In this article, HENDRIX KAONGA, a Malawian currently studying for an MA in Japan, challenges government and Malawians to rethink their attitudes towards the country’s development.
Few weeks ago, I had a long phone call with an accountant friend from Blantyre. As usual, Malawi and its people topped the topics.
Like each time we discuss the country’s economics and its potential, we end up repainting Malawi as a joke of a country—a nation doing the same things over and all over again yet expecting improvements to the economy. Foolishness, right?
Always ranked one of the poorest countries in the world, but have you ever thought of how Malawi would be ranked if the rating system was redefined to be based just on potential? Unarguably, Malawi would always rate high.
We boast of fresh water resources, beautiful mountains and extensive land that ably vomit abundant yields, generally good rains, peaceful people and rapid increasing population. All these are resources that have spurred development elsewhere, but not Malawi. So why always not us?
Today, five months after a general election, economy seems not to be recovering. What is the new government doing? That is the question you meet often.
Unfortunately the answer to such a question has always been anger not analysis. We are indicting the Peter Mutharika government’s as one which was not ready to govern. In fact, some have already started decorating ex-president Joyce Banda’s leadership.
However, beyond this, we need to get to the core of the root challenges that keep Malawi moving in circles.
People’s Party (PP) supporters hailed these same economic policies being pursued today when JB was in the driving seat. The opposition parties spoke against some of these policies. And today, PP are cursing the results of these policies and expecting government to explain why the economy continues to be in shambles? And civil society threatens to demonstrate. Really?
Malawi’s founding President Kamuzu Banda not only taught us hard work, but also worked to instill in Malawians the sense of responsibility. Sadly we mistook a lot of it for dictatorship.
Lucius Banda in the song Kapitawo clearly demonstrates this in a way; “khadi linaliko bwino, inali njira yodziwilana, (kapitawo) anayamba kutsekela nsika, sukulu ndi chipatala”.
That is why beyond breaking the ‘stupid federation’ and bringing independence to Malawi, he had a clear message on hard work and corrupt-free Malawi.
Independence, he clearly argued, did not mean money would get to our pockets like manna, but rather that it meant hard work.
However, after Kamuzu’s demise, what did we see more?
Bakili Muluzi, without thinking much about the consequences of the change he thought would bring to Malawi, injected into all of us a sense of looking to government as a source of both challenges and solutions.
He created a welfare-like government that did not have a capacity to generate its own income.
Free primary school, as instant as noodles; splashing K50s at political rallies, starter pack programme, sidelining tertiary education, high corruption levels and false promises characterised his decade.
In principle, the once hard working spirit and disciplined nation accepted the flirting tricks of Muluzi and ended up into irresponsible and depending nation. Professionalism, hard work and honesty became the old-fashioned way of doing things. Jumping into changes without clear thought.
President Bingu wa Mutharika came onto the stage playing like the Kamuzu way of doing things though in a different set up. He had his great thoughts, of course, that, somehow, started to take Malawi into positive steps.
A sense of hard work and professionalism started to reasonate with Malawians until politics of Big-Man syndrome crippled into Mutharika’s head. Swimming in the buoyancy of too much power, Mutharika failed to negotiate the balance of too much power. The result was tragic for Malawi—we moved from the promising nation and fell deep into the dungeons of hopelessness.
JB was almost a replica of Bakili Muluzi. Like Muluzi, she towered the country like a Big Sister playing the role of a relief provider than a policy developer for the nation. In the process, Malawi felt like Muluzi’s reign which some analyst called a ‘Lost Decade’.
As already advanced, doing the same things that failed Malawi and expecting the economy to improve is nothing but hypocrisy. That is why at this point in time we needed, as Malawians, to do serious soul-searching and map the way we should practically take the country forward.
Several theories have come out to explain why Malawi economy continues to be at its knees. The basic argument, however, has been turning Malawi to predominantly exporting country other than the present situation where we are importing more. It is said this would earn us more foreign currency.
But there is more to this if our attitude as Malawians remains the same.
Look at PP today: They are expecting miracles within five months of regime change. Look at civil society organisations: They are expecting explanations from government why the local currency is depreciating. Look at the civil service: They are demanding pay rise from a shrinking economy.
Yet there is a question we need to ask all these stakeholders: Did they expect things, like magic, to turn around as fast as five months for the DPP government?
And indeed with such kind of attitude, what can stop our commercial banks from creating an artificial scarcity of the US dollar on the market and hit their imaginable huge profits yet again this year? This is just the way we choose to view our status of affairs in Malawi and what to make out of such situations.
With President Peter Mutharika in power, there are fundamental problems we need to raise with government.
To some extent, APM has demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice: he has reduced significantly Executive appetite for the smell of burnt gasoline and he has reduced number of Cabinet ministers to list a few.
Beyond APM, so far, has preached hard work and being in office—something which represents a shift to his predecessor’s philosophy.
However, if we want to move beyond the current cyclic economic challenges, there are tough choices that both government and the people need to make.
As argued earlier, Malawi needs to move from being a net importer to a net exporter. That, unarguably, demands increased investments in production capacity. It also needs attitude change on part of Malawians especially areas of consumption.
The challenge, however, is that even the current government appears to hunger for investing heavily in consumption. For instance, increased Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) and cement and iron sheet subsidy are a potent symbol of a government stuck in Muluzi’s philosophy of creating a welfare government.
APM needs to challenge the people, through actions not words, to move from their deep appetite of consumption. The sacrifice government wants from its people should begin with how policy positions are being developed and implemented.