Born-again politicians hijacked Malawi’s democratic revolution

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Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Banda & Bakili Muluzi

At the recycling vault? Bingu, JB and Bakili

In 1958 Malawians wanted to see Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda in power. After being under the British colonial rule for six decades, and as the wind of Pan-Africanism started blowing across the continent, Malawians wanted a change of their state of affairs. It is beyond argument that the presence of the colonial government was an imposed one. The local people never wanted any kind of foreign rule. When the White man was coming to Africa, Malawi in particular, he faced resistance from chiefs like M’mbelwa of the Mzimba Ngoni and Gomani of the Maseko Ngoni. The resistance resulted into the death of the latter and other countless number of people. Although the British colonial government managed to force itself on the people, Malawians always looked for the opportunity to break free and be determinants of their own destiny. This is seen through the Chilembwe uprising in 1915, the earliest against the White man in Africa, and the formation of the Native Associations in the 1940s by the people, as a way of keeping themselves political by having one channel of presenting their grievances to the government.

But little did the people know that the man they wanted to replace the White man with will be a curse among them and will have to wait for three decades to see him out of power. The Kamuzu Banda regime has gone down as one of the most brutal and oppressive in Africa. People were killed or disappeared when it was in power and there was a ruthless silencing of any dissenting views. His party, the Malawi Congress Party, was the only legal party with others made illegal after the 1964 Cabinet Crisis, when there was an ideological difference between Kamuzu Banda and his first cabinet. They preferred Malawi facing the East, towards the Communist China, while he was for the Capitalist West. This was the moment that defined the long existence of Kamuzu Banda’s rule despite his bad human rights record, of which the Western government knew about. After spending four decades in the Capitalist West, there was no way Kamuzu Banda could have been in favor of the Communist kind of style despite it being preferred by his neighboring leaders like Zambian Kenneth Kaunda, Mozambican Samora Machel, Tanzanian Julius Nyerere. For his anti-communist rhetoric, Kamuzu Banda established himself as the most important figure of the West in Central and East Africa.

But with the end of the Cold War in 1989, symbolized by the downing of the Berlin Wall in Germany, Capitalism had triumphed over communist and Kamuzu Banda lost his political importance in the area. He faced intense pressure from his old allies, the Western governments, to make some radical political, social and economic reforms. This exposure paved the way for what is known as the Third-wave democracy. The African continent faced the changes with the old Western-backed regimes on the collapse. That was the Malawi case as well. The political arena had opened up and the once strong man, Kamuzu Banda, met his first criticism from a letter by the Catholic bishops who on March 8, 1992 published a pastoral letter, ‘Living Our Faith’, which pointed out a number of failures by the government. It exposed Kamuzu Banda’s regime and it resulted into national wide calls for change. He had no choice but to give in. He announced a referendum on the future of the one party system of which he lost in June, 1993 before losing to the multiparty general elections a year later.

The moment may have been branded as a ‘change’, with the winning United Democratic Front party under President Bakili Muluzi selling their presence with the slogan “Zinthu zatani?… Zasintha!” (There Is Change!). But in true sense, was it change? It was not. There was a mere change of the political environment and party in power, but the people who were at the helm were still those who had curved their political careers under Kamuzu Banda. People like President Muluzi had worked with the Malawi Congress Party as its Secretary General and a Member of Parliament for Machinga district before his fallout with Kamuzu Banda in the early 1980s. Another prominent person in the United Democratic Front era, Aleke Banda, was a longtime trusted worker for Kamuzu Banda but went on to the pro-multiparty side after he had a fallout with Kamuzu Banda over the management of Press Cooperation, Kamuzu Banda’s company.

The truth is that the early 1990s change to democracy was started by the church, fueled by the Civil Society Organizations before it was taken to Kamuzu Banda’s half by the general population. The political parties merely used the opening to advance their agendas and win the power. There was union on the Church and the Civil Society side. But with the politicians interested in power and authority, there was visible difference among them. With Kamuzu Banda and his party touring all the districts in Malawi, and a divided opposition on the other hand, there was a scare that Kamuzu Banda would use his existing command and structures to cause an upset on the change. But thank God, it never happened that way. The invasion of politicians, especially the same old ones, made the change to be a lie. The old Malawi Congress Party had rebranded itself and although it felt like Malawi was starting a new political chapter, it was never that way. Just a few years on, people started regretting the change as it had brought with them bites they felt the government was not working towards protecting them from. The market based economy exposed the masses and pulled off the hands of government in intervening for the people. It was not easy. Had it been that the change stayed with the church and the people, as it had started, the possibility was that a people-centered government could have been conceived. But the politicians hijacked the democracy promise and took it to their own wrong direction, the one we are now.

*The term ‘Born-Again Politicians’ and the sense of the article has been inspired by Stephen Brown’s  2004 article titled “‘Born-Again Politicians Hijacked Our Revolution’: Reassessing Malawi’s Transition to Democracy”.

*Wonderful Mkhutche is an author, a political scientist and a manuscript editor and developer.

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