In a week attacks on land ownership and private sector investment have dominated the discourse, BRIGHT MALOPA, a local investor stood out as the voice of reason to defend land ownership by foreigners and offer tips on how government can support private sector investment in the country. In this interview, he shares his views with our staff writer MOSES MICHAEL-PHIRI. Excerpts:
How is the private sector treating you?
Well, it’s pretty much exhaustive, competitive and very inviting.
How far have you gone with the Cape Maclear Project? Have you been able to attract investors?
We have local appetite which is being coordinated by Alliance Capital, private individuals, regional and international short and long-term institutional investors, who share the dream of becoming part of a breathtaking venture in the development of a smart city project.
Talking about investors, I recently read your Facebook post in which you warned strongly against the notion that somehow, foreigners and Malawians of Asian origins should not be allowed to own land because that would be detrimental to investment. Can you expound on that?
Well, my views were shared on two points of strength: ( a) as an observer of process and a social capitalist who shares the principles of a free market economy in which decisions about commerce, are influenced by price signals resulting from the laws of supply and demand. It has its own pitfalls but it has been credited for what appears to be successful economies.
b) The second point stems out of my understanding of the Bill of Rights in which all persons are protected by law and that all citizens are equal, therefore, should not be discriminated against on the basis of skin colour. In that regard, we are a country of laws which are good enough to correct the wrongs as opposed to the rule of the mob in which society decides what is wrong and the methods to deal with them.
In your view, what would be the best way of managing the land issues in the context of investment while not crowding out Malawians of African descent from owing prime land in major cities and towns?
Interestingly, I have had my fair share of frustration from my attempts to buy public land. Even when I was in a position of influence, it was never my amicus to push my way through. Thus I have made land applications to Blantyre City, Malawi Housing Corporation, Lilongwe City Assembly and the Ministry of Lands which was selling land on Sanjika Road in Namiwawa but was never successful except when I applied for a land parcel in Dedza which was passed on to another person within the Dedza District Assembly offices without my knowledge.
All my successful bids on land purchases have been those I dealt with private individuals like Aleke Banda from whose land I built my current home and the Press Properties. The problem in my unsuccessful land bids were politicians and corrupt public officers. Only on one occasion did I come into conflict with a Malawian of Asian Origin. It turned out that this guy was approached by a public official to facilitate a land swap because I could not offer him a bribe and I protested profusely even though I had no money.
We must have order first. Land documents are changed by third parties without the knowledge of first parties. Deed documents go missing sometimes without explanations. Decisions that are made today cannot be defended or repeated tomorrow. Weak systems and selective application of land laws is what leads to all this before the Asian man is brought on the altar.
To address this, government must first look at the loopholes in the law before dealing with the culprit. Invest in computerised process that eliminates human contact. Human interaction has often been attributed to the rise in most corruption related cases. Introduce strict and clear guidelines on what constitutes conflict of interest. The most serial offenders in land matters are public officers. They identify the land, sometimes allocate or share prime land amongst themselves, then lookout for Malawian of Asian origin to buy the same land at a premium. The whole supply chain requires a system overhaul.
You also did mention that people would be surprised with how Malawian some of the people of Asian descent—the so-called Amwenye—are?
Whenever people see Amwenye, Malawians of African descent often conclude that he is a foreigner. I don’t find this position to be intellectually charming because most of the Asians you see today regardless of what you think of them are fourth and fifth generation with their parents, grandparents and great grandparents buried at Kanjedza, Area 2 and many places across the country.
The second point is that Malawi citizenship only came into being in 1964. Complicating all this now is the newly adopted dual citizenship law which created a window for most people to obtain the much talked about citizenship. How then do we call a person ticking all these boxes a foreigner? If one has a Malawian citizenship, he or she is no more or less a citizen than the other regardless of his tribe, race and religion. He or she must be allowed to enjoy all the benefits of a citizen regardless of his/her race.
We must begin to appreciate the benefits that come with cultural diversity by looking at the good side of each other. There will always be bad people in society. Greed has no race, tribe, religion or color but the ills born out of society be in black, white or Asian will be dealt by the law. We, therefore, ….have a moral duty to speak against any form of Xenophobia or racism.
There is a general feeling out there that Amwenye are dominating government tenders, thereby elbowing out the local Malawian entrepreneur, what is your take?
As a society, our starting point should be facts and not feelings. The main problem is lack of political funding mechanism. This dominance does not occur in the vacuum. It stems out of political backing to a few selected and corrupt lot. Not all Asians of Malawian origin participate in government contracts. Political parties must find sustainable means to finance their political activities otherwise the whole system results into state capture of some sort and from one regime to the other but having said that, how did we arrive at this point should be the first question.
Most people we call Amwenye, grew up in the rural areas where they were plying their trade. They were not engaged in tendering processes of their time. We complained that their business ventures and tactics were chocking off local business men. We chased them from those rural areas and forced them to town and cities followed by forfeiture proceedings. Local business men took over their businesses and properties and ground them to halt. Local economies collapsed leading to urban migration. Now there is a general outcry of Asians dominating the tender process.
The general feeling is not based on unfounded basis. It has some basis but it is not a complete story. How many Malawians of Asian origin are employed at Macra, Malawi Revenue Authority [MRA], Escom, Admarc and Blantyre Water Board or post office for example? The truth is, they are not considered Malawians even though they are Malawians and because of that people will be biased against them. As a result, they have concentrated on what they know best which is trading. They send their children to good schools but prepare them to a world they will be employed by anyone save for their family business.
If you push one society into a corner, you are bound to harvest monstrous behaviour, the kind we are witnessing today. Today, it’s the Asians, tomorrow it will be Tumbukas, then Lhomwes or Chewas. This will only end in destroying the moral fabric that holds this country together. The ills of our society should not be attached to races or tribes. It must be dealt by law.
What do you consider to be the underlining problems that make it hard for a Malawian entrepreneur to compete fairly with a foreign bidder or Malawians of Asian descent tendering for the same jobs?
Business to most Malawians of African descent is an afterthought. To Malawians of Asian origin, it is a way of life. Then there is a general feeling that I am not doing well because of the person who is different from me. If it’s not Amwenye, it will be the Tumbukas, the Lhomwes and the Chewas. Forget about the tenders and consider the treatment we give to Rwandese and Burundi Africans. A small shop, no tendering opportunities—we go after them. Xenophobia is our main problem and we ought to address it since we have joined the Comesa free-trade area, which will open doors to more foreigners.
Do you think the policy interventions have gone far enough to promote entrepreneurship among indigenous Malawians and businesses owned by them?
The good thing the new government has done is the establishment of the ministry of Unity and Civic education. The importance of this ministry in bridging up misunderstanding and the societal differences currently facing our country cannot be over emphasised. We must invest in civic education in our bid to build a more tolerant and just society.
What are your thoughts on the current anti-Amwenye sentiments? What would be the implications of this growing trend?
We must consider the wider implications of sentiments that are hell bent on denigrating minorities into a corner where their rights are stripped off. It will scare off Foreign Direct Investment this country badly needs. The world out there cares less about the majority. It pays more attention to how the majority treats the minorities and therein lies the danger.
Some people say it is the behaviour of some of these people—including taking out of Malawi proceeds generated in the country as well as poor treatment of locals—that is raising these negative sentiments. What do you say?
Externalisation of Forex resources is bad and must be condemned. I have seen properties in London bought out of proceeds from Malawi. The Trocadelo at Leicester square was bought for 900 million British pound cash from a family from Malawi. I have also seen another family owning up to $2 billion worth of properties in Dubai alone from Malawian proceeds.
While you cannot stop people from investing wherever they want to under free market policies currently being pursued by Malawi, we must also question our governance structures. This money does not leave this country in money bags or trunks. It leaves through forex applications authorised by the Reserve Bank of Malawi [RBM]. Do they carry forex audits against applicants to find out if there is correlation between forex out and money in? Do RBM and MRA talk to each other?
Have you considered introducing an affirmative action aiming at employing Malawians of Asian origin to organisations such as MRA, RBM, FIU and NIB? Like what is done in other African countries like Kenya, South Africa and Namibia for example?
Lastly, let’s avoid making people to live in perpetual fear that they are not welcomed in their country of birth. They will always be making temporally investments thinking one day we will be chased from the country of our birth. n