One of the people who are supporting UDF president Atupele Muluzi’s Agenda for Change is Thoko Banda, who has worked in the diplomatic service for a long time. Edyth Kambalame talks to Banda to find out what motivated him to join Atupele, and other issues.
…continued from last week
You have spent a good part of your life overseas. How do you intend to reconnect with Malawians on the ground?
First of all, allow me to say that my stay overseas was prolonged, not because I wanted it to be, but because of circumstances. Beyond this, however, I believe your question is, appropriately, posed in terms of what is best for serving the interests of impoverished Malawians.
I know many great Malawians such as Vera Chirwa have contributed immensely to this nation after periods of exile far longer than my own. My own father was able to credibly contribute to the development of people here after being locked away from society for 12 ½ years. Even in other countries, there are numerous persons who have served the interests of their people credibly in various roles despite having lived away from their peoples. I bring back all that I have learnt, here and abroad, for my country.
What is important is that Malawians, whether here or elsewhere, should have the interests of their people genuinely at heart. I am sure you know people, on the other hand, who have lived their entire lives here in the country and yet they are interested only in enriching their relatives and cronies. I have never lost touch with Malawi. There has not been a day when I haven’t dedicated thought to how I can help ordinary people here in this country. My heart is with the people. My ears and soul are open to their thoughts and needs. I am Malawian.
Are you doing your late father justice by going back to the party which frustrated his political ambition before he resigned as its vice-president to join Peoples Progressive Movement (PPM)?
Party hierarchy is made up of individuals and groups of individuals. I do believe that many of the more toxic (my word) elements of the old UDF are now nesting their toxicity in other parties. In March of 2003, I tendered my resignation from the embassy in protest against the third term bid and against the imposition of Bingu on the party and, by extension, on the nation. The frustrations you refer to were felt not only by my father but also for many other Malawians. I, too, suffered serious injustices after my resignation. However, my interest is in fixing the economic injustices that are being visited on our people. It is not about me. It actually is about them.
It is well known that MCP ushered in independence from colonial rule, only to later imprison my father and many thousands of other Malawians. It is no secret that UDF ushered in multiparty democratic leadership and later frustrated my father, myself and many other Malawians. The UDF-spinoff, DPP, corroded the economic foundations for many among us and the DPP-spinoff, PP, has entrenched this corrosion. I do feel vindicated by the events that have transpired since then, the corrosion of democratic standards, the deterioration of the economy, the deepening of hardships at street and village levels as well as in other socioeconomic layers of our society, the entrenchment of corruption by some in government, and the dampening of optimism among our people.
And I can tell you this—my father and UDF had their fallings out, but at no time did former president Muluzi abuse his presidential powers to trample on my family’s fundamental human rights. I cannot say the same of the current regime.
This again all lends weight to the pressing need for building a new generation of political engagement, a new generation of ideas, a new generation of leadership.
And so, what interests me is the history that our children and grandchildren will talk about, the history that today’s generation of young Malawians will now start to create, a bright history that builds on the good things (few or fewer perhaps, but good things nonetheless) that we have inherited from Malawi’s first 50 years. I am determined to help bring together young Malawians regardless of whether they are UDF or DPP or PP or PPM or other, those interested in fresh ideas, fresh leadership, fresh potentials.
You told the press that you have been a politician from a tender age. Why did you choose to play a background role when your father was on the top of things?
Well, I doubt that I have ever taken a back seat at anytime. There might be some people who like to broadcast their contributions at every turn, but there are also some of us (and I am sure I am not alone in this regard) who do things because they are the right things to do rather than doing it for personal publicity. There are numerous benefits that have accrued directly to the people of Malawi at street and village levels and more that most probably would not have happened if it were not for my contributions. Whether we are talking about the NDI and RFK Memorial giving awards to Malawians and supporting democracy, OVOP [One Village One Product] and Sasakawa Foundation/Carter Center food security activities in Malawi, special World Trade Center support for Malawi trade, Coffee promotion, the list goes on.
Why have you declared your interest now?
I am deeply worried that the poverty levels are worsening while the depths of public disillusionment are deepening. In my view, it is important to get as many people contributing to the national dialogue in positive ways, tabling fresh ideas, exploring new ways as possible, in the hope that this will lead to a more meaningful electoral process next year. In my view, it is important not only to intensify the discussions and to focus on ideas rather than on personalities, but it is also vital that we all strengthen adherence to the Constitution so that people choose more wisely next time than they did last time. Atupele’s initiative is worth taking seriously. I hope more young people will join this discussion with a focus on ideas and not on personalities.
In your opinion, what are UDF chances of regaining the presidency in 2014 polls?
Quite frankly, there are several “ifs”. If the Electoral Commission is genuinely independent and the voter registration and elections themselves are administered in a demonstrably open, free and fair manner, then the new UDF stands a better than even chance of forming the next government. Secondly, if the new UDF stays committed to these change discussions as UDF president Atupele Muluzi has promised to, and, thirdly, if young people join the discussions and get excited about changing our country in positive ways, then next year will be the beginning of the building of a more sustainable democracy with more leadership competence.
One of the criticisms of Atupele’s candidature is the ‘descendancy’ syndrome where son takes after father. Does your emergence as a son of another political heavyweight not make an already controversial situation even more unacceptable? Should Malawians be hearing the same names on the political scene?
Again here, what is more important for the future of Malawi is that we stop hearing the same failed ideas because it is ideas and not names that will either save this country or sink it further. It is important that, at whatever levels, be it national or regional or district or village, leadership should be about vision and competence in the interests of the people and not about names or heritage of individual candidates. I believe that every Malawian of eligible age should feel free to contribute whatever skills and energies they have for the improvement of the lives of our people, especially for the benefit of the most vulnerable among us. What is more important, I feel, is that incompetence, corruption, ethnocentricity and the like should not be passed on. Similarly, there is no hereditary birth right to leadership as would be the case in a monarchical system of government. Surely, it makes sense to talk about substance rather than about last names.
Do you think the youth have a chance to lead in Malawi politics? Can they be taken seriously?
Absolutely, yes. I would even go a step further to say that I would feel very sorry for Malawi if younger Malawians don’t take over the reins of government next year. Twenty-something year olds are effectively running huge multinationals with budgets that dwarf Malawi’s budget. When Malawi was becoming an independent nation in 1964, many young Malawians in their 20s and 30s were entrusted with developing this nation and, dare I say, they did, then, far better job than many of these older Malawians have been doing in the past couple of decades. Names like John Msonthi, Aleke Banda, the Chisiza brothers, Henry Chipembere, Rose Chibambo, John Tembo, Kanyama Chiume, and many others were part of an entire generation of young Malawians who served Malawi competently even while in their youth. The leadership must keep pace with this rapidly changing world.
What are your views on the progress of Malawi’s democracy since 1994?
Mixed. The optimism and sense of community-responsibility that was evident in the early days seems to have given way to a cynicism and individualism in some segments of society. It is easy to get caught up in complaints about ordinary citizens not taking responsibility, to lament how some people may seem to be less productive than they used to be, to fault young people on matters of discipline or traditional compliance and such. However, I believe these are merely indicators of the extent to which leaders have lost the respect of the people, a signal that people no longer trust that those in positions of leadership legitimately represent the popular will. With credible, competent, and compassionate leadership the optimism of 1994 will return come May 2014. If we orient our attitudes towards ideas and away from petty politics, this change agenda will transform our country in innumerable ways far quicker than we can even begin to imagine.
Anything more you may wish to say?
The world is watching. The people of Malawi are watching. They are weighing the current government’s claims about caring about children’s and other human rights against how the regime uses or abuses its powers. They are seeing through the globetrotting development-beggar mentality while some in power divert and personalise scarce resources. Actually, the questions you have posed above are so relevant and incisive that they add to my hope for this country, because they show that Malawians are thinking, critically, about the next elections and about the challenges of leadership for Malawi’s future.
As has also been articulated in Atupele Muluzi’s Agenda for Change, I am under no illusions about the challenges ahead. The challenges are plenty. The people of Malawi, if enabled, are, though, even more formidable and, with this in mind, I remain reasonably optimistic that next year Malawi shall return to the right path both politically and economically.
Personalisation of public resources and abuses of power must stop. I urge all Malawians to join the agenda for change so that our country can change so that our people realise their destiny with a more dignified future.
Malawi must, can, and will change—this I do believe.
If I were
Joyce Hilda Mtila-Banda
With Garry Chirwa
President of the Republic of Malawi, I would not proceed with my trip to Equatorial Guinea last week at a time the country was at a standstill with the civil servants’ strike.
If I were my good ‘ole mum, I would indeed realise that flying out of the country at a time when the country was rocked with such a crisis was insensitive on my part.
How I wish I were the President, because no matter how important the summit was, I should not have left amid the crisis as I am the head of the civil service.
If I were JB, I would realise that the civil service is the engine of government and it was unimaginable to leave the country at a time when nurses, teachers and all other civil servants were on a fully-fledged strike.
Worse still, I would not fly out with an estimated K34 million at a time when the country was battling against such a severe crisis.
That is if only I were my good mom JB. Fortunately, I am not her!