How time flies! It is 30 years since seven catholic bishops released Living Our Faith, the pastoral letter credited with accelerating the fall of founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s 31-year dictatorship in 1993.
The local conference of Catholic bishops marked the 30th anniversary of the time-splitting letter by releasing yet another scathing letter read in all Catholic churches nationwide on March 6 2022.
The new one criticises President Lazarus Chakwera’s leadership, like its predecessors, of indecisiveness, corruption, nepotism and impunity that have left the country “even worse” than it were three decades ago.
Professor Edge Fidelis Kanyongolo, a constitutional lawyer based at the University of Malawi, says the pastoral letter released on March 8 1992 was a mark of courage as the dictator ruled Malawi with terror and ritualised paternalism.
Ironically, the leader under fire relied on religious institutions to bolster his unquestionable authority from 1964 to 1992.
He recounts: “Prior to the release of the 1992 pastoral letter, many Malawians were suffering not because they were lacking basic materials, but human dignity.
“The one-party regime was extremely autocratic and quite oppressive.”
Breaking the silence
According to Kanyongolo, the reign of terror left little room, if any, for human rights and freedoms.
“Many Malawians lived in fear of being arrested for petty offences. Fear of being harassed by the Youth Leaguers who would enforce party decrees mercilessly. This included such draconic rule of carrying a party card,” he said.
The bishops whipped up the demands for democracy amid the wind of change that blew across southern Africa in the early 1990s.
They fearlessly challenged the prevailing culture of silence in a pastoral letter that earned them death threats and exile of Mzuzu Diocese Irish leader, Monsignor John Roche.
Kanyongolo salutes the courageous seven for sacrificing their lives to pave the way for representative democracy.
On February 3 1983, the autocratic regime’s special branch detained Kanyongolo and other perceived dissident Chanco students for 15 months without trial.
“So repressive was the atmosphere characterised by shrinking of space for personal freedoms that something had to give in. Fortunately, it was the Catholic bishops who had sufficient gravity and credibility to speak out,” he says.
During a special convention at the Malawi Congress Party headquarters in Lilongwe, the ruling elites resolved to kill the bishops.
At the meeting, some irate women loyal to Banda even volunteered to urinate in the blacklisted men of the mitre.
However, Catholic students at Chancellor collage in Zomba marched to the Zomba Cathedral in what could be the first ever demonstration.
Kanyongolo faults the State for failing prosecute perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses, including the burning of the Montfort Media where the pastoral letter was printed.
The arson mirrored an iron-fisted fight back by a regime which punished its perceived foes and dissidents with detentions without trial and exile.
Like Roche who was given 24 hours to leave Malawi, Banda’s machinery deported Father Piergorgio Gamba, who was in charge of the printing press linked with the censored pastoral letter that changed the political landscape.
Retired Bishop Allan Chamgwera, the only surviving member of the seven who authored the famous pastoral letter, is frustrated that most of the objectives have not been achieved.
According to the bishop emeritus, the epistle was a call to mindset change and political that benefit everyone—not corruption, nepotism, cronyism, tribalism and regionalism which remain widespread.
He told The Nation: “The pastoral letter did not condemn Kamuzu, but rather enlightened him about the teaching of the church and God’s will.
“We only reminded him of the responsibility he had on the people of Malawi as the one running the affairs of the government.”
As does the newly released pastoral letter, the 1992 version dialled up the belief that citizens’ aspirations should be respected at all costs.
“The pastoral letter highlighted to Kamuzu that people had the choice to make political decisions own their own,” says Chamgwera.
Time for reflection
Father Henry Saindi, the spokesperson of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), credited the courageous seven and other pro-democracy pressure groups for the shift to multiparty politics.
He explained: “An important question we must ask ourselves today is: Is this the Malawi we all aspired to and dreamed of 30 years ago?
“The honest response is that while we have done well in some areas such as advancing the freedoms and rights of citizens, we have crippled system of service delivery which is evident in poor service delivery in hospitals, schools, road infrastructure, increasing gap between the rich and the poor.”
Saindi said the 30-year-old pastoral letter remains relevant today.
“To celebrate it, we need to go back to it and reflect on it and understand the messages it is presenting to us today,” he said.
In the commemorative pastoral letter, the bishops say the situation is even worse today as poverty deepens.
“This is not the better Malawi for all the bishops wanted. We need economic liberation, road infrastructure and decisive action to root out of corruption,” Saindi explains.
MCP eastern region chairperson Samson Kawalazila said much as the pastoral letter helped to bring personal freedoms and the respect for human rights, it has failed to liberate people economically.
“The gap between the poor and the rich still remains huge although people have freedoms. We acknowledge some atrocities committed after the letter was published, but we need to understand that every action breeds a reaction.
More needs to change
According to Gamba, Montfort Media published 16 000 copies of Living Our Faith in Chichewa, Tumbuka and English.
“There was deafening silence at Balaka,” he said. “On whether the pastoral letter objective achieved its objectives, the answers are many and I believe that’s why the Bishops continue releasing more letters.”
He reckons the main hindrance to the bishops’ patriotic objectives include widespread corruption, nepotism, cronyism, tribalism and regionalism.
He recalls: “There were consequences immediately after the letter was released. These included the torching of the Montfort Media and conspiracy to kill the bishops. Sensing danger the Apostolic Nuncio from Zambia smuggled me across the country.
“I went to Vatican where I briefed Pope John Paul about the situation in the country. The exact words of the Pope response was ‘Wait and see; peace will not happen in one day.”