When a marriage has hit the rocks, one of the most common remedies in the modern world is for the couple to go for marital counselling. To visit a marriage counsellor. It doesn’t always help, and sometimes a matrimonial union will come to a bitter end no matter how many hours of counselling you throw at it. The dynamics of that marriage were such that it was eventually going to fail.
In Malawi, people go to what are known as Ankhoswe (essentially the marriage guardian) to resolve marital conflicts. In traditional Malawian society, there is a special type of principle whereby it is not sufficient for two people to be married without consulting the ankhoswe. For a marriage to be recognsised as valid, ankhoswes from both sides of the union must approve the marriage. Absence of the ankhoswe renders the marriage invalid, and when problems arise in the marriage, the ankhoswe is one of the very first people to be informed. In this case, the ankhoswe takes the role of counsellor or mediator.
But the whole point of counselling, the whole point of a mediator, is to bring in an element of the outsider’s view. An independent viewpoint from a mature person, an expert at resolving conflicts who can try and bridge the gap; to knock in some sense, ask the awkward questions, to rebuke, and if necessary, challenge any irrational or stupid behaviour.
There’s a parallel in Politics, in that in most democracies, there are times when the ‘marriage’ between the powers that be (the government), and the people, requires a mediator. There are times when a counsellor is essential. In constitutional democracies, this job is often one for the courts to undertake, but not necessarily its preserve. Because by virtue of courts being manned by judges – flesh and blood who have career aspirations, political persuasions, favourites and so forth – it is not always the case that courts are independent or impartial.
Religious organisations, civil society organisations, the Media and other commentators form a group that may occasionally take up this mantle, to sing praises where such is due, to advise when necessary, to point out deficiencies in public policy, to ask the difficult questions, to lobby the government towards a particular cause, but also to criticise when wrongdoing has occured. Like the courts, there are limits to the extent to which their intervention is effective, although in some ways it can be a lot more effective in orchestrating change than the courts – since this group tends to be a lot closer to the people, and are thus more influential. Especially when they are united in a single voice. Further, like the courts, they too can be influenced (sometimes negatively) by the government, which can have negative consequences on the people. But unlike courts, the bigger player in a political marriage may not always be willing to listen to Ciivil Society Organisations.
Which presents a problem, because for this marriage to work (at least up to the next election), the bigger party to the marriage must be willing to listen to the grievances of the smaller party. The bigger party must make do on its promises. Otherwise, all hell can break loose and the government can find itself on the defensive, doing irrational and illegal things in an attempt to survive. Essentially forcing itself onto the people. A rape of sorts. Arguably, this is what happened during the last days of Bingu Wa Mutharika’s reign.
In Malawi, we are at a stage in our country’s political development where civil society is beginning to have an increasing influence in politics. This was particularly evident not only during the reign of Bingu Wa Mutharika, but also during Joyce Banda’s tenure. It was the media, the church and civil society who rebuked Bingu over his dictatorial pronouncements – hand in hand with the donor community. They were at Bingu’s throat over Mota Engil. And Mulli. It was this group which held Joyce Banda to task over the asset declaration issue, over Jetgate (and shady deals with defence contractors), Cashgate, the fleet of vehicles, even over the excessive travelling of Joyce Banda. And eventually, when May 2014 came, we all know what happened.
Today, we have a new DPP government, which I’m told is trying to complete the job they began under Bingu Wa Mutharika. In governing, it would be wise for this DPP government not to over-believe its own hype. There is need for mediators, even though there may appear to be no problems at the moment. Still, some people on the ground say that the economy in Malawi is sluggish, and things are slow. So while the environment is that of calm, it’s not exactly hunky dory. Poverty is still widespread in Malawi and money is not yet growing on trees; the land hasn’t yet morphed into a nirvana flowing with milk and honey, the union hasn’t quite reached that coveted state of marital bliss we are all looking forward to.
Which is why I strongly believe that more must be done to strengthen civil society organisations in Malawi, in terms of ensuring they are well resourced and that they can do their job without fear of intimidation. That they can function without political interference. More has to be done in making sure that they are relevant in addressing the issues affecting peoples lives. It’s important, it’s good for our country’s development.
But who’s task is it to strengthen Civil Society Organisations?
How about every Malawian’s task?
The government has an interest for their governance to proceed as smoothly as is possible, so they have to be proactive in helping civil society stand on its own feet – to be not only a check of power, but to communicate to the people the achievements, the process of fulfilling the pre-election promises.
The people have an interest for their government to be accountable, so that the government delivers on what it promised, so they too must be proactive in helping improve Civil society organisations – to ensure that CSO’s monitor the government. This is important so that the government meets the people’s demands. After all, most past government in Malawi have abused the people’s trust and plundered public resources at will. Surely, this impunity has to come to an end at some point.
Donors too have an interest in preserving and growing democracy, and in advancing the aims of the countries from which they come. For this to be possible, the political landscape has to be stable, and for that to happen, the government of the day has to be accountable, and effective (otherwise this happanes). Thus, donors are stakeholders who have an interest in Malawi having a strong and independent CSO sector.
And why should Civil Society Organisations be strong?
Because doing so is a necessary ingredient in creation of a strong democracy. The media can be bought by any fool with deep pockets. Similarly, the courts can be corrupted by power-hungry leaders, religious organisations can be partial (disowning clergy folk who diverge from their stance), the police force can be incapacitated by political implants (the likes of people like Bophani), the public broadcaster can be forced to favouritism, even a general of a country’s army can take sides.
But not all Civil Society Organisations can be compromised (even though some will falter at the sight of a hefty bribe). And that is precisely why they need to be strong.