Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why (Most) Malawian Leaders Don’t Write Books: A Tribute to Sam Mpasu

When American journalist Thomas De Frank published a biography of late US president Gerald R Ford in 2007, he titled it Write It When I’m Gone. The book came out less than one year following Ford’s death in December 2006. As the title intimates, Ford had instructed De Frank not to publish any of the details from their numerous conversations, over many years, until Ford had passed on.

Every time I think about President Ford’s story, it takes me to our own first president, Ngwazi Dr. H Kamuzu Banda. There are quite a few people who knew the most about him, but they have never written anything about him. Is it possible that rather than “write it when I’m gone,” Kamuzu’s admonition to everyone who was close to him was “Never! Not even when I’m gone!”? How else do we explain the absence of biographies of Kamuzu from those who were closest to him, given Kamuzu’s place in Malawi’s and Africa's history?

Indeed, how do we explain the dearth of biographies or autobiographies by Malawi’s political leaders? If we can make an exception, it would be Dr. Bakili Muluzi and Professor Bingu wa Mutharika, both of whom published books whilst they were still presidents. But they were not autobiographies.   

This question vexed the late Sam Mpasu, going by the introduction to the second edition of his prison memoir, Political Prisoner 3/75, republished in 2014. The first edition was published in 1995, a year after the transition from one party rule to multiparty democracy. Sam Mpasu was on Thursday 15th February discovered dead in his house in Blantyre. Media reports said a post-mortem showed he had died of high blood pressure. Reports also suggest he may have died alone, and was only discovered after some days.

The late Sam Mpasu at a Malawi Writers Union event on 23rd December, 2017.
Photo credit: Steve Sharra

In the introduction to the second edition of his prison memoir, Mpasu states, poignantly, that there are no auto/biographies of all the presidents Malawi has had from independence, namely, Kamuzu Banda, Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Banda, and Peter Mutharika. He says this is also the case for vice presidents Justin Malewezi, Chakufwa Chihana, Cassim Chilumpha, and Saulos Chilima (he doesn’t mention Joyce Banda, probably because she eventually became president as well). If we can make another exception, Dr John Lwanda wrote Kamuzu Banda of Malawi: A Study in Promise, Power and Legacy, which came out in 1993. Otherwise much of Mpasu’s statement remains true.

He says this is the case even for religious leaders, including the late Archbishop James Chiona, Rev Dr. Silas Ncozana, Bishop Nyanja, Bishop Aipa, leaders from the Muslim faith, evangelicals and Pentecostals. The list goes on: lawyers, university students, army generals, police chiefs, top civil servants, and chief justices, among others. Mpasu suggests that reading about our leaders and their life stories would give us deeper insights into the kind of people they are. “We would have known the kind of presidents we were hiring to lead us. We would have known if they were going to betray our trust,” he writes.

Mpasu argues that we, and our democracy, are the poorer for this gap of knowledge. “In a sense, we have been led by people we did not really know and who we still do not really know, except in a very superficial way,” he says. More than fifty years after it was established, even the University of Malawi does not have a printing press or publishing department of its own, despite having what he calls an “excellent” Department of History which he says graduates professional historians every year. (There is Chancellor College Publications, and Kachere Series, both of which are associated with Chancellor College. They publish books, but are not university presses in the strict sense of the term).

We have National Archives and a Department of Culture, says Mpasu, “yet Malawians know so little […] about their own country or about the people who have shaped and are shaping their destiny.” From the same introduction to the second edition of the memoir, we learn from Mpasu that in 1967 Kamuzu Banda told a public rally that he had written an 800-page autobiography. Longman attempted to negotiate publishing rights, but they never saw the manuscript, and nothing was ever said about it again. “He must have had a lot to hide,” writes Mpasu.

We will return to this point shortly, but for now let us pick out some of the remarkable stories and unforgettable events Mpasu tells in his prison memoir. It has been observed that Mpasu was a gifted writer, and his literary prowess is on display on every page of Political Prisoner 3/75. The book starts out with how Mpasu was arrested, in his office on the third floor of Development House, Victoria Avenue, downtown Blantyre. It was a Tuesday morning, and the day was 22nd January, 1975. 

The eighteen chapters of the slim 158-page book take the reader through what happens that Tuesday morning at Development House, to his detention without trial at Zomba Prison, and later Mikuyu Prison, until the day of his release, on 1st March, 1977. It isn’t until three days after his arrest that Mpasu gets to know why he has been detained. On Friday 25th January he is taken to meet Focus Gwede, the powerful deputy head of the Special Branch of the Malawi Police. He would later head the Special Branch in the course of Mpasu’s imprisonment.

Gwede starts the interrogation by asking Mpasu who appointed him into the diplomatic service, and whether he had met any of Malawi’s dissidents while abroad. He had served in Germany and later in Ethiopia. “You wrote a book about the president. You said he has no friends,” says Gwede, finally revealing the reason Mpasu has been arrested. Mpasu explains that he indeed wrote a small novel titled Nobody’s Friend while he served as a diplomat, but it had nothing to do with Dr Banda. Mpasu asks Gwede if he has read the novel, but instead of answering the question, Gwede shouts at Mpasu and demands an answer from him.

Mpasu insists that the book is fiction, and that Gwede should have read it. Gwede doesn’t indicate whether he has read the novel or not, and instead says “there is a passage about a president being assassinated in that book.” Mpasu responds by asking Gwede if he has read William Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear, all of which mention kings being assassinated. “Have you banned all those books because they mention the assassination of kings? Have you banned the Holy Bible because it mentions that Jesus was killed?”

This was 1975, and much more was yet to unfold under Banda’s dictatorship. “It is true that we had what looked like peace. But it was the peace of the cemetery,” writes Mpasu, in one of the most memorable lines of the book. “It was true that we had what looked like stability. But it was the kind of stability which is caused by overwhelming force.” Peace and stability were what one saw on the surface, but deep underneath, people were suffering. “When the thick boot is on the neck of a person who is prone on the ground, there can be no movement. The jails were full and murders were rampant. The murderers were above the law.”

Mpasu writes about his younger days, going to Dedza Secondary School in 1961, and in 1965 being among the one hundred students who inaugurated the University of Malawi in the city of Blantyre. At the beginning of his second year in the university, he was awarded a student leadership travel grant by the United States government, and visited the United States on a six-week tour. He was the only black person on the tour which attracted participants from Europe, Latin America, Asia and North Africa. While in the USA, in Atlanta, he pleaded with the organisers of the programme to arrange for him to meet with the Ku Klux Klan. The organisers “were embarrassed but I insisted.”

They arranged for him to meet with a lawyer for the Klan who was believed to be a member himself. Mpasu writes that he wanted to better understand what issues the Klan had with black people, but the explanations he got from the lawyer were not convincing, leaving Mpasu to wonder whether this lawyer won any court cases for the Klan. Whilst still in the US a friend from Finland tricked the second-year university student Mpasu into giving an improptu speech to a high profile Rotary Club lunch meeting, in Boulder, Colorado. He got a “thunderous applause,” and members came forth to shake his hand. The Finnish friend later let on that he wanted “the Americans to know something about Africa and Malawi.”

Upon graduation from the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in 1969, Mpasu worked for Horace Hickling and Company, a trading company headquartered in Britain. He then joined the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, and after fifteen months, was appointed Second Secretary (Commercial) at the Malawi Embassy in Bonn, Germany. 

He served in that post for fifteen months again, after which he was posted to the Malawi Embassy in Addis Ababa. He served in Ethiopia for ten months, before being promoted to Senior Trade Officer responsible for domestic trade, back home. He had been back home for five months in that post when he was seconded to the Viphya Pulp and Paper Corporation, a government-owned company.

When the police came for him that Tuesday morning in January 1975, Mpasu had been at Viphya Pulp and Paper Corporation for twelve months. He was second in command. In Mpasu’s words, the Viphya pulp project was a vast undertaking, set to be the biggest Malawi had ever had up till then. It was going to employ seven thousand people working in logging operations, milling processes, converting trees into pulp, and exporting the pulp. It was expected to produce five hundred tonnes of pulp per day. People had been sent abroad, to Chile and in the United States, for training in areas that included use of oxen in logging, chemical, civil and mechanical engineering.

The week of his arrest, Mpasu had been scheduled to travel to Tehran, Iran, together with then Finance Minister, Dick Matenje. They were going to collect a cheque for US$50 million from the Shah of Iran, for his contribution to the project. Iran was looking to import pulp from Malawi to produce paper and expand the Iranian education system. The Viphya pulp project was expected to “transform the Malawi economy,” writes Mpasu.

Mpasu’s description of life in prison is as resilient and courageous as it is heart breaking. At Zomba Prison, he shared a cell with twenty-one other people, and they slept on the bare floor. Their blankets were worn-out and infested with “think, black lice which feasted on us throughout the night.” All twenty-two inmates shared one bucket as their toilet. It quickly filled up overnight and spilled urine and excrement onto their blankets and on to the floor.   

In Block B, the cell was right next to Condemned Cell Number One, which was death row. The death row inmates sang all night long, every night. The inmates there “were chained to steel hooks on the floor, all day, every day, waiting for execution.” Execution happened four times a year, in February, April, August and November. Most of those condemned to death had undergone trial in the traditional courts, where there was no legal representation. “It was very clear that many of those condemned men were totally innocent of the murder cases they were charged with. Their loud singing and prayers made this very clear.” It was easy for one Malawian to frame another and have them hanged, writes Mpasu.

He shares stories of people who found themselves in prison, some of them on death row, having committed no crime. In Karonga, a local chief ordered a Tanzanian tailor, who had lived in the village many years, to go back home and never to return to Malawi. The chief then framed another man, a known enemy of his, for purported murder of the tailor. The man was on death row, ready to be executed, when a relative of his spotted the Tanzanian tailor in Tanzania. 

He quickly mobilised other relatives who brought the tailor back to Malawi and to the authorities, and provided him as proof that he had not been murdered. The man on death row in Zomba was saved from the gallows days away from his execution. One director of Zomba Mental Hospital, the only psychiatrist in the country at the time, found himself at Zomba Prison on allegations that he was an agent of Malawian dissidents in Zambia, where he had grown up, when his Malawian parents worked there.

One fishmonger was picked by police from a roadside on suspicion that he had ran away from police. Women made up stories about their husbands and reported them to chiefs, and they ended up in prison, with no trial. One party functionary owed a chief money but instead of paying back the money, the functionary made up a story about the chief and reported him to Special Branch. The chief, Ngamwano, one of the local leaders who gallantly fought against colonialism and federation, died in Zomba prison. Mpasu tells gruesome, harrowing stories about inmates who attempted suicide inside a solitary cell, were rescued, and were taken to another cell for horrible punishment lasting several days.

On 14th February 1975, barely three weeks after arriving at Zomba Prison, Mpasu was transferred to Mikuyu Prison. There he found the likes of Machipisa Munthali, Dr Dennis Nkhwazi, Chakufwa Chihana, and Augustine Munthali, all of them “considered to be the most dangerous political prisoners.” There was also Alec Nyasulu, former cabinet minister and speaker of parliament. Mpasu does not describe how they had ended up at Mikuyu.

At Mikuyu Mpasu also found Dr Alifeyo Chilivumbo, professor of sociology at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College. According to Mpasu, Professor Chilivumbo was taken in for dressing in a manner deemed rude to the Head of State. That was on graduation day at Chancellor College, which Dr Banda presided over. Professor Chilivumbo attended the graduation in a suit that had been considered not “his best suit for the occasion.” At graduation ball in the evening, which Dr Banda did not attend, the professor “was considered to have dressed well and better.” Special Branch took him to Zomba Prison and he was put on death row. For a reason Mpasu does not explain, Professor Chilivumbo was later moved to Mikuyu.

Some of Mpasu’s accounts are hard to believe, but where he has evidence, he provides it. His narrative corroborates what other victims of the one-party regime have also written, including Rose Chibambo, Kanyama Chiume, Henry Masauko Chipembere, Vera Chirwa, Jack Mapanje, among others.

When he got to Mikuyu, he was the third prisoner detained there for the year 1975, hence his prisoner number, and the title of his memoir. Prisoners one and two that year were policemen sent to Mikuyu because they had attempted to move women dancing for Kamuzu, to clear a path for his convoy. Kamuzu was returning from a state visit to Zambia, and was being welcomed by a large crowd that included dancing women, mbumba. When the two policemen asked the women to give way to the convoy, the women reported the two to a senior police officer, saying they were preventing the women “from dancing for their Nkhoswe Number One.”

Perhaps the most vicious irony in Mpasu’s prison memoir is what happened to Focus Gwede and Albert Muwalo. Gwede had become the most dreaded figure in the police intelligence service, a fact he had personally boasted about to Mpasu days after Mpasu’s arrest. Muwalo was the Secretary General and Administrative Secretary of the Malawi Congress Party, a very powerful position in the hierarchy of the party and the government. Muwalo “controlled access to Dr Banda,” writes Mpasu. Muwalo had the power to “terminate the political career of any politician in the Cabinet, in Parliament and in the Party.”

On 16th November 1976, Mpasu and his fellow inmates witnessed a most surreal spectacle. Focus Gwede and Albert Muwalo joined them at Mikuyu, having fallen out of favour with Kamuzu. They were each given separate cells. “I do not believe that either of these men would have been left alive, if they had been thrown in among us. They would have been beaten to death that same night.” Both Gwede and Muwalo were tried in the Traditional Court, where they were both sentenced to death. 

Gwede’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison, by Dr. Banda. Muwalo was not as lucky. In August 1977, nine months after he was arrested, Muwalo was hanged in Zomba Prison, together with other “criminals”.  Gwede was released from prison in 1993. He died on 14th March, 2011.

In the second edition to his prison memoir, Mpasu adds a conclusion, two and a half pages long.  He uses the conclusion to address one common complaint from readers about how he ended the book. He uses the two and half pages to describe, very briefly, what happened after his release. He mentions jobs he did, from 1978 up until 1994 when he was elected into parliament. He mentions ministries in which he served as cabinet minister, becoming speaker of parliament from 1999 to 2003, and going back into cabinet from 2003 to 2004.

It is yet to be known if Mpasu has left a manuscript in which he may have addressed events in his political life up until the time of his death. But his silence on some major developments in his life and in Malawi’s recent political history is deafening. Unless a manuscript surfaces in which it turns out Mpasu has addressed the glaring gaps, it raises exactly the same sense of intrigue Mpasu spoke of Kamuzu when he said Kamuzu “must have had a lot to hide.”

Some of the silences are loudly discussed in the public domain. The dominant one is the so-called “Fieldyork scandal.” When the United Democratic Front won the 1994 elections in May of that year, they had just over three months in which to fulfil their biggest campaign promise, free primary education. The new school year was scheduled to start on 26th September. There was need to purchase millions of notebooks, textbooks and pencils, amongst other education materials. Local suppliers asked for the opening date of the new school year to be pushed back to allow them enough time to provide the materials.

Court documents show that Mpasu proposed that a UK-based firm, Fieldyork, be awarded the tender, on the argument that they were read to provide the materials before schools opened. The then Minister of Finance approved local suppliers but not Fieldyork. Fieldyork submitted an invoice for GBP1,930,000 (approximately K1.9 billion in today’s currency), but did not provide a breakdown of the amounts involved. Court documents point out that the Reserve Bank of Malawi said there was a forex crunch, and had expressed preference for Malawi Finance Company, based in London. They had indicated they could deliver the exact amounts, at a quarter of the price.

As Minister of Education, Mpasu went ahead with Fieldyork anyway, who provided the materials in no time. He had run roughshod over the Central Tender Board and over the Minister of Finance. The government paid an initial sum of GBP300,000, but later President Muluzi cancelled the whole deal. Fieldyork sued for breach of contract, and government paid a further GBP500,000 to settle the suit, according to a PanaPress report of 4th November, 2005. On 8th April 2008 Mpasu was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for abuse of office. He was released in August 2010, four years ahead of schedule, on good behaviour.

A 9th April 2008 Mail & Guardian article quoted then magistrate Chifundo Kachale as saying “It was clear that Mpasu cut corners to illegally award a contract to the British firm,” adding that “He [Mpasu] and others benefited from the irregular deal.” If there is documentation showing whether Mpasu personally benefitted from the deal, it yet to be made public. However, people who spoke with Mpasu over several years testify to his bitterness about how wrongly he was suspected of having benefitted from Fieldyork.

The Fieldyork scandal was broken by The Democrat, a hot-selling newspaper during the transition to multiparty and in the years after. Mpasu sued the newspaper in 1997 and won the case. Some have claimed that Mpasu’s legal action against The Democrat brought the paper down, but sources associated with the paper at the time contend that the publication had already become unviable by the time Mpasu sued. A decision had already been made to fold The Democrat, owing to debts incurred by the political machinery it was created to serve.

Mpasu is also celebrated as one of the people who stopped the “Third Term” train in its tracks. It was during his tenure as Speaker of Parliament that the proposal to amend the constitution and change the two-term limit for the presidency was defeated. In his 2017 memoirs of his time in Malawi, titled Malawi: A Place Apart, former two-time Norwegian ambassador to Malawi, Asbjǿrn Eidhammer, explains how the bill was defeated. The UDF had managed to bring opposition leaders John Tembo, of the MCP, and Chakufwa Chihana, of Aford, over to their side, “against the will of the majority of the MPs from the two parties.”

This happened on 4th July, 2002, which Eidhammer describes as “the most dramatic moment in the history of the eight-year-old democracy” then. A two-thirds majority was required to pass the bill, which needed support from some opposition MPs. Mpasu delegated the task of presiding over the session to Deputy Speaker Davis Katsonga, who announced that 125 MPs had voted in favour of the motion, while 59 had voted against.

That was just three votes short of a two-thirds majority, and thus the motion failed. Soon afterwards Mpasu was removed as Speaker of Parliament, and returned to cabinet where he served until 2004. Thereafter his life took twists and turns, with the Fieldyork scandal dogging him until his sentencing in 2008. For a writer, there was a lot of material. “There is so much to write about,” he wrote in 2014.

So why is it that Malawian leaders rarely write autobiographies? Why is it that Malawian writers and historians rarely write biographies of our leaders? Is it that our leaders have “a lot to hide,” to use Mpasu’s own words? The dearth of biographical information is glaringly present even in Malawian media, where journalists rarely provide any meaningful background detail to people in the news.

Writing biographies of prominent people requires a huge amount of skill, dedicated time, space and access to rare sources. Where the subject does have “a lot to hide,” the task becomes much harder, risky and daunting, fraught with legal folds and layers that would put off even the most spirited writer. Very few individuals are willing to accept, let alone own up to atrocities committed by their family members.

But writing also requires talent, or at least a passion that can be converted into talent. Late Mpasu had both talent and passion. His degree from Chancellor College, in 1969, was in English Literature and Economics. It is rare to find such interdisciplinarity in universities these days, narrow specialisation having overtaken broad, well-rounded, multidisciplinary inquiry.

Beyond individual effort and passion, there are broader political, economic and ideological considerations also. As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, Malawian creative writing has not been spared ramifications from adverse global developments. Neoliberalism and the privatisation impetus, imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, robbed Malawi of its once thriving bookshops. This affected not only the availability but also the quality of reading material Malawians have access to. You can’t have a thriving writing culture when you don’t have a thriving reading culture.

Current global ideological trends are relentlessly pushing toward more and more privatisation and less and less government. In countries where government-driven social services have never benefitted the majority, neoliberalism is eroding even the little gains governments achieved. If we agree with late Sam Mpasu that writing is important for a nation’s development, we should not leave this enterprise to its own devices.

As Kenyan scholar-activist Dr Wandia Njoya puts it, “there is no civilisation, no freedom, unless one can imagine the world they are fighting for.” Writing, in its auto/biographical and many other forms, is a great way to imagine and create the Malawi and the world we want. But the opportunity to spend time thinking, writing and imagining does not come on a silver platter. We must demand, and provide, the time, the space and the money. This is a task our institutions of higher education, research, cultural heritage organisations, media, and publishers, must consider seriously.

Were he to be true to his word about the importance of biographies of and autobiographies by leaders, political or otherwise, there is probably a lot that Sam Mpasu either wrote, since his last prison stay in 2010, or planned to write, in the coming years. As of now, we do not know whether he wrote about any of this or not. He did his part though, and remarkably so. He has left us with enough material to pick up from where he left. Only time will tell if we will be up to the task.