If the people of Malawi did it…?


The world of international relations and statecraft is fraught with pitfalls.

One ill-thought joke can ruin lucrative economic partnerships; a wrong word can have leaders reaching for their phones to call their generals.

Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. But you get the point.

Because we are human, we understand that people, even heads of state and government, make gaffes.

Often there is no malice involved. A poor choice of words, a strange sense of humour, or a different cultural grounding can make for some tense diplomatic moments which are fortunately soon enough smoothed over and life carries on as normal.

These foot-in-mouth incidents can happen to anyone.

Ask the good people of Jamaica and they can tell you about how a certain Zimbabwean called Robert Mugabe – on whom they had conferred the Order of Jamaica in 1996 – took a dig at all their menfolk in three poorly conceived sentences.

Some will recall that one of Jamaica’s greatest gifts to humanity, Robert Nesta Marley, even performed in Harare at the country’s inaugural independence celebrations and penned a song called “Zimbabwe”.

Such rock-solid political and cultural ties could not stop Uncle Bob from remarking in 2012 while at a research symposium: “In Jamaica, they have freedom to smoke mbanje (marijuana), varume vanogara vakadhakwa (the men are always drunk) and universities are full of women. The men want to sing and do not go to colleges; vamwe vanobva vamonwa musoro (some of the men have dreadlocks). Let us not go there."

Zimbabwe’s often good spin doctors had a tough time trying to wriggle out of that one as Jamaica’s government and people hit back hard, pointing out how ironic it was that a politician who often bemoaned Western stereotyping of his country could so blithely do the same to a fellow black nation.

And to show that such it is not easy for anyone, least of all politicians, to learn from the gaffes of others, just a year later it was the turn of South Africa’s then President, Jacob Zuma.

In trying to impress upon South Africans why they should back unpopular tolls that were being introduced to finance a major upgrade of the highway linking Pretoria and Johannesburg, the oft affable Brother Jacob really stuck his foot in it:

“We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally. We are in Johannesburg. This is Johannesburg. It is not some national road in Malawi. No.”

To Brother Jacob’s credit, his spin doctors did not try to wriggle out of that one, and his government very quickly apologised to the people and leadership of Malawi.

Seven years after that ill-thought jibe, Malawi is back in the news.

By now everyone knows that the country’s courts threw out last year’s presidential election results as highly in-credible, and ordered new elections, which were held, and which were won by the opposition led by Dr Lazarus Chakwera, and who has now been sworn in as Head of State and Government, and has now appointed a cabinet and so on and so on.

All of the things mentioned in the preceding paragraph have been major talking points – mostly on social media because, thankfully, lockdown regulations have saved the world from the creators of bar talk.

Anyway, let us get to the gist of today’s matter.

The fact that Malawi’s courts – which are manned by flesh and blood people like those in any other African country – could face down an incumbent president tells us that we are capable of building strong institutions.

A big complaint by Africans and non-Africans about Africa is the presence of strong men and the absence of strong institutions.

Malawi has shown us that we can build such institutions and nurture them so that they contribute to positive developments.

Institutions are only as strong as the statutes and rules that create and govern them, and as the men and women who steer them.

Africa has no excuse for not having strong institutions.

To appropriate Brother Jacob’s words, we should indeed think Malawians and build institutions that make a difference in people’s lives.

And it was not only the courts that showed that the judiciary had truly grown into a robust institution.

We have heard reports of how the military made it clear that it would do its job of upholding the constitution and all the rights and responsibilities contained therein.

Because of a strong military institution, no strong man could crackdown on any citizen.

Which in itself is another lesson from Malawi: the military in Africa should be a people’s military in word and deed.

The military should not exist to protect election thieves and all the other kinds of thieves who may crawl out of the woodwork to steal nations’ resources. The military should exist to protect constitutions, to protect the legitimate dreams of the people.

Then there is the under-reported matter of how Malawi held the actual election re-run.

There were no foreign observes. That’s right. Zero.

And without any Europeans or Americans to lecture and hector them on what constitutes a free and fair election, the people of Malawi – with their strong institutions and their love for their country – elected a president and inaugurated him.

Kelvin Sulugwe, writing for Nyasa Times, put it thus: “That is when we realised that perhaps foreign observer missions are useless. They are tourists who fill our hotels, drink coffee, sleep with our women, drink Malawi Gin, eat our chambo (tilapia) or go sightseeing to our beautiful lake, then pull out report templates from their computers, where they substitute Senegal or whatever country’s name for Malawi, leaving the rest of the report’s wording intact.”

We could go on at length about the pros and cons of foreign observer missions.

And all of the arguments go back to the same thing: we simply need strong institutions and that in itself will remove any basis for foreign interference in our affairs.

All said, we can conclude by appropriating a line that is often mischievously attributed to Simon Muzenda, and which will suffice for present purposes: “If Malawi did it, why can’t we also did it?”




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