Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Rethinking Malawi, the Way Forward

It is over a month without a budget and all looks well: state services are available. But the long term results are catastrophic. We are reversing progress made in decades, and the price will be bitter.

It is the end of winter and the warm season, a time for work, is here. In fact, early farmers have already started work in readiness for the rains.

Each season has specific work and Malawians understand this well. Our sense of time is serious that anyone who does not pay attention to seasons is regarded out of touch because time for planting is for planting, not for making ridges.

So we are, a month into a new financial year without an approved budget. On the surface, it looks like a political feud: the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) and Malawi Congress Party (MCP) want Section 65 while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wants the national budget.

Journalists have a weakness for declaring this moment or that one as critical. But today, more than a month into a new financial year without an approved budget, there is little doubt that we stand at a critical moment of our future—the welfare of our children and their children.

"Soon we will see deterioration of both quality and quantity of public goods and services, automatically disadvantaging the poorest of our society," says Collins Magalasi, a economic commentator in Lilongwe.

Public hospitals will offer poor services, schools will run out of teaching and learning materials, and roads will lack maintenance. The security organs, police and army, will have inadequate resources to provide security. Even when the budget is approved, the delay will cost us because procurement of drugs, for example, takes time.

One, the drugs we could have bought now will cost us more in months to come. Secondly, essential drugs may run out and between now and the next procurement, we may court unnecessary deaths. Will any politician justify such deaths and point a finger at someone as responsible? Shall Malawians listen to such politicians and cheer them, even vote for them?

"The productivity of this country and general availability of basic necessities will go down and this will ignite [an] increase in prices. Again, the one to suffer most are the poor," says Magalasi.

Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe may be wearing a brave face but his ministry is already under stress. The reality of spending without a budget will soon hit ministries of finance and economic planning and development. Gondwe and Ken Lipenga will face donors without an approved budget.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be coming to Malawi for talks on the next IMF programme, either on a new poverty reduction and growth facility (PRGF) or a poverty support instrument (PSI), either of which require a budget.

"We must remember that the IMF gives signals to the rest of the donor community whether to support Malawi or not. So, without an approved budget, the IMF programme will be a non-starter and the country will be out of the compass of donors. The results are serious," says Magalasi.

Serious indeed. The Reserve Bank of Malawi will be under pressure to manage inflation, interest rates and exchange rates. This management is necessary now when maize prices are rising, and world inflation rates are unstable and governments are working 24/7 to ensure economic stability.

The private sector that we want to grow to provide taxes to government and employ more people will be hit hard, and the costs will be transferred to consumers. The poor will pay the price. We are, as one economist says, "destroying what we have been building all these years."

But we are not able to see this now, partly because of our partisan opinions. We do not evaluate ideas and events as Malawians but as party followers. We live in an ideal country, full of partisan influence. We forget that Malawi is a real country and has real people who need a real government that offers real public services.

The worst consequence of not passing the budget is that we are saying ‘we don’t care about Malawi’. It shows politicians do not care at all about this country and this has worse results than we think. Why should a common man care for telephone cables when MPs don’t care about this country? Why should people care for public property when party leaders are denying Malawians a budget?

Are we surprised that private and public property is being stolen for sale in Malawi and neighbouring countries?

Budget or Section 65?

One fact—a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless—is that Malawi may soon stop moving forward. This budget/Section 65 deadlock, in real sense, shows the selfishness of our elected leaders, our politicians and our partisan thinking that we still support our politicians when they are taking this country to a hell of darkness and hopelessness.

One lesson of leadership offered by Nelson Mandela, the world’s greatest man living, is that life is not about things being in black or white, that you can choose either Section 65 or budget.

Life is more complicated than choosing between A and B. Time Magazine managing editor Richard Stengel, writing weeks ago, celebrated Mandela’s 90th birthday with eight lessons of leadership. Stengel worked with Mandela on his book Long Walk to Freedom.

When they began a series of interviews, Stengel often asked Mandela questions like this one: When you decided to suspend the armed struggle, was it because you realised you did not have the strength to overthrow the government or because you knew you could win over international opinion by choosing nonviolence? Mandela would then give Stengel a curious glance and say, ‘Why not both?’

Next, the brilliant journalist started asking smarter questions. "But the message was clear: Life is never either/or," says Stengel. "Decisions are complex, and there are always competing factors. To look for simple explanations is the bias of the human brain, but it doesn’t correspond to reality. Nothing is ever as straightforward as it appears."

The current political feud is not as straightforward as budget versus Section 65. The lesson from Mandela’s life teaches us that every problem, including the current political dispute, has many causes.

While Mandela was clearly against apartheid, he knew its causes were complex. They were historical, sociological and psychological. Mandela’s calculus, says Stengel, was always, "what is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?"

What is the cause of the political battle we have now? What is the end we seek for Malawi? Why should Section 65 be a problem now when we have lived with it for over a decade? The truth is that the struggle is not between the budget and Section 65. These are lifeless things. They do not speak. The warfare is between those who speak for the budget and Section 65.

It cannot just be that Section 65 and the national budget have become competitors today. The two cannot compete because they are different.

The validity of Section 65 can be decided by a court of law or a constitutional conference. The validity of the budget is not an issue for courts or debate at a constitutional conference. This means it is wrong to equate the budget and Section 65 because their importance is different.

Section 65 is partisan while the budget is national, for everybody, regardless of political party membership, meaning Section 65 and the budget cannot compete and they are not competing.

The struggle is between President Bingu wa Mutharika and former president Bakili Muluzi. The two worked together and we do not know what they agreed to do after Mutharika’s election. The least we can guess is that the UDF expected financial returns from state resources because, as former UDF publicity secretary Sam Mpasu said, Mutharika was supposed to help the party pay back debts incurred during the 2004 campaign.

Way forward

We must now stand up for our country, tell the two leaders to leave this country to move forward. We cannot allow to be held at ransom by two people. Why?

This is time to confront reality. With patriotism and thinking Malawi first, it is possible to have something that is unsatisfying to both sides of the budget/Section 65 row but that benefits Malawians and prevents the worst scenarios from unfolding, secures hope and allows the country to regain its energies and strategic path to becoming the centre of Southern Africa.

But for that to happen, we have to see Malawi as it is now, not as it once was, not as it could have been, not as we hope it will become, but as it is today.

There will be ample time to assign blame and debate who was right or wrong. But, as at now, Malawians must win and their victory is in the budget. The challenge is to look at the budget as national, for all Malawians.
We need the budget to move on as a country. We need development, whatever our party loyalty. Malawi’s most revealing statistics is not that 10 people die of Aids every hour. This is no longer news although the media treats it as such. The most informative statistics is our unemployment rate, which some websites put at 90 percent.

The root cause of this unemployment is, of course, our small economy. It is this small economy that needs to grow. Malawi needs people who consistently ask important questions about patriotism, the relationships between individuals, communities and governments or who think more deeply about how we should conduct ourselves in a multiparty democracy in which loyalties of partisan politics continue to rule. We need to do the following to move our country out of this political bad blood.

Malawi first. Why are we so much divided by politics? Are politicians the only people who can guide our life, and the future of our country? "Politics," said General Charles de Gaulle, "is too serious a game to be left to politicians alone."

The hope of this country is in our hands, not in the hands of politicians, some of whom have no idea about Malawi. We must find a way of holding politicians to serve our interests. We are all developing this country although some want us to believe it is Mutharika responsible.

Of course, it would be foolish to give all the credit for the developmental changes to Mutharika but equally foolish to deny him any of it.

The President was right in Nkhotakota when he opened the new district hospital. He said no one should say Mutharika has done this or that because we are all developing the country. He cited nurses, teachers, journalists as examples.

This is what we need to do: to look at ourselves as Malawians and think Malawi first, not individuals, not parties, not religion.

Servants, not masters. One challenge facing us is that we regard politicians as masters when they are our servants, employed to serve our interests, the interests of this country.

"Malawians trust their leaders a lot, and there is nothing wrong with that," says Magalasi "In the run up to elections, politicians come to voters with promises; in other words, they decide their own job deliverables when, in fact, it is supposed to be us voters telling the candidates what milestones they much achieve."

Section 12(i) says "All legal and political authority of the State derives from the people of Malawi and shall be exercised in accordance with this Constitution solely to serve and protect their interests." Section 12 (iii) says: "The authority to exercise power of State is conditional upon the sustained trust of the people of Malawi and that trust can only be maintained through open, accountable and transparent Government and informed democratic choice."

Why, then, do we seem powerless, leaving this country to suffer a struggle between Muluzi and Mutharika? One reason is that we take them as our masters, not servants.

One way to erase the idea that politicians are masters is to stop referring to them as honourable. The title honourable should be reserved for MPs while in the august House. It is the House that is honourable and everything that happens there is supposed to be honourable, even the people.

Honourable is an irritating title. Let it be reserved for judges and justices. Let it be reserved for business in the august House. Let politicians live ordinary lives, taking pride in their leadership, not honour.

Patriotism. We need to love our country more than our parties, religions, tribes and jobs. Politicians, especially, need to lead in patriotism.

The economic growth that Malawi has registered in the past few years is meaningless if it stops today. We need continuous growth for 20 years to double our average incomes and see real change in our lives. This growth needs to continue and that can happen if we cherish the country, if we care for Malawi as we do a newly born baby.

Even opposition parties need to be happy because once they get into power, they will continue from a solid foundation. We need continuity, not to start all over again every five or 10 years. We need to move on as a country, for our benefit and that of our children and their children.

What is it that we should do to love our country first? One, the national flag should be for all of us, anytime. It should not be reserved for senior government officials as if the rest of us are not Malawians.

Any person should be free to hang a flag inside their vehicle, fly it on their house, company premises and all such places. Our children should learn about Malawi more than any other country. We also need a service week in which all of us engage in services to our nation: cleaning our surroundings, helping public institutions like hospitals and schools and debating national issues, among other things.

It is not the work that will make people love their country. It is the theory behind the service week that will sink in people’s minds: that we are Malawians and this is the only country we have and ought to take care of.

Beyond politics. Our country is so much into politics and it seems we have no other newsmakers apart from politicians.

The media portrays politicians as the only important people in the country when there are professionals doing the right things about this country.

There are businesspeople and chief executive officers whose stories should be told to Malawians. Think of Rose Mkandawire, George Patridge, Thom Mpinganjira, Rose Chibambo, Anastasia Msosa, Vera Chirwa, Aleke Banda, the Mulli Brothers and Matthews Chikaonda. Consider our professors and their contribution to Malawi? Think of the Kishindo brothers, Paul and Pascal. Remember Wapulumuka Mluwafu, Kings Phiri, John Saka, and others?

Why, then, do we talk about politicians as if they are the only ones responsible for the future of Malawi? People need to appreciate that there is life outside politics. These successful people teach us that to develop a country, go into business or academics, not politics.

Malawi needs the story of Malawi told through Malawians in all fields. Then, perhaps, we shall realise that we are all developing this country and that our future is too fragile to be left to politicians only, especially now when we are in a season of work, a time to tirelessly develop our country.

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