preached from lofty capitals, but grown from the grassroots, uniting Africans on the continent and around the globe. Few African leaders since the era of Nkrumah and Nyerere have walked the talk on Pan-Africanism. Mutharika wrote brilliantly about Pan Africanism in his books, but put very little of it into practice.

There is something about political power that brings out the best and the worst in people. Until we start questioning how power changes people, we will not find lasting solutions to the problem of politicians starting out very well, and ending up tragically.

The ‘Midnight Six’ Should Really Apologize For December 2010

Why are we hearing more apologies for what happened in the late hours following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, and not on what happened on 11th December 2010?

The attempt to subvert the Malawi constitution and prevent Madam Joyce Banda from becoming president after the death of President Mutharika was a frightening prospect alright, but it is the thin end of the wedge. The process that led to that moment started with her expulsion from the party on 11th December, 2010. As no one needs to be reminded, the expulsion’s most important intent was to keep the Malawi presidency as far away from Madam Joyce Banda as possible, and clear the path for Professor Peter Mutharika. Only, nobody in the hitherto mighty Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) deigned to ask the petty, inconvenient question as to what would happen if, God forbid, the Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika were to become incapacitated before 2014.

Having accomplished the expulsion and cleared the way for the younger Mutharika, the last thing on the minds of the DPP vanguard was President Mutharika failing to make it to 2014. In the event of the unthinkable having happened, isn’t it strange to imagine that the DPP would simply sit quietly and let the very personification of their bitterness, ridicule and contempt, covet the very office they had done everything possible to prevent her from assuming?

In case this sounds like an argument in support of what has been called a de facto coup plot, it is not. Rather it is an argument about how the logic of events from the ousting of Mrs Banda from the DPP to make it easy for Peter Mutharika to become the next president of Malawi makes it implausible to imagine that the DPP would have handled Bingu’s death differently. Not only does the expectation not make sense, it also fails to put the finger on the nerve of the problem.

Blaming the DPP for having plotted to subvert the constitution in those surreal hours and prevent Amayi from taking over is putting the emphasis on the effect, and not on the root cause. What the DPP should really be blamed for is the original sin of what they did to Madam Joyce Banda in 2010. Had it been that Amayi had remained vice president of the DPP all this time, and the DPP attempted to prevent her from taking over after Bingu’s death, then we would have a basis for questioning the attempt to make Peter Mutharika, rather than Joyce Banda, the country’s next president. People seem to forget the events of 11th December 2010, the genesis of the problem that came to define the last years of the departed president’s rule.

In the same vein, people are also forgetting that despite Bingu’s change of mind in the middle of 2010, he went into the 2009 election campaign convinced that Amayi had the capability, experience, and qualifications to be vice president. With it, the implication that should anything happen to him, she could ably take over and become the next president. He had even made her foreign affairs minister years prior. We know he later changed his mind, after the fact, but as the Chichewa saying goes, Kalulu anamva mawu oyamba, achiwiri anakana. And the constitution seems to agree with that.

Therein lies an important lesson for Malawian political parties and their supporters. Even when ordinary Malawians started wondering if everything was alright with the erstwhile ruling party, there was very little internal dissent. If anything, there were always party supporters willing and ready to defend the DPP’s slide into autocracy. The earliest telltale signs were the manner in which the decree for the re-institution of the quota system was handled, weeks after Bingu’s 2009 re-election. There was an air of deaf finality to it. The president had made up his mind, and he was not going to entertain differing opinions.

Then came the change of the flag. The DPP and its supporters went to the extent of fabricating a survey and parading it as evidence that there was widespread support for the idea of changing the flag. Chiefs were made to stand in front of rolling cameras and had mics thrust to their mouths to speak in support of the flag change. The DPP knew very well that there was very little support for the decision, but it seemed Bingu had made his decision, and he was not going to change his mind, damned what the people thought.

And when the president decided that Mrs. Joyce Banda and Mr. Khumbo Kachali were going to be expelled from the party, it was with the same air of deaf finality to any voices that may have held a different opinion.  The die was cast, and it was downhill for the president and the DPP after that, leading to July 20th, onward to the PAC call for Bingu’s resignation in March 2012.

The most tragic aspect of all this was how people who knew better chose not to speak out. In the words of the late American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., what people remember in the end are “not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” This is not to exonerate enemies and instead crucify friends. It is to exhort people to take courage and speak out when the stakes demand it.

Much of the disgust with the MPs who started jumping the DPP ship hours after the announcement of Bingu’s death has centred around the blatant absence of moral principles. But moral principles operate in the context of the larger moral economy. There is indeed a glaring moral lapse in the behaviour of most politicians, but as long as the Malawian political economy continues to favour appeasement and patronage, politicians will always panic when faced with the imminent demise of their career. It would be a different matter if politicians could lose a seat today and tomorrow find themselves teaching in a university, or running a lucrative column in a newspaper, advising corporations in a think tank, or farming a fertile piece of land.

The so-called “Midnight Six” were up to great mischief on the night of April 5th, 2012, but it all originated from December 11th, 2010, the day the DPP announced the axing of Mrs. Joyce Banda from the party. If Malawians need to hear any apologies, they should be on what happened on 11th December, 2010. Such apologies should be made with the full understanding and acknowledgement of what that move did to the party and to the country, for which the DPP is paying a price today.

To Inspire a Nation in Reboot: Considering President Joyce Banda's Cabinet

Some Malawians have expressed surprise at the early criticism the new cabinet announced by President Joyce Banda on Thursday April 26th is already receiving. There are sections of Malawian society that have not hidden their great disappointment with the individuals chosen. The number of politicians who have been recycled from the last Mutharika cabinet, and from previous cabinets, is astounding. Out of 21 full ministers (minus the president and her VP), 14 ministers are making a comeback, seven of them from the last cabinet hired by the late Mutharika in September 2012 (Ken Lipenga, Ephrain Chiume, Peter Mwanza, Sidik Mia, John Bande, Daniel Liwimbi, Reen Kachere). 

Six are from recent previous cabinets (Ritchie Muheya, Ken Kandodo), but some of them go back to the Muluzi era before 2004 (Eunice Kazembe, Cassim Chilumpha, Henry Phoya, Uladi Mussa). Ken Lipenga has the distinction of being the only one surviving from Mutharika’s last cabinet, but also going back to the Muluzi era.

The staggering number of recycled ministers is raising the question as to what else these ministers can offer a Malawi that is envisaging itself as a nation in reboot mode. With the exception of a handful, the majority of them were unimpressive in their previous cabinet tenures, so what makes President Joyce Banda think that this time around they can perform? One possible explanation, something Amayi may have thought of, is that of experience. But another explanation could be something I have argued before: the president sets the limits and the atmosphere for ministers’ effectiveness. 

The president determines how vibrant and imaginative, or how dull and insignificant the cabinet can become. To date, none of the presidents the country has been blessed or cursed with, from Kamuzu Banda to Bakili Muluzi to Bingu wa Mutharika, seemed to give their cabinet ministers much leverage in terms of creativity and fresh thinking.

A recent case in point was when it became evident that the ongoing fuel crisis was becoming the norm. The Nation newspaper published a story on 10th June 2011 in which they quoted then Minister of Energy and Mining, Hon. Grain Malunga, telling Malawians to “get used to the fuel crisis.” A lot of people were angered by those remarks, seeing them as government giving up on a problem that needed an urgent solution. Some called for the minister’s resignation, or even firing. But some observed that it would not make a difference which minister was in the energy portfolio.

In August 2011 Mutharika dissolved his cabinet, and went for three weeks before announcing a new cabinet. Grain Malunga did not retain his portfolio, which instead went to Goodall Gondwe, highly regarded as having engineered Malawi’s record-breaking economic growth rates in Mutharika’s first term.
Nothing improved; if anything, things got worse and showed no signs of abating. As president, Mutharika made clear what his policies were, and left no room for individual ministers to articulate their own visions and strategies for how the country would solve the myriad problems Malawians were grappling with. 

Mutharika had set the limits on how his cabinet ministers would perform. It was the case with Muluzi, and Kamuzu before him. Will Amayi be the first president to break the mould and allow cabinet ministers to showcase their intellectual prowess and visionary acumen? Malawians will not take her word for it; they will judge her based on her deeds.

In their last cabinet assessment in February this year, The Sunday Times gave Madam Joyce Banda a 1 out of 10, the lowest score. The Sunday Times explained that having been expelled from the DPP, she was not performing any Vice Presidential duties, and should have resigned. That is water under the bridge now. 

What would be even more welcome from the Sunday Times would be not only a cabinet assessment after the first six months in office, but also detailed biographical profiles of each minister, as they commence their cabinet tenure. A few of them are well known personalities, but a great many of these ministers have never been profiled in the Malawian media, despite serving as cabinet ministers for several years now. The nation has no clue who they are, what their backgrounds are, what their visions for the country are, and what they hope to accomplish.

Watipaso Mkandawire has suggested on his blog that the ministers “sign a ‘contract’ with Malawians.” He writes: “Ministers should be accountable to Malawians and they should sign a pact that makes them accountable to Malawians. They should tell us what their Ministries will achieve (outcomes and not outputs).” He goes further to suggest that rather than the ubiquitous familiarization tours that ministers start with, they should undergo special training at the Malawi Institute of Management on what being a cabinet minister entails.

If I can add to Wati’s call, the training they undergo should be of high calibre and intellectual rigour, bringing them up to speed on what it means to provide leadership in the 21st century. They should be required to develop well-researched papers in which they outline what in their informed, considered opinion are the root causes of Malawi’s problems. They should identify the strengths and greatness of Malawi as a nation, and outline how they plan to overcome obstacles in pursuit of the “outcomes” Wati is calling for.  Even more important, they should act on those plans by inspiring Malawians and ensuring greater participation in the nation’s civic life.

It has been claimed in the print media that President Joyce Banda’s cabinet scores highly on “inclusivity” and “reconciliation”. This claim sounds strange as there has been little to no explanation as to the kinds of consultations that were made with the parties from whose ranks some of the ministers have been drawn. The DPP has claimed that they were not approached on having some of their members chosen as cabinet members. 

The UDF says it knew some of its members were going to be included in the cabinet, but no further details have been provided. Dr. Cassim Chilumpha has actually resigned from the UDF, and has joined the People’s Party, as has Henry Phoya, from the MCP. Uladi Mussa has dissolved his entire party and joined in with the People’s Party as well. People are asking what will become of Atupele Muluzi’s presidential ambitions, having accepted a crucial cabinet position. These ministers have been roped in as individuals, rather than as part of a broader agreement with their respective parties.

It may be an inclusive cabinet, but can it be said to promote reconciliation, when there has been no consultation with the party hierarchies? When there are fears that the opposition will be weakened beyond its current morbid state? Both inclusivity and reconciliation are virtues the country solely needs at this juncture. But it will be the capacity of the ministers to inspire the nation and instill a sense of pride in being Malawian, once and for all, that this cabinet should be most closely monitored for.