Malawi: A Political Virtuous Circle that Sustains Poverty

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By far the biggest event of 2012 for Malawi was the sudden death of its president Bingu wa Mutharika who died of a heart attack on 5th April. It was the first time an incumbent president had died in office. Consequently, the death was a stern test for Malawi’s 18 year old democracy. There were a few glitches but the country handled the transition well.

Out of favour, vice president Joyce Banda stepped forward to fulfill a constitutional obligation and ascended to the highest office on 7th April, becoming the country’s first female president and Africa’s second, after Liberia’s Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. It was a fairy tale for Banda who endured a sustained period of pressure and castigation under her departed predecessor for making her ambition for presidency clear. Mutharika had already lined up his younger brother, Peter as his successor.

A smooth transition after the death of a president, and a woman assuming that presidency is not a typical African news story, especially for international media. Thus, Banda’s ascendancy broke the equilibrium – altered ‘Orientalism’. It was refreshing to see persisting stereotypes successfully challenged. But then again all this is theatre for the international stage; it is politics as usual in Malawi.

Malawi has been a democratic state since 1994. It has about 40 registered political parties but you would do well to find anyone who can mention at least 10 of them without referencing. Only four political parties could, to a certain extent, claim to be national political parties. It is easy to start a political party in Malawi because you don’t need to have any ideology or an agenda for the country. All the three political parties that have ruled Malawi since 1994, when the country held its first democratic elections, have done nothing but exploit the majority of poor Malawians.

Bakili Muluzi ruled Malawi from 1994 to 2004. He had no long-term plans for the country, he distributed money and maize during his political rallies and earned himself a reputation as a generous and caring president – this translated to votes. Muluzi left the country statistically poorer than it was when he came to power. Mutharika took over from Muluzi and brought a very expensive but popular farm input subsidy programme.

Between 2006 and 2011 the country produced the average of 3 million metric tons of maize surplus – Mutharika was rewarded with a landslide victory in 2009 elections. Yet 8 months after Mutharika’s death, an estimated 12% of Malawians will need food aid between the months of October and February 2013. Meanwhile, Joyce Banda has 2014 tripartite elections to think about. So far she has adopted Muluzi’s approach. She is distributing flour – already milled maize, so that unlike Muluzi, ‘beneficiaries’ do not have to spend extra cash for milling the maize.

Charitable work is always commendable and some of these presidents may have genuine intention to give. Yet this is not the case IN the above scenarios – it is all about getting political advantage over ones rivals. This has created and trapped people in a circle of poverty. Unfortunately, this suits the political elite because vulnerable people are easy to target and exploit. In the absence of political ideologies and policies to attract votes with, people’s poverty and ignorance are used as a weapon in the hands of politicians ready to buy votes.

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate”, observed Edward Said.

This is the strategy at work in Malawi. Its political system thrives on manipulation of unsuspecting vulnerable poor folks who make up the majority of the Malawi’s 14+ million population. Politicians give hand-outs; making the poor masses believe that someone cares for their plight when they are, in fact, victims of exploitative system. Exploitation is one word that describes Malawi’s political system. Unless there is a sustained civic education program across the country, the status quo will remain and even more people will be mired in the cycle of abject poverty.

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Jimmy Kainja

Jimmy Kainja

Writter, Social and Political analyst
Jimmy is an Academic, writer, news media & communications scholar. Interested in political and social changes in Sub Saharan Africa and Malawi in particular. Jimmy can be contacted through his email: j.kainja@gmail.com
Jimmy Kainja

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