Former president Peter Mutharika has proposed the abolition of regions and suggests that the country should instead turn districts into semi-autonomous political and administrative units reporting directly to central government as one way of ending regionalism.
But political and governance experts have argued that administratively, Malawi was no longer divided into regions because regional administrators to whom all district commissioners (DCs) were reporting were abolished in the early 1990s.
In an exclusive interview with The Nation at his retirement home in Mangochi on Friday, Mutharika said structuring the country based on regions was a mistake because it makes people of the same country think they are different.
He said: “It is very sad that the country continues to be divided on regional lines or ethnic lines. It is sad because when the Nyasaland African Congress, which later became Malawi Congress Party [MCP] was formed, we did not have this at all.
“It was one party, we did not really think about the regions then. This, I think, started with the one-party State when people thought one region maybe was being favoured or was dominant in those days and that continued after multiparty when people again thought one region was being favoured as opposed to the other and that kind of thinking continues.”
Mutharika, who said regions are neither politically nor geographically important, said there are no areas in the country where there are distinct regions that are geographically different from others.
The former president said the only part of the country with a distinct barrier is the Lower Shire Valley with its mountains that gives it a distinct feature.
He said among the numerous proposals he made on the matter, one is on a federal State such as in Nigeria where there were three regions, but were divided into 36 States.
On distribution of State resources and infrastructure, Mutharika cited South Africa where he said some key institutions were allocated separately across the country; hence, promoting equality.
Mutharika, who admitted that his proposal to do away with the regions was difficult to implement under his tenure, said he still stands by it, emphasising that it would be important to abolish the regions and remain with the country’s 28 districts.
But in an interview yesterday, Ernest Thindwa, a political science lecturer at Chancellor College (Chanco)—a constituent college of the University of Malawi, blamed political parties for dividing the country into regions through, among other things, appointment or election of regional governors.
He said: “It is politicians who are the prime culprits for letting Malawians identify themselves primarily by their ethnic identity, region of origin and country in that order.
“Citizens get cues from how the government of the day relates to them in shaping their identity.
“An inclusive government will tend to encourage citizens to identify themselves primarily by the Malawian identity than the regional or ethnic tag while a perceived exclusionary government will tend to generate the opposite effect.”
Mutharika’s proposal also comes at a time when numerous calls have been made in previous years for the country to become a federal State.
Proponents of the federal system of government have previously argued that a federal State would be a solution to the political and social ills, including regionalism.
But Thindwa yesterday said what Mutharika is proposing is not federalism, but an alteration to the existing unitary system.
He said while federalism is an admirable system of governance as it tends to entrench democratic rule by bringing government closer to people, an approach to attain such a feat needs to be incremental than radical to provide an opportunity to test and adjust ideas.
Thindwa said in that regard, rolling out the decentralisation policy in its entirety will be a significant step towards assessing the feasibility of federalism in the Malawi context.
He observed that currently, conditions are not ripe for a fully fledged federal system.
In a separate telephone interview, Blessings Chinsinga, a professor in public administration at Chanco, said there is more to do than abolishing regions in the context of tackling the problem of regionalism.
He said: “It is not simply a question of dealing away with regions. Even if regions were not there, it is what the people do to promote practices that entrench regionalism.”
Like Thindwa, Chinsinga also said politicians entrench regionalism among the masses to advance their political interests; hence, the solution to the vice does not lie in abolishing regions.
But Mutharika, while saying he should have pushed for his proposal when he was in power, insisted on Friday that the country needs to forget regions as they are not recognised in the Constitution and that it is a pure political thing.