Perhaps this is not a valid question because human rights activists have been hitting hard at President Bingu wa Mutharika, saying he is not showing interest in holding local government polls. Now the news is that Malawi will have local polls next year.
It is a game gone now. We shall have polls in 2010. But the question remains relevant: Does Malawi need ward councilors?
The answer, according to our cultural governance structures, is that Malawi does not need local polls because we have leadership from extended family to paramount chiefs. This is the best local governance structure but blindness to the local—and non-stop gaze at the alien—has made us think we need local polls when we already have governance structures that work better than assemblies.
The reason activists are giving is that the polls are constitutional, so must be held. Some add that councilors, elected in local polls, help in development. So, having councilors is a human right.
On the surface, it appears true. But looking deeper, Malawi does not need councilors, and the reason is cultural, not legal; it is practical, not theoretical.
Our legal setting, as per our Constitution, starts at an individual. Every person, says the Constitution. The individual is the centre of our freedoms. (I need my individual freedoms, of course; to decide what I want to do with my life so, long I don’t injure other people’s freedoms.)
Our social/cultural setting does not necessarily start at the individual level. It starts at family level. We are known by family names. Whose son/daughter is this? A question often asked when we do good or bad. Our identity, culturally and socially, is by our family. Next it is the extended family, from which come villages, headed by village heads.
And our governments recognise village heads. One piece of evidence is that they are on government payroll. The village heads work, and they keep society on a journey.
They know almost all families in a village. The heads know almost all people coming into and getting out of the village. My headwoman, for example, knows where I live (Blantyre), she knows where I work (TVM), and she knows my marital status. She knows the needs of people of the village because she is with them as her own. She talks with them daily.
The talking is informal and, honestly, informal meetings are the ones running the world. Why should we, therefore, have councilors when we have village heads who know their areas better than elected leaders?
Councilors have a term. Village heads work for life. What is it that councilors do that village heads cannot do in development?
Our challenge is that we have not studied our governance structures to make democracy flow in them freely. We don’t need to copy everything Western. Our cultural and social settings are very fertile to democracy. It is a question of accepting our ways of life.
But this is difficult when we have NGOs that make noise. Some—and I say some—of the civil society groups are headed by not se educated people who cannot understand the need for cultural identity in our governance systems.
The West needs councilors because they do not have villages the way we do here. Why should we have councilors? This is the question. Any answers?