If anybody ever doubted that the University of Malawi (UNIMA) is a disgrace to our democracy and the academic freedom it is supposed to espouse, the University’s decision to award a honorary doctorate degree to John Tembo should remove any doubt.
Tembo, commonly referred to as JZU, is the least of any Malawian to deserve such an honour. It is well documented that Tembo’s word, during the dark days of Kamuzu Banda, was law. He was the undisputed right hand man of Kamuzu, one of the three people who made Kamuzu’s inner circle during that notorious period. This inner circle ruled the country with an iron fist, crushing without any remorse anyone who opposed them. Their authority over Malawi was cemented with tears and blood of innocent lives.
Firsthand accounts have revealed that hundreds of Malawians were arbitrary detained on orders from JZU and his fellow henchmen. Some were mercilessly murdered. These people include heroes who founded this country after defeating the British white supremacists who had colonised this land on orders from their Queen.
Others, like Attati Mpakati, who thought they were lucky by seeking asylum in neighbouring countries had bombs concealed as letters follow them.
To award Tembo with an honorary degree is therefore a spit on the graves of those who fought against the tyranny and brutality of the Malawi Congress Party.
Even the same UNIMA that seems to have been hit by amnesia was not spared. As the esteemed poet and academician Jack Mapanje puts it: it was turned into a synagogue of spies. There was no academic freedom.
Lessons in the university were formulated to programme all those who passed through its corridors to worship Kamuzu and his unholy trinity with a blind loyalty. This befitted the propaganda that was aired on sole radio station then. Without surprise, most of people in this country still believe to this day that politicians are demigods who must not be followed without checks as if some extraterrestrial beings pick them on a polling day. This is what outraged UNIMA’s members of staff and students alike when Peter Mukhito summoned Blessings Chinsinga for questioning over a lecture he delivered in one class.
So, what should we make with this honour when the same institution that fought tooth and nail to defend academic freedom decided to award one of the very few who mercilessly butchered academic freedom?
How could this same University forget that this same John Tembo campaigned for Bakili Muluzi’s efforts for a third term, effectively shooting democracy (which he has always abhorred) in the heart?
Such an honour pins UNIMA as a place where history is forgotten deliberately.
The decision to honour Tembo endorses autocracy and whatever happened during the one party era that was ruled by this trinity of Tembo, Kamuzu and Kadzamira.
The honour is a message that Malawi holds in higher esteem the villains who have made it impossible for the country to develop considering that everything was highly controlled by Kamuzu Banda and his family – with Tembo being one. As a majority of Malawians were basking in poverty and food insecurity, this ruling family became filthy rich.
Others have said the honour is justified because Tembo has over the year demonstrated extraordinary leadership qualities. My foot! One does not need to dig deeper to see that Tembo is an oppressive person with leadership skills that must never be emulated. With his leadership, MCP broke into two blocs: one led by Gwanda Chakuamba since JZU was not bold enough to concede defeat at the convention that was held in Blantyre. Thereafter, Tembo used Kamuzu’s originality to instigate hate towards the front that was headed by Chakuamba which ended up breaking into another party as Tembo gripped MCP.
With Tembo’s leadership, MCP was further reduced into a party for a tribe in the central region. Indeed, JZU’s leadership skills shut down anyone who dared to oppose him. MCP hardly had intraparty democracy with Tembo at the helm, a tradition that has been retained by the current crop.
The problem with Malawi is that we are so immersed in a binary worldview. Others are justifying the award on the basis that UNIMA also honoured First lady Gertrude Mutharika. It is claimed that Mrs. Mutharika is the less deserving awardee between the two. But just because Gertrude Mutharika does not deserve an award does not imply Tembo is justified to get this honor. This comparison is sickening and the reason we are failing to progress.
This binary confusion is the reason that some people are quick to rate highly Joyce Banda over Peter Mutharika’s poor governance and leadership skills. Just because Mutharika is failing must never be the basis to value JB, the same person who presided over one of the worst looting in the country’s history as K24 billion was stolen and K553billion (K0.55 trillion) was uncounted.
So to limit our take on JZU’s disgraceful awards to that of Gertrude Mutharika is itself a threat. We are justifying one evil with another. Neither of the two deserve any award.
As Mwai Kasamale posted on Facebook, the award sums up “the moral myopia” that Malawi has become.
“That surreal and odd sensation moment watching JZU being honoured with a lifetime achievement award by APM, the young brother of the man who had to run away from Malawi because of JZU. The moral myopia of Malawi never ceases to amaze”.
Thus, honouring John Tembo with an honorary degree is an appalling insult to Malawi’s democracy and human rights. I would not be surprised if other people decide to return their degrees and demand to be dissociated from the University because this decision has left a bad taste among many who walked through UNIMA corridors.