In 2011, at the height of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s second term, the University of Malawi (Unima) closed for about eight months in the academic freedom struggle. It all started in March that year when the then Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito summoned Unima political science lecturer Blessings Chinsinga for drawing parallels between problems encountered in Malawi and those that led to uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The summoning rose questions about spies in lecture rooms, leading to other lecturers to stand in solidarity with Chinsinga. Consequently other academics Jessie Kabwila, Garton Kamchedzera and Franz Amin were fired together with Chinsinga. This led to lecturers downing their tools and students running amok, demanding academic freedom.
During the debacle, it was apparent that government thought the problem would vanish with a wish. Calls from academics and students that Mukhito should apologise for planting spies in lecture theatres fell on deaf ears. In fact, Mutharika was adamant, and at one point he said: “Mukhito sapepesa [Mukhito won’t apologise to anybody].”
Academic freedom championed by the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union (CCASU) was one of the thorny issues during the July 20 2011 protests against Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) poor economic management and poor governance.
It appears President Lazarus Chakwera, who was Leader of Opposition when the saga was raging, did not learn the lesson that you don’t just wish problems to vanish.
The Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) has threatened that it will resume its strike following government’s failure to provide teachers with allowances for personal protective equipment (PPE) as agreed earlier this month when they agreed to go back to work. That was after a meeting with the joint Parliamentary committees on education and social and community affairs.
This, according to a TUM statement, emanates from communication from the Parliamentary Committee on Education chairperson Brainex Kaise to the union that the Presidential Task Force on Covid 19 rejected the proposal to have teachers provided with cash equivalent to PPE for three months.
It is immaterial to debate here whether or not the teachers are justified to demand the allowances which would lead to government coughing K3.6 billion more every month. Likewise, it is immaterial whether or not government is justified to think teachers do not deserve K35 000 per month per teacher for eight months. It is not worth a bother why the presidential task force is now against the allowances recommended by its education cluster.
What matters now is Chakwera’s silence on the matter. You would say the President can’t talk about the matter because he met the TUM membership on the debacle. Or that the taskforce he appointment has given TUM their take. Or that education minister Agness NyaLonje referred the matter to the presidential task force which put its foot down before Parliament offered to mediate.
Whatever happens, Chakwera bears the flak on this matter. It is his final and executive decision that will pit him as a decisive leader. Hiding behind a flurry wall of committees and task forces is not.
When he declared that schools reopen, the hope was that Chakwera would talk about the issue of the risky allowances to the teachers, but he chose to ignore it. He wished that it would vanish.
There might be some political games behind the teachers’ strike. That is evident where some TUM members issue a statement calling off the strike only to hear later their president Willie Malimba declaring only him or general secretary can call of the strike. Even where some teachers form a parallel ‘TUM’.
And, sadly, you can see politics at play where government and TUM sign a statement calling off the strike only to get Malimba saying he was forced to sign the statement. Who is fooling who? Whoever, it is learners out there who are suffering.
In fact, this is an infringement of the children’s basic right to education. It is a constitutional matter.
During the academic freedom saga, there were so many parties involved: The CCASU, government, civil society and even the courts. Yet, everyone remembers that it was under Bingu’s rule. In the same way, when all this will pass away, we will forget that there was a presidential taskforce on Covid 19, we will forget the parliamentary committees and we will forget who was at the helm of TUM. One thing we will remember is that all this unnecessary tug-of-war happened during Chakwera’s rule.