Hon. Folks, the relationship between government, on the one hand, and media and civil society, on the other, often is an indicator of whether a democracy is sick or healthy.
This point clearly emerged as a take-home message from a Smart Partnership meeting held in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, in 1999.
At that meeting, Sadc heads of state and government plus Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings and Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad held frank discussions with Sadc media and NGO leaders meant to seek a win-win scenario on how they could work together as “partners in development” of their respective countries and the region as a whole.
The meeting, preceding the Phoenix-like birth of the African Union from the ashes of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) early in the century, heralded the new trend of thought on governance in multiparty Africa.
There was a notable shift from the principle of “non-interference in the affairs of an independent sovereign State” that characterised the one-party dictatorial era to the “peer review mechanism” which does not only require of its member States to adhere to good economic and political governance but to also open up to scrutiny and rating using a credible and objective measuring tool.
In essence, the Victoria Falls meeting was an effort at ensuring that Sadc member countries draw from its template of democratic governance when building governance cultures for their respective countries. It’s a model that recognises government, civil society and the media as major stakeholders in a democracy.
The Sadc quest for a smart-partnership also resonates with United Nation model, developed later, for the reduction by 50 percent of world poverty by 2015 under the rubric of Millennium Development Programme.
It required of donors to commit 0.7 percent of their gross national incomes (GNI) on aid spending and a commitment by recipient governments to a democratic ownership of the development agenda.
The democratic ownership the UN model translates into the three arms of government (Executive, Legislature and Judiciary) working in partnership with the media and civil society to ensure aid and local revenue and other resources are used effectively and efficiently for the intended purposes.
It’s now 16 years after the Victoria Falls meeting and what’s the situation, is there the win-win scenario in Malawi? The media still awaits the enactment of an enabling law for Section 36 of the Constitution which requires of government to accord it “the fullest possible facilities for access to public information.”
While waiting, government clings to all “media-unfriendly” laws enacted during the colonial and one-party eras to insulate those in power from scrutiny and criticism. As a consequence, power has grossly abused, public funds wasted in botched contracts or looted in Cashgate proportions yet, as IMF discovered when they visited Malawi recently, there’s no urgency in government to wage war on impunity and raise the bar on transparency and accountability.
Likewise, the relations between government and the civil society are anything but cordial. Some CSOs, incensed by APM’s media-bashing in an effort to silence calls for him to account for the size, purpose and cost of his entourage to UNGA in New York recently, demanded that APM should resign and rebuffed government’s call to resolve the conflict by dialogue.
Of course, the crescendo of difficult relations between government and the civil society was in July 20, 2011 when the police shot dead 20 during nationwide demonstrations against the administration of the late Bingu wa Mutharika.
Donors too aren’t happy with governance issues in Malawi and have consequently frozen budgetary support to government. There simply is no evidence of a smart-partnership between government on the one hand, and media and the civil society on the other. Except for China, there’s also no good relationship between government and its traditional western donors.
This appears to be a gross case of missed opportunities. Observers are baffled that Malawi is the only one among the 10 poorest countries which hasn’t experienced civil strife or war. On October 17, Mail & Guardian claimed on its website that while wealth in private hands of adults in Africa has more than doubled to USD 2.6 trillion from USD 1.1 trillion in 2000, Malawi saw the “steepest decline” from USD 360 in 2000 to USD 169, a factor largely attributed to “governance challenges.”
The picture above resonates with claims, vehemently refuted by government months ago, that going by GNI per capita, Malawi was in 2014 at position 196, only better than war-torn Somalia’s data as at 1990!
The lesson from all this is: unless we first build a smart partnership, our economy will continue to bleed and that will more likely translate into continued decline in living standards.