The question invoked emotions in me. Was it a mere opening glee to a phone conversation or did my friend, being a child of this soil, really want to know the state of affairs in a country we both proudly call home?
My friend left for England during the first term of former president Bakili Muluzi. We were together when the bodies of the Mwanza Fourâ€”ministers Dick Matenje, Aaron Gadama, Twaibu Sangala and MP David Chiwangaâ€”were exhumed and reburied with full military honours.
We did not just tell the story of the proper reburial, but also of the presidential pledge that never again will the precious blood of a Malawian be spilt for sheer political expediency.
My friend left when the police, notorious for their brutality during the Kamuzu era, had rebranded from Malawi Police Force to Malawi Police Service â€œwith a human heartâ€. We were assured then that no longer will the police be used to detain citizens without trial or turn them into meat for crocodiles.
The new political dispensation was ushered in together with a brand new Constitution which included Bill of Rights which partisan MPs could not amend or repeal with a simple majority vote.
The Constitution also placed all people equal before the law, denied any personâ€”including an elected State Presidentâ€”the above-the-law status that Kamuzu enjoyed and abused as he went about playing God with the help of opportunists such as Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba.
Those fighting for change believed the new dispensation would release the collective creative genius of Malawians to address the developmental challenges facing our country in an atmosphere where oneâ€™s freedom is guaranteed as long as one does not break the law.
We scoffed at Ntaba and other MCP cronies then, when they vehemently argued that â€œmultiparty means warâ€.
MCP lost in the referendum and the first general elections in the multiparty dispensation. What Ntaba did was simply to ditch MCP at a time when it was rebranding as a democratic political party, with vast experience in government and which cherished the value of discipline.
Ironically, Ntaba easily migrated to UDF where he openly declared that his interest was to serve in government, saying he was tired of being in opposition. He found a niche in feedingÂ Muluziâ€™s greed for power and helped to turn around the democratic governance that made Muluzi a darling of Malawians during his first term in office.
Muluziâ€™s second term was more like what Mutharikaâ€™s second term is: use of public broadcasters for propaganda, unleashing violence on opposition, media and civil society and deliberate use of public resources for party functions. Simply put: bad governance and Ntaba happily assumed the unenviable role of defending each and every act of government, at a price, of course.
In those days, Ntaba dubbed media houses which questioned government actions â€œirresponsibleâ€ or â€œunprofessionalâ€.Â Today, both Ntaba and President Mutharika think media houses that expose the rot in government are â€œunpatrioticâ€ and should be blamed for the backlash that bad governance and violation of human rights attracts from donor capitals.
I was lingering on how best to answer the question: â€œHow is Malawi?â€ when my UK-based friend again asked: â€œIs it true they have arrested Muluziâ€™s son, Atupele? Why?â€
I answered that indeed it was true and that the reason was that Atupele had the audacity to exercise his constitutional right to assemble with others affiliated with UDF, a party which is in opposition when those in power think you can only exercise those rights with their permission which they wonâ€™t grant unless you belong to DPP.
â€œIs it also true that they arrested human rights activist John Kapito?â€™â€™ my friend asked again. I said yes, that happened only days before they arrested Atupele and a month after the arrested of lawyer Ralph Kasambara.
But I also added: While the Mutharika administration is using the police to arrest those speaking against its dictatorial tendencies, the courtsâ€”the only institutions mandated by the Constitution to establish whether one is indeed guilty of breaking the lawâ€”have not functioned since January.
Again all this is because the same government refused to pay judicial officers pay packages recommended by Parliament as stipulated in the laws of the land. So, what do we have? A government without one of its three arms which now uses prisons and police cells to punish its enemies, real or perceived.
Sorry, I digressed. The question was: â€œHow is Malawi?â€Â Would it be correct to describe ours as a â€œbleeding democracy?â€