It is supposed to be a journey step by step, one step as if to turn away from the sacred democratic path, the next as if to stop. Yet the journey continues.
Our lack of historical analysis is killing hope that Malawi is moving towards a mature democracy.
"In order to be optimistic, one has to take a longer view," agrees Edge Kanyongolo, an internationally acclaimed academic in the Faculty of Law at Chancellor College in Zomba. "Our historical perspective tends to be limited."
The challenge in Malawi is that we refuse to look at the past and put issues in context. Instead, we live in the now, single out an event, idea or issue and look at it as if that is the end of the country.
Take the victimisation of former president Bakili Muluzi. This is a real lack of tolerance by the Executive arm of government which has control over the army and the police. Why should opposition leaders be denied a chance to address a rally in this age?
Muluzi was released on bail by the High Court in Blantyre on Friday last week and, the next day, he travelled to Lilongwe where he was tear-gassed. But the trouble for him started in Blantyre when Muluzi’s lawyers informed police of his intention to travel to Lilongwe.
Lawyer Jai Banda had trouble with the police and he was annoyed, he said on Joy Radio. Muluzi, says Banda, is not supposed to ask for permission to travel. He is supposed to inform the police, according to court bail conditions.
Still, Muluzi went to Lilongwe where he was tear-gassed by angry policemen and women. As usual, and typical Malawian, some people, mainly his supporters, came to greet him. Police thought this was a rally.
The next day, Sunday, was bad as well. Muluzi woke up to be greeted by tens of policemen and women. They prevented him from going out of his BCA Hill residence. In Ndirande, where Muluzi was to speak at a rally addressed by New Republican Party (NRP) president Gwanda Chakuamba, police demolished a podium under construction at a ground owned by the Christian Service Committee (CSC). The meeting was cancelled.
Opposition leaders were on Joy Radio, castigating government for atrocities committed by the police in these democratic times.
It is easy to sympathise with the UDF and the rest of the opposition parties being victimised by government machinery. The actions of the police are bad. The actions of Blantyre City Assembly to deny Chakuamba permission may be said to be undemocratic. The opposition leaders deserve sympathy.
But sympathy won’t change much in Malawi. So many leaders have received public sympathy for years. Malawi Democratic Party (MDP) president Kamlepo Kalua—and his one-man-party—suffered during Muluzi’s reign. Brown Mpinganjira suffered a lot during Muluzi’s reign.
The list is long. It was during Muluzi’s reign that the Mgwirizano Coalition had its first rally at Mjamba disturbed by police until the High Court intervened, and that was on a Sunday.
Mgwirizano leaders enjoyed people’s sympathy but that did not change anything. Chakuamba and his then right hand man Dr Hetherwick Ntaba were almost beaten in Kasungu. An MCP Landrover was burnt in Chiradzulu during Muluzi’s time.
That Sunday afternoon in 2004 when Mgwirizano Coalition leader were victimised, people asked why police shot live bullets? Then Muluzi as President was enjoying state security 24 hours.
Now Muluzi is in opposition although his party’s candidate won the 2004 presidential race. Now Muluzi is suffering just the same way he tortured opposition leaders years ago.
Now Muluzi wants public sympathy. He wants to label government as undemocratic. He has been on the BBC speaking as if he were a champion of human rights. This is what Brown Mpinganjira used to do when he headed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He bought international sympathy on the BBC.
Human rights organisations have joined the chorus and the Mutharika administration has been labelled as lacking tolerance, which is true, of course.
But beyond labelling a government as undemocratic, what next? The problem of the Executive abusing security apparatus has been in Malawi since the days of first President Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The state uses police to victimise opposition voices.
Yet the police, being law enforcers, were supposed to be knowledgeable in matters of law. But the opposite is true. Traffic police are a typical example. They do a lot of wrong things by force.
What Malawi needs now is a long lasting solution, not sympathising with one political side. We sympathised with Muluzi and the late Chakufwa Chihana in early 1990s. We sympathised with Kalua, Chakuamba, Mpinganjira and Ntaba during the 10 years of Muluzi’s reign.
Should we be sympathising with Muluzi as well? Will sympathy help us? The professionalism of police is a national issue, not a political game that anyone should use to gain political points and sympathy.
If the opposition parties mean well for Malawi, let them push for change of mindset in the police service, so that they work within the country’s laws. The opposition can go further to influence laws that will ensure police independence. After all, the opposition has majority in Parliament and if they really mean well for Malawi they will act.
It takes power and wealth to bring change, says Kamkwamba Kalea, a microbiologist at the Polytechnic in Blantyre. He thinks Muluzi and Tembo have both power and money.
"Why can’t they do things for the better of this country?" Asks Kalea. "They can’t because they want to gain political points in everything they do."
The opposition leaders are crying like a baby that sits doing nothing to change things for the better. Parliament does not only make laws but enforces them in a powerful way. If they wanted, the opposition would have ensured that public broadcasters are impartial.
Why, then, do opposition parties simply cry without doing anything beyond the tears? The reasons are simple. One, the opposition’s number one priority is to go into government and public sympathy is a big tool to win votes. Two, they know if they change things for the good of the country, they would suffer once in government because they won’t abuse public broadcasters and the police.
So, every politician wants to abuse public broadcasters once they are in government. Every politician wants to abuse the army and the police once in government. Most of our politicians are selfish.
Isn’t Muluzi the one who was challenging democracy not long from now. In May 2002, he banned demonstrations for and against the third term, saying they threatened the country’s peace?
"As Commander-in-Chief of the Malawi Army and the [Malawi] Police, I will not allow anybody to demonstrate for or against the third term. I cannot allow that to happen," said Muluzi at a rally in Machinga on May 28, 2002. "Don’t use democracy to achieve your own motives."
A week later, the High Court ruled that the ban was illegal and that people had a constitutional right to demonstrate. Muluzi was annoyed.
"I can only describe it [the ruling] as irresponsible," said Muluzi, adding that the ruling had no effect on his ban and directed the police and the army to ensure there were no demonstrations. That, perhaps, was the time Justice Dunstain Mwaungulu was labelled anti-government by the Muluzi regime.
Don’t use democracy to achieve your own motives? Now the same can be said to Muluzi. He is using democracy to gain personal points.
The way forward is to work as a country to make institutions like police and the army to benefit people not a few politicians. This is our duty, not a single person’s. We all need to ensure that politicians do not hijack our democracy.
Muluzi does not deserve any sympathy, not at all. Otherwise once Mutharika is out of government, he will also buy public sympathy and the trend will go on and on and on for the benefit of individual politicians.
Sympathising with Muluzi is like saying there is no democracy in Malawi. But this is a police he left and it is improving. In his days it was more brutal than it is now. If we read the trends well, which is what we should be doing, we will notice that.
Democracy is a process, not a destination and we are on the road to mature democracy. If we are able to condemn the police, then it shows we disapprove intimidation and, some day, the country will look back and cherish the road we walked.
Let no man be deceived, Malawi is moving forward. One big challenge is that we look at the US and Britain and want Malawi to be like them. We forget that it has taken the countries centuries to be where they are today. This is where history, that all important subject, comes into play.
The civil society leaders who lack historical analysis should not disappoint us.
Let them look at history and analyse police brutality. They will see it is on decline and this will continue for decades until such a time we shall have a law abiding police.
Democracy is supposed to be a journey step by step, one step as if to turn away from the sacred path, the next as if to stop. Yet the journey continues.
Remember: "In order to be optimistic, one has to take a longer view," says Edge Kanyongolo, a renown academic in the Faculty of Law at Chancellor College in Zomba.