The Politics of Malawi by John Lwanda

[Promises, Power Politics and Poverty ]

Lwanda, JLC. 1996: Promises, Power Politics and Poverty: Democratic Transition in Malawi, 1961-1999. Glasgow: Dudu Nsomba Publications.

This dissertation takes the stance that politics is an inexact science practiced by artists, but one with a number of predictable, recurring and identifiable parameters which determine the outcomes in any given social environment. Given the role of the Churches in the current transition, would we be, perhaps, justified in adding a spiritual angle?

It also takes the stance that poverty (and not ethnicity, religion, gender or other primary ideology) has so far been the predominant factor in Malawi’s politics; a factor that remains true even after the departure of Dr Banda’s regime. The other factors take a secondary role to the poverty imperative.

But poverty itself, although resulting from historical, environmental, economic, antecedent and current political factors, is ultimately sustained and exacerbated by the politics governing the economy, whether colonial, dictatorial or those of an elite-centred cultural democracy. This is due to the pervasive shadow that politics is able to cast on a small state like Malawi where only a small fraction of the population was and is educated and empowered enough to be pro-actively (as opposed to passively) politically involved. In other words, despite their varying degrees of political involvement, even after Banda, all aspects of the civil society, including the churches are still heavily influenced by the state. The state, in Malawi as in a number of democratising African states, is itself whatever coalition the ruling political party and its allies, have created with the civil service, the agency of governance on one hand and with the army and police as the agents of security, law and order enforcement on the other.

Malawi’s new politics and hence democracy is marked by both its fragility and its continued domination by the business sector of society. The priority accorded to the “re-nationalisation” of PRESS Holdings, the giant Malawi Congress Party (MCP) affiliated conglomerate in 1995, speaks for itself. And yet it was, apart the desire for freedom from the overwhelming secondary repression, poverty which was the other dominant force for change. The rural and urban majority poor, in the wake of the Catholic Bishops Pastoral letter of 1992, found a tenuous voice in the industrial and estate strikes of 1992. This voice was for justice, peace, political accountability and choice as well as food, education, jobs, health and the facilities available only to the elite in dictatorships. The refrain,

You can’t eat democracy

was a common one among house servants, taxi-drivers and market traders in 1994 and 1995. For these rural and urban poor saw democracy, at least between 1992 and 1994, as a positive step that would lead to political and economic liberalisation and ultimately an improvement in their living conditions. There is therefore a potential and real conflict of expectations and interest between the majority and the governing elite.

Once elected to office, however, instead of focusing their energies on the development of state and communal poverty alleviation programmes politicians, as if intuitively, tend to channel their energies towards creating pools of patronage:

Kuti uthandize ena, choyamba iweyo ukhale utathandizidwa. (Before you can help others, first you must have been assisted yourself)

This “first help thyself” accumulative quest is pervasive in countries where accountability is lacking, and democratic structures are still fragile. It has been seen in Zambia following the 1991 multiparty elections, and the same phenomenon is being seen in the industrially and socially more complex society of South Africa.(2) Because the majority of Malawi politicians are engaged in business there can be no expectation of any but economic policies that do not run counter to their own instincts. As we will show later, this quest for self help among Malawi’s democratic elite also arose from the intense, short, but expensive battle, between 1991 and 1994, to oust Banda.

Politics without ideology is like football. The dynamics, economics and sociology are the same – the intention is to win at all legitimate, and sometimes, illegitimate costs. Once this is understood, then the personnel and player defections, sale and other movements become explicable. A solid Rangers or Blackburn Rovers player may even become a staunch Celtic or Man U player the next month!

 [Extract from Promises, Power Politics and Poverty, Lwanda, 1996]