Lawyer Grace Malera has been appointed the Ombudsman, succeeding Martha Chizuma who became a darling of many voiceless Malawians. Our Features Editor JAMES CHAVULA catches up with the new public protector. Excerpts:
Q:Congratulations! Who is Grace Malera?
A:I am a lawyer with a deep passion for the law as a tool for achieving equality, social justice, equity and good governance. I hold a bachelor of law degree obtained from the University of Malawi in 2002 and a master of law degree from the University of the Free State in South Africa in 2007. I am duly admitted to practice law in the courts of Malawi, with 19 years of experience in the field.
Q:What makes you best suited to be the public protector now?
A:I believe I am best suited for the role because I have the requisite qualifications, competencies, knowledge and skill set for the role. I bring to the role vast experience in investigations and holding of inquiries, which is one of the critical areas of work of the Office of the Ombudsman. I started off my career as a prosecutions officer for the Anti-Corruption Bureau where investigations and prosecutions were the bulk of the work I carried out. For 13 years, I worked with the Malawi Human Rights Commission [MHRC], rising to become the commission’s third executive secretary in 2012. I also bring some unique and value-adding experiences from the international NGOs and donor sectors, where I have worked for almost five years [as executive director of ActionAid Malawi]. Most importantly, I have the drive for the work. I am always interested in the use of the law as a means of protection of the weak from the strong and giving voice to the voiceless as well as an accountability tool. My personality also positions me very well for the role that I am taking on. We are at a critical juncture in the democratisation process of our country for so many reasons. It is a great privilege to serve as the Ombudsman at this time. I intend to carry out the role to the best of my capabilities.
Q:What really motivated you to vie for this position?
A:I was hugely motivated by my interest in working with the law as a tool for achieving good governance, the nature of the Office of the Ombudsman as a critical avenue for right holders to claim their rights and seek redress for grievances and, most importantly, as a platform for demanding accountability from those that hold the power to govern. This really defines my career interests and the professional that I am, having always worked in institutions where the law is used to save people from oppression, unfairness, and excesses of the actions of those that hold the power to govern and attaining redress for grievances. Secondly, working in the public service has always remained of huge interest to me, so I am grateful to God.
Q:What’s the most chilling State-led rights violations have you handled?
A:Human rights violations can never be rated on a scale, every violation of human rights is a serious issue given that as far as I am concerned, human rights are sacrosanct and inviolable. I was trained early in my career at the MHRC to take rights violations seriously and that it was never really for me nor anyone to judge a violation of human rights as a lesser or bigger issue.
That said, in my career, I encountered some human rights violations that numbed me to the core, especially the killing of people due to excessive use of force by authorities. I handled many of these cases during my time at the commission [2003 to 2016]. In some incidents, the investigating teams would take pictures of the deceased persons and I was always deeply moved by these images. I would say to myself: “No person deserves to die such as this”. So, the killings, the status of the human rights of people held in prisons in some of the most deplorable conditions and sometimes the poor conditions in public health and education facilities would be some of the most-chilling “government-orchestrated” rights violations I have handled in my life.
Q:You are the country’s third female Ombudsman after Tujilane Chizumila and Chizuma. What does this mean for you?
A: I salute Ms Chizuma for the exceptional work and all the milestones she achieved in the last five years. Equally, I salute all the persons that have held the position of Ombudsman before. In my view, they all collectively built the very foundations on which the great work of the Office of the Ombudsman stands today. The brilliant legacy and footprints that my predecessor has crafted for the office means that for those of us taking the role now going forward, there can never be retrogression. This is a challenge—in a good way—for one to strive to put in outstanding effort and continue with the track record the office has set over the last few years as well as sustaining public confidence in the office. I believe I have what it takes to build on the good work achieved over the years and continue to reposition the office as a relevant and significant player in the country’s democratic processes.
Q:How do you intend to fill Chizuma’s shoes and what difference do you bring?
A:They certainly should be big shoes to fill, but where there is a will, there is a way. With God, all things are possible. I stepped up for the task as I believe I am capable and have got what it takes. I am also always open to learning where necessary. First, I will ensure to fully understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the institution. I also need to have a full appreciation of the environment in which the office operates. Against this background, I will need to stay the course of implementing the mandate of the office, as prescribed by the law, without interference, fear or favour. Some key areas of focus would be [revising] the office’s strategic plan which has expired this year. This is a good entry point for my work to bring my team together and collectively envision what the next five years should look like and strategise how best to move forward. It is also a critical time when there are some on-going court cases against the decisions of the Ombudsman. These have to be pursued to the very final legal conclusion, in the process getting instructive guidance and enriching the jurisprudence on the broad mandate the Ombudsman has in respect of “any and all acts of injustice”. I will also continue building my team for continuity of the office’s good performance. I hope to also gather lessons learnt from my predecessors; ensure collaboration and constructive engagement with all key stakeholders without compromising on the independence of the office and use all means possible under the law to ensure compliance with determinations by the Ombudsman. In all this, ensuring the independent discharge of the mandate of the office, according to the Constitution and the Ombudsman Act, will be key.
I take pride in the fact that I am always very professional in the work that I do and I am highly capable of discharging my work competently in a non-partisan, independent and diligent manner. In many respects, I have excelled in similar positions in the past, with significant milestones. With all this, I am set on harnessing the institution’s outstanding performance.