Malawi needs a full lockdown to stem the spread of COVID-19

Last week two cabinet ministers in Malawi died of COVID-19. Yes, you read that right. Two ministers in Lazarus Chakwera’s government died of COVID-19 in a single day…

So far 396 Malawians that have been lost to the pandemic, out of 16,049 confirmed cases. The deaths include two other high ranking government officials.

All deaths to COVID-19 represent a sad premature loss of life. And given that sombre picture, it’s easy for Malawians to be fearful, panic, or lose hope. In any case, if government officials who are viewed to have access to the best medical care (some with access to pricey private medical care) in the country are ‘perishing to the virus‘, to quote a friend, what hope is there for the poor masses?

But going forward requires decisive action because inaction is not an option. If we’re to deliver the kinds of results necessary to stem the spread of the virus, then certain painful measures need to be put in place.

President Lazarus Chakwera, in his press conference last week declared a state of national disaster, and appealed to the international community, UN Agencies, NGOs and the private sector for more assistance and contributions to meet the challenge of the pandemic. Chakwera also called for an emergency meeting of the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 to explore additional measures to combat the pandemic. He also instructed several of his ministries (Health, Homeland Security, Education, Civic Education, Local Government, Justice and Information) to work together with the Vice President to review Malwi’s COVID-19 guidelines for curbing the spread of the virus, and recommend to the Taskforce any amendments to be made to those guidelines, and enforcement of those guidelines.

All well and good. However, depending on what Chakwera means by ‘additional measures‘, and depending on what additional amendments the ministries will recommend, I believe a full lockdown is the only way to resolutely stop the spread of this virus in Malawi.

The reason that’s the only sure-fire way is because if you look at countries that have successfully managed to control the spread of the virus, especially those with minimal fatalities, a full lockdown was one of the most important key measures taken.

NEW ZEALAND

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gives a coronavirus media update at the New Zealand Parliament. Photo: Mark Mitchell – Pool/Getty Images

The Australasian country of New Zealand has had a total of 2,267 COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths. 2,178 people in New Zealand have recovered from COVID-19 as of today. The success of New Zealand lies in early decisive action the country took, declaring a stringent lockdown as early as March 26, 2020 and taking an approach designed to “flatten the curve” of infections. The entire country (apart from essential workers & essential businesses) was required to self-quarantine at home, and after 5 weeks the lockdown was lifted. During this time, most workplaces, schools and public meetings were closed. Contact Tracing and Quarantine for visitors was put in place, introducing border restrictions to Non-citizens/ non-permanent residents, with all arrivals (regardless of where they came from or their symptomology) being made to go into managed isolation or quarantine facilities (mainly repurposed hotels) for 14 days. Those in quarantine where required to take Covid-19 tests on day 3 and day 12 of their time in quarantine.

Scientists’ modeling showing the effectiveness of the lockdown in New Zealand. Photo: Te Pūnaha Matatini

Public events were cancelled, and by May community transmission had been stopped, and in early June the Pandemic had been declared over in New Zealand. Following a further outbreak New Zealand brought in another lockdown in August 2020.

TAIWAN

Lessons from Taiwan (Atlantic Council)

Taiwan which has so far only recorded 7 deaths from COVID-19 from a total of 881 cases. After suffering from the SARS epidemic in 2003, the Taiwanese Centre for Disease Control very early in the pandemic begun screening all passengers arriving from Wuhan, and in collaboration with the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC – a body created to manage outbreaks, who in 2004 helped create a national health insurance smart card for each citizen, linking health records to travel history) ensured that each citizen had access to masks, and helped hospitals to be aware of potential COVID-19 cases in real time. The screening was soon extended to all arrivals from high-risk countries. Taiwan also created a digital quarantine system, whereby those who arrived from abroad were sent to a “quarantine hotel” – a hotel that has been repurposed for the pandemic – and were not allowed to leave their rooms for two weeks. This was supplemented by a track and trace system of in-person checks.

People who lived in a flat with their own bathroom were allowed to quarantine at home. Critically, those who were quarantining – be it in a hotel or at home – were monitored by a “digital fence” using their smartphones, cell towers and mobile phone carrier data. Anyone who ventured out of their area, was immediately contacted by text, and the health authorities informed – who would immediately send someone. If your phone run out of battery, a health officer would show up at your door.

The start of the new semester for schools was delayed for 2 weeks and by march there was a ban on large gatherings of 100 if indoors and 500 if outdoors.

In addition, citizens were paid monetary incentives, including £27 a day for staying in their room. Breaking the quarantines resulted in very high fines, as high as £27,000!

Taiwan also used the media to rebut false information, with press releases, viral memes and texts, encouraging wearing masks and importance of washing hands and using hand sanitizer. CoFacts, a collaborative fact checking service enabled those using chat apps to send something they suspected to be misinformation, to be fact checked.

LIBERIA

Photo: Flickr

Liberia, which so far has recorded only 84 deaths from COVID-19, has had only 1,901 cases. Several lessons underscore Liberia’s Response to COVID-19

Strong Leadership — President George Weah took decisive action against COVID-19 in that after the first confirmed case on March 16, all travel was suspended if the countries of origin had more than 200 cases. In addition, Weah declared a national state of emergency as well as a 14 day stay-at-home order. Citizens were ordered to stay at home unless if going out shopping or to get supplies. Wearing masks in public was made mandatory.

Community Response — The Active Case Finders and Awareness (ACFA) Team, who had been instrumental in fighting Ebola, were instructed to fight against COVID-19 using many of the same tactics developed during Ebola, including recruiting and training contact tracers, setting up hand-washing stations as well as convincing businesses not to serve those not wearing masks.

Respect for Local Cultural Beliefs and Perspectives — To stem the spread of misinformation, the ACFA began to go door-to-door, while observing the social distancing guidance of 6 feet away from people, to follow contact traces as well as inform the community about facts of COVID-19, and to dispel myths.

Last Sunday, Chakwera said his government had released additional funding for use by various clusters of  the Presidential Taskforce. He also outlined his priority in managing the recent surge of hospitalisation and providing emergency care to the critically sick, employing an additional 1,000 healthcare staff, among several measures.

But considering what the above countries have done, and contrasting that with the President’s measures, and looking at the rate of spread of the virus, I find that the measures announced on Sunday fall well short of what the country actually needs to stop the spread of the virus.

This is because the measures Chakwera has announced do little to stop community transmission, and do not prevent People coming into the country from abroad from breaking the self-isolation guidelines.

Also, since Pandemic fatigue has set in as wet weather makes going outdoor less inviting even in a country known for good climate, some people are still meeting friends (or people of different households) indoors, including in religious establishments like churches. This coupled with the open borders, in particular travel from South Africa and a large essential workforce, including people who have to go out every day for their sustenance (with many such people living in crowded or dense housing), has created a confluence of suitable conditions for the pandemic to flourish.


Prototyping & Product Development


And Malawi is not alone. Countries like Brazil, India and the UK have all experienced something similar as some people burdened by months of lockdowns and stringent restrictions have let their guard down.

Many of us relaxed our vigilance against the virus and now we are paying the price

Lazarus Chakwera, in a radio address on Sunday 10th January 2021

The rise in home remedies

Watch this video on YouTube here https://youtu.be/2ZoBb-ngk5k

The video above shows the many home remedies that have been suggested as preventative, alleviating or managing some of the effects of COVID-19. And while with the exception of only a few studies there doesn’t appear to be any  consensus from health authorities across the world as to the efficacy of such remedies, there are indications from anecdotal evidence that some such remedies are effective.

I think health services in countries which do not have as many resources to procure medical equipment lose nothing prescribing some such sound home remedies, be they blue gum leaves or anything else, especially when there is some evidence as to their efficacy, and the remedy itself is undertaken while observing strict health and safety measures. To qualify this point, you may remember that even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has made mistakes, in that in January 2019, while some of us were advocating that everyone must begin wearing masks in all public places, the WHO said there was no evidence that masks are effective in stemming the spread of COVID-19?! Poor advice which even the British government fell for??! A few months later the WHO began recommending that everyone should wear masks…?!

Pioneering procedures

Similar to the issue of home remedies, I am of the persuasion that certain pioneering procedures for the treatment of COVID-19 need to be further investigated by our Medical Agencies in Malawi. And the above video shows one such example, trialed in this case by Dr Emmanuel Taban in South Africa.

Epidemiologists and Surgeons at College of Medicine in Malawi need to take note and begin seriously looking into this procedure, and the use of IVERMECTIN(see video above) and others that have been flagged, for example the testimony of Dr Pierre Kory below- which advocates using anti-inflammatory steroids in critical care.

Preventing Infection transmission

And while the numerous fundraising efforts are commendable and very much necessary considering the circumstances, preventing the spread of the virus means stopping the infection transmission from one person to another.

It means proactive measures beyond mere reactionary fire-fighting in epidemic response and virus containment efforts.

This includes stopping any and all gatherings of people anywhere in the country, from State House all the way to the Tavern. It means borders must be closed again as was the case last year, preventing visitors entering the country, and restricting domestic and international travel to only necessary travel by residents/returnees returning home, and goods vehicles bringing in medicines, fuel and supplies. It means everyone who comes into the country must be quarantined in state run isolation facilities for a period of at least 14 days. Such measures will create the conditions that make infection transmission difficult.

In any case, a busload of people from South Africa will probably carry a much higher risk of bringing and spreading further infections into the country, than goods vehicles drivers traveling alone or in pairs. Further, it’s probably easier to test, quarantine and trace a handful of drivers passing through border entry points every now and again, than quarantining busloads of passengers who are expected to self-isolate- even when the authorities know very well that such people would either go on to live with relatives (spreading the virus to them) or wouldn’t be able to stay indoors for 14 days, as they’d need to go out to buy food or to work.

This issue is important in light of recent figures which showed that migrants returning from South Africa accounted for 40% of Malawi’s COVID-19 cases.

Malawi is a deeply religious country and President Lazarus Chakwera appears to be doing his best. His conviction and Christian faith are treasured leadership qualities which Malawians should cherish in terms of not only bringing people together, inspiring hope in the ‘divine intervention’, but also in the pursuit of collective resilience when faced with a killer disease.

But beyond subservience to a divine power and coalescence of people’s resolve, Chakwera’s government will need actions that can be quickly implemented beyond words. The type of action that has delivered positive results elsewhere!

This is important because some Malawians are already voicing concerns regarding Chakwera’s lack of decisive action.

There are also allegations that the request for funds which the president put out doesn’t make sense when his “bloated” cabinet is costing the tax payers nearly K1.6 Billion.

But that aside, only the most effective measures will reassure Malawians that the Tonse Alliance government is up to the task. And in my view, those measures must include a full lockdown.

Vaccine

India has donated 1 million vaccine doses to Nepal

Malawi needs to procure thousands of emergency vaccine doses for healthcare workers. This is important so that those at the forefront and in frequent contact with the sick are protected from the virus. Appeals to Indian, Chinese, European & American Pharmaceutical companies should be made as a matter of urgency to procure vaccines first for healthcare workers, followed by doses for high risk groups.

But because getting a vaccine could take time, then a lockdown is one of the drastic actions which the government can take right now, to stem the spread, especially in light of the recent “South African strain” which some health experts are saying is easily spread, and which appears to be more deadly.

Who will pay for it?

I’m not suggesting that a lockdown is an easy step, but I strongly believe it is necessary to stop the spread of the virus. In any case, if you prevent the spread of the virus, people will not be getting sick, thus will not be needing to be hospitalised. Thus, in the absence of a vaccine, a lockdown is a measure that tackles the root cause, as opposed to tackling symptoms.

In terms of funding, some of the COVID19 funds that so far have been set aside by government or which Malawi is receiving from donors need to be diverted into community support, to help those who are most vulnerable with food and supplies. Here, US$50 million needs to be set aside for a huge logistical and food aid operation that involves teams of tested healthcare workers going around buying food locally and distributing such food to communities, so that these people can stay at home for 2 or 3 months. Such an operation should be repeated several times as more funds become available.

Further, if such healthcare teams could receive the vaccine before such an exercise, it would improve the efficacy of the exercise.

Otherwise, the K72 Million which Chakwera said had so far been spent on protections and social support cluster to sensitize the public on the increased risks and evils of gender-based violence during the pandemic as well as to support victims and their families with materials and cash transfer, is in my view not enough. A lot more needs to be done.

What does a Pro-Malawian Position on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Malawi look like?

  • Listen to this article here

Last week President Chakwera took part in a webinar hosted by Invest Africa. (https://investafrica.com/event/malawi-insights-for-investors-with-his-excellency-lazarus-chakwera-president-of-the-republic-of-malawi/ ). It was a good decision that minimally should show that he is proactive in attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Malawi. However, there are some painful lessons from the past that must be learned.

I think as far as Malawians are concerned, one of the main concerns is how the Tonse Alliances policies of President Lazarus Chakwera in regards to attracting Investors will translate into tangibles that will positively benefit and impact people’s lives.

Specifically, people will be interested to know how The Government of Malawi’s (GOM) policy on FDI will affect them in terms of employment, environmental protection and a stake in the national wealth creation, not only for the short term, but in the long –term.

Besides these concerns, Malawians will want to know what level of transparency will be established to safeguard against and prevent the corrupt practices of past administrations whereby influential party cadres illegally benefitted from contracts awarded to foreign companies via backhanders and by charging investors “access fees”.

This means that President Chakwera would be best advised to structure his policies on FDI to focus on Inclusive Prosperity for all Malawians, as has been his theme in many of his speeches, especially now that with the COVID-19 pandemic there sadly are many people who have been laid off work, and whose livelihoods have been disrupted and are uncertain.

Thus, the Tonse Alliance Government must publish its position on FDI, including deliverables and should enshrine into Law Investor Responsibilities towards the Malawian people, including how such will be monitored, and the penalties for failing to abide by such laws. This is important to give confidence to Malawians that the Tonse Alliance, unlike previous administrations is truly serious about creating shared prosperity for all Malawians.

Let us put an end to the days when an investor would come to Malawi, invest a couple of hundred thousand dollars, use low-pay Malawian labour, utilise Malawian roads, and our weak labour laws, to extract raw materials (including minerals), export those raw materials abroad, refine and add value to those exports, then sell them at a large profit to reap tens of millions of dollars from their investment – while the people of Malawi do not benefit proportionally.

I am not against investors making money, far from it. But in a poor country such as Malawi, with so much want and poverty around, the benefit to Investor versus the benefit to Malawi should be proportional and acceptable. It is not right for an investor to walk away from their investment extremely rich, but pay little or no taxes, and critically, leave behind impoverished communities that have not benefitted or been empowered beyond the token gestures (bad roads that soon disintegrate, mediocre school blocks built hurriedly with little thought, no decent hospitals, no decent services, poor infrastructure, no pension plans for former employees, no facilities for children of former employees, etc.).

Another reason why things must change is that unfortunately some investors in Malawi have left behind problems including polluted rivers / lakes/ grounds, deforestation, environmental degradation including soil erosion, sick former employees and suchlike. This is simply unacceptable in the 21st Century and should not be allowed to happen.  

A well thought through legal framework will reduce the likelihood of such omissions happening in the future.

There are some lessons from what countries like Tanzania, Rwanda and Botswana are doing, which Malawi can learn from. There are even lessons from China! For example, Rwandair is owned 51% by the government of Rwanda and 49% by Qatar Airways (See this).   Similarly, Airtel Tanzania is owned 49% by the Government of Tanzania.

These companies contribute millions of dollars to the state coffers of these countries.

So how much more are such resources required for a country such as Malawi, where ~ 70% of the population live in relative poverty? I propose that as much as FDI is desired, and as much as it is needed, the deals that are signed can no longer be about only appeasing the investor with disproportionate ownership stakes, while the people of Malawi who are supposed to own the resources are left with next to nothing. This can’t possibly be right.

You can try and justify investor ownerships stakes of 80%+ or 70%+ of industry in poor countries whichever way you like, but with the current global levels of inequality, such type of disproportionate ownership stakes just don’t cut it.

FDI under the Tonse Alliance Government of President Lazarus Chakwera should be about how to ensure the Malawian people are stakeholders who actually benefit from investments into Malawi. Enough with the rhetoric of the past, right now show us how investment will actually pull people out of poverty.

So Government of Malawi FDI policy should be about protecting the people from the exploitative and corrupt practices of some companies, which leave far too few long-term positive benefits or sustainability in the areas they invest in.

Of course protection of Investor Rights and strong pro-Investor Laws are necessary, even essential to ensure that the private sector flourishes. But there has to be a balance in that equally Strong Labour Laws that protect workers should be established, complemented by Strong Environmental Laws and strong Consumer Protection Laws to ensure that Malawians are treated with dignity, and that there is fairness; to ensure that each investor receives written obligations / responsibilities towards consumers/ people living in the areas which will be affected by the FDI.

It’s not a zero sum game, so both groups can benefit from the investment.

Such a policy position is also important for social cohesion. For example if you go to any township in Malawi today, and ask people what they think about certain companies, you’ll find that some companies (and the senior people who work there) are disliked by large sections of the populations in those areas because those companies are perceived as exploitative and not doing enough to empower the local man on the street. Yet such companies benefit from locals – who buy their goods, or provide cheap labour. Clearly this is not a desirable situation.

So while Malawi is open for business, when an Investor comes to invest, be it into a resource, or to extract a raw material, it should be the Government’s clear position that the company will be expected to establish a development fund, where 10% of the profits must be invested, to develop schools, to build decent housing, hospitals, roads, transportation links, to provide electricity, high speed internet, & to provide scholarships & loans to children in the area including children of employees and former employees. All this must be in black and white, enshrined in the contracts which are signed with each investor. Otherwise there is a real danger, based on past experiences, that verbal promises some investors make will amout to nothing.

What everyone needs to understand is that historically, most investors who come to Malawi walk away having made a lot of money. Our weak laws, poor bargaining, corrupt officials and poor implementation of measures designed to protect against exploitation are the reasons why we have failed to benefit proportionally from the profits that FDI has generated the last 25 years or so.

Thus, if you really want to develop the county, then the state can no longer be a mere passive observer in terms of ownership stakes and management of major industries. Malawi should have a greater stake in industry, so that, as a developing poor country, the proceeds from these interests can help catapult us forward economically.

This means deals of 51% GOM ownership (like Ethiopia and Kenya are now doing), and Botswana has done for a long time, whereby the investor holds no more than 49% of the stake in each major interest / industry / company,  should be standard.

That can still translate into profitable returns of millions of dollars for the Investors. But the difference is that GOM, and Malawians will benefit proportionally than has been the case in the past.

Mind you, these are Malawian resources we are talking about, for Malawians to benefit from. So 51% ownership by GOM by 49% ownership to Investors is quite generous. In my view that is how you create a win-win position.

There will be criticisms to such policies, as has happened in other countries. But such criticism is levied by people who :-

  • are thinking only about themselves
  • do not understand where our country is coming from (and the level of poverty/ want in our villages)
  • believe incorrectly that Africans should be subservient or otherwise in deferment to what Western Capital dictates – including unfair geopolitical neoliberal policy positions on resources, agricultural produce & raw materials.

What the Tonse Alliance Government should do is to communicate to any interested investor that while Malawi is open for business, essentially they will be dealing with a deprived man, who has been taken advantage of and abused for a very long time; who has few resources and who needs every penny from those resources to move forward, to rebuild his ruins and to feed his young.

That deprived man will only do business on his own terms. And with investors who care beyond just about making profits.

Ultimately, there’s always another fairer, more ethical, more responsible, more empathetic and more compassionate investor down the road …

Why asking interview candidates ‘Kodi kumudzi kwanu ndi kuti?’ should be outlawed in Malawi

Former President Peter Mutharika’s presidency was characterised by accusations of tribalism

Let’s be honest, there have been some unfair recruitment practices in Malawi the last few years.
For example, why is it the case that the first question some candidates were being asked in interviews was ‘Kodi kumudzi kwanu ndi kuti?’ (Where is your village?).
How is that question relevant to the position that is being advertised? How does where one comes from provide the interview panel with answers as to a candidates suitability for employment?
You might say such questions are ice breakers, merely small talk, but actually the anecdotal evidence shows that this question was often used with the intention of identifying where people came from, and filter out those who were deemed by some members of the interview panel, as coming from the “wrong regions” or of not being the preferred tribe, such that positions would often be awarded to people who were deemed as ‘ndi wathu uyu’ (they are one of us).
It is a pointedly tribalistic question, and there is little rationale to asking it during interviews, unless you are intentionally trying to find a way of marking down someone based on their tribe/ethnicity.
Our Labour Laws in Malawi (Section 5 (1) of Malawi’s Employment Act 2000) prohibits discrimiation on the basis of Race, Sex, Religion, Ethnicity, Marital status and Nationality among other characteristics. In particular, it states that No person shall discriminate against any employee or prospective employee on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, nationality, ethnic or social origin, disability, property, birth, marital or other status or family responsibilities

Subsection 3 prescribes a fine of K10,000 plus a 2 year prison sentence. So it’s incredible that questions that have a thinly veiled inquiry into one’s ethnicity or tribe continue to be asked 20 years on?

The practice of interview panels asking where one comes from, or where one’s village is needs to be stopped immediately. And it needs to be stopped via a stronger legislative framework – one that is actively enforced.

The Ministries of Labour, and the the Ministry of Civic Education & National Unity should work together in creating and backing legislation that can be introduced into parliament to explicitly prohibit employers from asking any questions that coerce a candidate to disclose their village, region of origin, language or family roots in interview questions, employment reviews, promotion interviews or other pre-appointment interviews . And if such questions are asked, candidates should have a recourse to redress, including compensation, with the state levying penalties to the offending company, institution or organisation.

If you are Malawian, you are Malawian. Full stop.

Asking kuti “Kumudzi kwanu ndi kuti” should be made an offence under new and stronger employment laws.
No longer should HR managers, General managers, Directors, Interview Panels and others who periodically interview candidates or are invoved in the interview process be allowed to ask such tribalistic questions.
Such legislation would prevent discrimination against some Malawians on the basis of their place of birth or family origin. It would open up opportunties for all Malawians to feel co-ownership of the nation, without regard to tribal affiliations. Isn’t that the meaning of Malawi was Tonse?
And if you are one of those people who objects to such a policy, claiming that the question is asked to prevent non-Malawians masquerading as Malwians in interviews. My answer to that is that there are several other better ways of ascertaining whether one is Malawian – without being caught up in tribalistic social engineering.

Has the Tonse Alliance Cabinet Declared their Assets?

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When Joyce Banda became president of Malawi, following the death of Bingu Wa Mutharika in 2012, a lot of noise was made by some Malawians regarding Banda’s declaring her assets.

Similarly, when Peter Mutharika was elected President in 2014, Malawians demanded that he declare his assets to the Office of the Director of Public Officers’ Declarations (ODPOD).

So then, now that we have a new government led by MCP and UTM in place, have the Ministers and other officials in the Tonse Alliance Government all declared their assets? And if not, when will they do so?

It’s important that this question is asked, because as President, Lazarus Chakwera said this governement’s ethos includes servant leadership. So it is only right and proper that all members of his cabinet, all MPs and other officials declare their assets. If not for anything else, then at least to inspire confidence and trust from Malawians

Also, who is monitoring and verifying these declarations, to ensure that they are accurate and not over-estimated? Maybe this job shouldn’t be entrusted entirely to ODPOD?

I think, in the interests of promoting public confidence in the new government, and in order to abide by the stipulations of Malawi’s constitution, and in the interests of protecting the country’s resources – so that we do not go back to the failures of the past, it is of the utmost importance that all public officials disclose and declare their assets.

Malawians need to know what assets public officials own, not only in Malawi, but also abroad. What interests including property do they own in foreign countries, and what is the value of those interests. How long have they had them and suchlike?

It is up to Malawians to demand that this is done, and to ensure that the process is honest and transparent. Otherwise you risk the failures of the past where people connected to the presidency or people with links to public officials began to suddenly accumulate so much unexplained wealth, and there was few ways of knowing or verifying whether such was acquired legitimately or not.

STEPPING DOWN TO STEP UP: WHY MALAWI SHOULD FOLLOW IN MADAGASCAR AND CABO VERDE’S FOOTSTEPS


A RECENT REPORT BY THE INSTITUTE FOR SECURITY STUDIES (ISS) ARGUES THAT MADAGASCAR AND CABO VERDE HAVE EVENED OUT THE ELECTORAL PLAYING FIELD FOR ALL PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS BY LEGISLATING THE STEPPING DOWN OF AN INCUMBENT PRESIDENT PRIOR TO PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS.

  • Listen to this article by clicking here [via SpeechKit]

These two cases are singled out as they are anomalies in Africa’s political landscape, which is marred by what the ISS’s report has termed ‘Incumbency Abuse’.
In Malawi; no elected president had ever lost a re-election, since the nation became a democracy in 1993; until this year when Peter Muntharika lost to opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera. Often, incumbents have won by a meagre percentage (38.57% in 2019, 36.4% in 2014) not representing the choice of the majority of the eligible voters.

While the First-Past-The-Post electoral system partly explains this, a large reason for these candidates being re-elected as opposed to an opposition candidate winning the election is the incumbency advantage their position gives them to garner resources for political campaigning.
The report highlights that mandating presidents seeking re-election to step down before going to the polls removes an acting president’s access to state resources for political campaign uses.

In 2015, Malawi’s then deputy Mayor for Mzuzu City, Frazer Chunga, was cited in an article by The Times Group saying his official car had been grabbed by the regional committee for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), of which former President Peter Muntharika heads, for campaigning use.

Such abuses would be easily mitigated by legislating the mandatory stepping down of a president seeking re-election prior to elections. Additionally, this would put all candidates on par, with the exception of an incumbent being able to show what developmental goals (if any) have been achieved nationally during their tenure.
Furthermore, the ISS finds that instituting a mandatory stepping aside of an acting president would assist in “addressing negative perceptions of voter manipulation and vote-rigging which have contributed to post-electoral violence and political instability on the continent [of Africa].”

This is of high relevance to Malawi as the country has gone to the polls for the second time in two years on the 23rd of June 2020.

Since Muntharika was announced re-elected in May 2019, Malawi had experienced a year of public demonstrations let by CSOs including the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), who claimed that the last elections were rigged and highly manipulated by the incumbent. Thousands of citizens joined the HRDC in support of the protests, culminating in the Constitutional Court nullifying the 2019 poll in favour of fresh elections.

Thus, the stepping down of a president to avoid even the perception of tampering with the electoral process would go a long way in promoting post-electoral peace and stability and insuring that issues of malpractice are resolved independently.
The report however, does state that the stepping down of a president before an election, is not a fool-proof mechanism to mitigating the problem of incumbency abuse. Presidents are still able to control systems, making them work in their favor though not being in power. This being said, systems can always be improved, checked, and completely rewritten. As such, while being a concern, it does not negate the call for presidents to set aside their presidential duties until post-elections.
In a nutshell, with rising impunity and incumbency abuse in the African continent, the recommendation of the ISS for other African countries to follow the examples of Madagascar and Cabo Verde should be seriously considered by policy-makers if Africa is to truly work towards free and fair elections for all.

And while Malawi has broken the cycle of an incumbent president never losing, the ushering in of the new regime should not be viewed as the solution to all incumbency abuse. Let us see if when the time comes, Chakwera will be able to step down, to step up.

Should Malawi’s next Government have a Code of Conduct for Political Advisers?

lady holding a card with words Code of Conduct written on it

I’m reviewing the code of conduct of special advisers to the UK government.

It’s an interesting read which lists in quite some detail a lot regarding the role, status and transparency with which special advisers to the UK government should operate. It also talks about how contact with the media should be handled, and how involvement of politics in a private capacity can be undertaken.

As a form of background, Special Advisers in the UK are classed as temporary civil servants in the different legislatures of the countries that make up the UK, and are thus exempt from being appointed based on merit. However, that doesn’t make them exempt from accountability or scrutiny over their actions.

So you might ask what does that have to do with Malawi? Well, since Malawi has seen quite a fair share of controversy and other drama involving political aides, presidential advisers and even a president’s bodyguard, considering an election is just around the corner it seems topical to venture into this topic at this time.

Anyhow, among the stipulations of the Code of Conduct are that Special Advisers may:

  • give assistance on any aspect of departmental business, and give advice (including expert advice as a specialist in a particular field);
  • undertake long term policy thinking and contribute to policy planning within the Department;
  • write speeches and undertake related research, including adding party political content to material prepared by permanent civil servants;
  • liaise with the Party, briefing party representatives and parliamentarians on issues of government policy;
  • represent the views of their Minister to the media (including a party viewpoint), where they have been authorised by the Minister to do so; and
  • liaise with outside interest groups (including those with a political allegiance)

In working with Civil Servants, Special Advisers can

  • convey to officials Ministers’ views, instructions and priorities, including on issues of presentation. .
  • request officials to prepare and provide information and data, including internal analyses and papers;
  • hold meetings with officials to discuss the advice being put to Ministers; and
  • review and comment on –but not suppress or supplant –advice being prepared for Ministers by civil servants.

It’s important to note that when undertaking their duties, Special Advisers are not doing so in their own capacities, but on behalf of their minister / the government.

However, Special Advisers may not:

  • ask civil servants to do anything which is inconsistent with their obligations under the Civil Service Code or behave in a way which would be inconsistent with standards set by their employing department;
  • authorise expenditure of public funds or have responsibility for budgets;
  • exercise any power in relation to the management of any part of the Civil Service,except in relation to another special adviser;or
  • otherwise exercise any statutory or prerogative power.

All important and necessary stuff . Necessary because when it is broken, there are usually consequences. Obviously, the UK’s troubles are not like the problems we face in Malawi. In fact you might say their problems are rather tame, than some of the allegations special advisers have been accused of in Malawi. And that’s why the part of public funds is in bold.

The Code of Conduct goes onto say that:

Special advisers are able to give direction to such civil servants in relation to their day-to-day work for them, and their views should be sought as an input to performance appraisals on the basis that these are written by other civil servants. However,special advisers should not be involved in the line management of civil servants in matters affecting a civil servant’s career such as recruitment, promotion, reward and discipline, or have access to personnel files of civil servants.

It also says the following:

Special advisers are bound by the standards of integrity and honesty required of all civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code.

Special advisers should not disclose official information which has been communicated in confidence in government or received in confidence from others. The Preparation or dissemination of inappropriate material or personal attacks has no part to play in the job of being a special adviser as it has no part to play in the conduct of public life.

Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy,through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, social media, articles or leaflets. They must observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks, and would not normally speak in public for their Minister or the Department

Special advisers are required to declare details of gifts and hospitality received in accordance with the rules set out in their departmental staff handbooks. Departments will publish,on a quarterly basis, information about gifts and hospitality received by their departmental special advisers and details of special advisers’ meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, editors and senior executives.

It goes on and on.

Now, given the perilous history of political advisers and presidential aides in Malawi, and what we know of how such people have behaved, especially in terms of amassing unexplained wealth, or otherwise being caught up or named in one scandal or another, shouldn’t Malawi’s next Government ensure that there is a strong and functional Code of Conduct for Political Advisers?

I think it is of the utmost urgency for Malawi’s next government to have an effective Code of Conduct for Political Advisers. It should be drafted with a view to curbing the corruption that has embroiled Political Advisers in Malawi’s history. The Code of Conduct must be drafted by an independent panel of legal professionals and CSOs, and must be reviewed every 3 years to ensure it is functional and fit for purpose.

Further, and in the interest of curbing corrupt practices, a new supranational body, the National Fraud Agency (NFA) with powers to levy fines, powers to cancel contracts which are not in the best interest of the country, and with powers to impound, detain and forfeit goods, and to go after foreign property of officials or citizens (which is suspected of being bought using the proceeds of corruption) should be established specifically to look at the issue of declaration of assets, to scrutinise government spending, tender awards and contracts, and to prevent extortionate prices being charged for goods supplied to the Malawi government. The NFA can work with the Anti-corruption Bureau, but it has to be independent of the ACB, and parliament and PAC should establish a framework that decides how the NFA’s powers are to be exercised. This is important to make sure that the theft of public resources that has occured in the past in one guise or another, perpetrated by public officials including ministers, should be firmly put to an end.

Thus, such a Code of Conduct together with an NFA would encourage transparency and accountability, and would establish a high standard of ethics in Malawi’s politics. It would also ensure that if wrong-doing occurs, a course of action that swiftly and resolutely rectifies the situation can be implemented. It means unscrupulous officials can be cut off from the business of government sooner than later, and cannot run away abroad with the proceeds of corruption. It means every political adviser would know in black and white exactly the type of dutiful conduct which is expected of them.

Should Malawi’s next Cabinet reflect the country’s demographics?

So you’ve managed to get the May 2019 Presidential election results nullified. Great! And since February the 3rd of this year, your beloved Malawi, the beautiful country which you love has become a shinning star, the gold-standard in judicial independence anywhere in the world.

Fantastic news!

Media outlets everywhere are praising you, Africans are congratulating you, everyone who knows you are Malawian talks positively about the developments in your country in terms of free and fair elections and an independent and competent judiciary. You feel proud. Fabulous!

Look! The FT has called the Constitutional Court decision… a victory for African democracy’. (Yes, the same Financial Times with revenues of $500 million). Favourable publicity doesn’t get any better than this, does it? All great, all wonderful stuff.

But let’s not get too excited too quickly here. Let’s not celebrate too much … yet. Ask any honest person who follows politics in Malawi, and they will tell you that while the victory against the fraudulent enterprise that is the Malawi Electoral Commission is one important victory battle in a war of many battles, there is unfinished business and on-going tussles that must be won in order to to clean up the structural rot in Malawi’s public bodies.

As Professor Danwood Chirwa put it here in his brilliant analysis whose intro was “The rearguard action has begun“, some people will fight tooth and nail to resist any meaningful change.

For example, there are Malawians who still think it is okay for a president or a government minister to decide which contractors should be awarded lucrative government contracts?? Then, there is the matter of public appointments; why should the heads of statutory corporations or parastatals still be appointed by the president, under a system that is definitely not merit-based – see [1], [2] for reference?  What about the boards of statutory corporations, shouldn’t their composition also be merit-based, and shouldn’t they be appointed by an independent body? What about public sector reforms. Didn’t the commission heading the initiative say the lack of political will was the reasons why bringing in the reforms had failed, with the UNDP comenting that: “Reforms call for transformation of organisational structures, a merit-based public service, transparent processes and procedures for improved service delivery.” (source: ‘Reforms on deathbed’, Rex Chikoko, The Nation)?

“Reforms call for transformation of organisational structures, a merit-based public service, transparent processes and procedures for improved service delivery.”

There is also the issue of the independence of the graft-busting body – the Anti-corruption Bureau (which in the past has been accused of being partial and having factions controlled by the executive); there is the matter of the independence of the police (who have at times used violence and acted shamefully against Malawians as if they were merely an unruly mob of the ruling party – see [3],[4]); there is the issue of the taxpayer-funded MBC, and how biased and unprofessional it is – see [5],[6]); there is the issue of political advisers, party honchos, strategists and other minions (some who like to call themselves “ana a daddy”) amassing fortunes and large amounts of unexplained wealth…

I could go on and on, and on.

And then there is the issue of the make-up of the Cabinet (which in past administrations, not only Peter Mutharika’s administration, has not reflected the country’s demographics). Wouldn’t it be fit and proper if Malawi’s next Cabinet more accurately reflected the country’s demographics, and was more than just a reflection of the president’s inner circle, party loyalists, cronies and tribal buddies?

Shouldn’t such be a given, that in a 21st century young democracy, one with (unfortunately) deep seated tribal allegiances, we should have a Cabinet that reflects the country’s ethnic make-up?

In any case, how are we to get rid of tribalism, cronyism, regionalism and nepotism in public office in Malawi, if we ignore the problem, and certain ethnic groups continue to be favored whereas other ethnic groups are sidelined and discriminated against when it comes to ministerial appointments, or more generally public appointments? You can’t say you have a genuine interest to get rid of tribalism, cronyism, regionalism and nepotism, but fill your cabinet positions, parastatals and board posts largely with yes-men, people from your village, chiefs, cronies from your region, members of your enthnic cultural association, and family members galore. That can’t possibly be right! Those state bodies can’t possibly excel.

If Malawians are going to fully capitalize on the Constitutional Court’s decision, and clean up the country’s many ills and failings (let’s be honest, there are many) for the benefit of every Malawian, then important undertakings like public appointments, cabinet positions and ambassadorial/ foreign mission postings must not be rewards for patronage or loyalty, but must be transparent merit-based exercises which reflect the country’s demographics and in the best interest of all Malawians.

Why I’m not excited about Roger Federer’s investment into Education in Malawi

Early this week, many people in Malawi were excited by the news that Roger Federer (ranked world number 2 best tennis player by the Association of Tennis Professionals), had launched a childcare centre at Lundu village, about 10 Kilometres outside Lilongwe, the Capital of Malawi.

While there is good reason to be happy about such news, whereby a big sports star has decided to use his time and resources to help Malawi in this area, a part of me thinks otherwise.

A part of me thinks that Malawi not only needs help in terms of pre-schools and child development centres, but also over the whole educational system – which is archaic, and needs to be revamped.

And here’s why:

Firstly, whats the point of giving children a great pre-school start only to disappoint them later on in primary and secondary education? How so? Well, according to Ripple Africa, a charity with a base in Nkhata Bay district:

… The government of Malawi recognises the importance of pre-school education, and encourages communities to set up their own pre-schools, but does not support pre-schools financially. With no funds to support pre-schools, most of them are run on a voluntary basis and are unregistered. Most teachers work for free, and have no resources to help them teach, lacking the very basics including blackboards and chalk, let alone books and toys which might commonly be associated with pre-school education in the West. It is rare that pre-schools have their own school buildings, and many pre-schools share facilities with local churches or other buildings built for a different purpose

It goes on to say

Although primary education in Malawi is free, students are required to purchase their own school uniform, pens, and notebooks, which many families find difficult. Rates for drop-outs are high, and, according to UNESCO, only 58% of children will complete a full course of primary school, and 20% of children repeat one or more school years, often several times, if they have had to take significant time out of school and have fallen behind. It is very common for children in Malawi to come in and out of school depending on their family situation, employment responsibilities, pregnancy and marriage at a young age, sickness, and more. By the time students leave primary school, many of them are far older than primary age, having repeated several years, and many lose interest and drop out all together.

If you read further, you’ll find the usual problems across the whole education board: poor infrastructure, lack of materials, unpaid untrained teachers even at pre-school level…  the usual.

How can you help children learn if schools have little or no study materials, and teachers are not properly trained? Before you do anything for the children shouldn’t you first make sure that their teachers have the right qualifications, and there are suitable facilities available for them to use in teaching.

So, in addition to improving pre-school education, I think the initiative should go hand in hand with improving the standard of education across the board, and not just in pre-school education.

In any case, we know from reports from employers that many people who come out of form four (or even Universities) in Malawi lack the basic skills needed by most employers. A scenario that probably is a result of dysfunction within Universities themselves. This dysfunction was summarised by The Nation News paper a few years ago:

In some public universities, for example, there is acute shortage of books or even chairs in classrooms, leading to students standing throughout lectures. Some of the faculty members also need to upgrade their qualifications; so, too, do catering and accommodation need improvement, among other facilities.

The above article by Ripple Africa also mentions the lack of buildings.

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image from typicalmalawian.wordpress.com

 

Malawi needs more school buildings, more resources such as desks, black boards and stationery in both primary and secondary education (including properly resourced dormitories in boarding schools). This will cost money, but the government needs to upgrade these facilities across the whole country. It cannot be piecemeal or random, because then it will not be effective. It has to be planned and transformative and must be made a top priority.

This is important because a child who undertakes their pre-school in a well-furnished nursery (complete with chairs and tables) is not going to be assisted if they then have to be downgraded and sit on the floor during primary school.

Never mind early education, primary and secondary school, what about tertiary education? Should the government be doing more to invest in tertiary education?

Recently in June 2015, Grant Shapps, UK International Development Minister, at the announcement that the UK would pump £11.6 million into Malawi education sector said:

“Malawi’s future doctors, nurses, IT experts, teachers and entrepreneurs will help build a nation eventually independent of foreign aid and with our own historic links to Malawi, particularly those of Scotland, this is also in the UK’s interest, because creating a more prosperous world will benefit us all in the long run”

The question is where will they be trained, and who will foot the bill? Is £11.6 million enough to train doctors, nurses, IT experts, teachers and entrepreneurs for a country with a population of 13 million people? Adequate training that will help Malawi compete on the global stage…? And not only provide Doctors and Nurses for Europe…?

There are other factors other than pre-school education that must be addressed if the education sector in Malawi is to be improved.

tfac-teacher-stats

Factors such as the effect H.I.V has on teachers. These need to be looked at, in collaboration with charities such as Theatre for a Change. It’s important that resources are dedicated to address them.

Aside from the education front, the other question politicians and stakeholders should be asking is after these children become young adults who have been ‘educated’, where will they work? No point training them when at the end of it all, you have no jobs to give them. A youth unemployment crisis which many western countries including the UK, Spain, Portugal and Greece are currently facing. Does Malawi have enough jobs and an economy that can support its young people of working age? How can the country create more jobs and assist its citizens to be resourceful?

Looking at the statistics of youth unemployment across Malawi, I can tell you that the country definitely doesn’t have enough good jobs, and this is a situation which could become a crisis if not addressed urgently.

Furthermore, Malawians must not rely solely on donors or foreign companies who have their own interests to come into Malawi and create jobs. This also extends to our educational system.

We must stop relying on foreigners to come in and sort out our problems.

When for example will Malawian corporations emerge that are owned by Malawian nationals, and employ thousands of Malawians?

quote2-malawi

I’ll end with a personal story. A few months ago, a cousin-nephew who lives in the city of Blantyre in Malawi told me he wanted to study IT, in particular he wanted to work in Software or web related technologies. I told him to learn programming, and referred him to the City Library in Blantyre to find a book on the ‘C programming language’ which he could use as a starting point, since being trained as an Electronic and communications engineer I know that my education in programming began with C programming (as has been for many other people working in software and IT). So I was keen to get him down a similar path in this sense.

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A few days later he told me he had gone to the library but was told that they didn’t have any book on C programming. Further, he doesn’t have a computer, so even if he did have a book, there’s no where to practice how to code. Also he wasn’t sure whether he could install educational software on some of the public computers he has used in Internet Cafe’s. I wondered how it was possible for a library of a major city of a country to not even have a single book on C Programming, let alone computers for the public to use…In this digital era.

If things are like this outside the classroom, in a city, in 2015, I could see how easy it was for teachers to be frustrated.
Today, my thoughts are punctuated by an article I remembered, written by Steve Sharra titled Malawi at fifty One: the education legacies of Malawi’s presidents hitherto in which he argues that the failure to utilise the higher educational system to improve the quality of teaching and the teaching professions has negatively affected the country’s developmental process. In the article, Sharra writes :

However at primary and secondary school levels the problem of teacher morale, the most significant of the problems afflicting Malawi’s education system is getting worse. Today, anger amongst Malawian teachers has become so pervasive it severely corrodes the education system. In the first of 2015, salary delays took a turn for the worse. With communication from the ministry not forthcoming, teachers resorted to asking fellow teachers on Facebook groups for updates. It is frightening to imagine how these angry, bitter, frustrated and demoralised teachers are treating children under their care.

So here I am seated in a central city library in Nottingham (East Midlands), which has recent issues of magazines published in India, several copies of Der Spiegel, (including a May 2015 copy), and even an East Midlands Polish publication, let alone books on computer coding;

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I’m surrounded by both young and older people – all oblivious of my observations, getting on with their lives ; and I’m thinking how I can send a netbook with a compiler pre-installed on it, and a book on C programming to Malawi. I’m also thinking about all those young people who want to study IT related subjects across Africa(some of whom are being taught under trees), who greatly desire to tap into similar knowledge as is scripted in the pages of these books on the shelves next to me, but who can’t find a book anywhere to help them … who don’t have anyone to send a computer to them.

That is why I’m not excited about Roger Federer’s investment into pre-school Education in Malawi

Growing African economies that will work for African people

African market
Women at an African market

Tanzania just announced that it will dump English as its official language in schools, opting for Kiswahili instead. This morning, I read this article that somehow appears to suggest that this is a bad idea.

I must say I disagree, and below I’ll try to explain why.

When the colonial powers came to Africa, one of the first things they did was to impose their own languages as the language of learning in their territories. France imposed French in the various west African territories it colonised, Portugal imposed Portuguese, Holland imposed Dutch and Britain imposed English and so on. This had the effect of dividing communities which were otherwise related. The overall effect was to stop any hope of large countries the size of the Democratic Republic of Congo from ever emerging out of Africa. It was divide and rule of the purest form. Fragmentation – a cruel tactic designed to tie the future of those then colonies forever to the colonial powers.

So the english taught was not necessarily to be a conduit of knowledge transfer that would empower the colonies as some people would have you believe. Instead, it was a move to make sure that schools produced compliant subjects which could easily be manipulated, and do the bidding of the colonial masters in Europe.

And that is reason enough in my view for Tanzania to change the official language to Kiswahili, because the motive of colonised Tanzania having to communicate in foreign languages was entirely driven by foreign interests.

Secondly, groups of people often associate and define themselves as an ethnicity on various terms, but one of the most common denominators, other than ancestry is language. You identify as Chewa because your parents are Chewa and they spoke Chichewa, they lived in the land of the Chewa, their village was in the Chewa belt. Therefore you are Chewa.

This is the norm, not the exception.

So as Tanzanians, the question which the above article answers is that Kiswahili is a unifying force in Tanzania. It holds together the people, even though they are made up of 130 different ethnicities.

So why then should they conduct their lives based on an imported language when they have a language of their own?

Who’s interests does having English as an official language of education ultimately serve?

Why teach in English when students could learn in their own African language? Are people not proud of being African?

If the US, Britain or Spain is unlikely to begin teaching their students in Nyanja or Kiswahili which are African languages, why is it somewhat acceptable or expected for Africans to teach their students in foreign languages?!?

In any case, shouldn’t Tanzania develop an economy that first and foremost works for Tanzanians (if you can allow me to temporarily step out of my usual Pan-African shoes), people who are citizens of a sovereign country?

In the above article, the author quotes Ahmed Salim, a senior Associate at Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy that works with U.S investors, who makes what I consider to be a hopelessly narrow-minded point:

However, in terms of overall impact, the main challenge will be felt long-term when companies set up shop in Tanzania and are left with hiring staff that are either bilingual Tanzanians or from neighboring Kenya or Uganda. This will somewhat hinder Tanzania’s competitive advantage in the future.”

Now, I’m not saying they should stop teaching English altogether, or that English isn’t an important international language. That’s not what I’m saying. Instead the argument for English is tied to this over-emphasis on foreign investment (money coming from the outside of Africa) to help and rescue Africans, to give them jobs and create an economy – as if Africans themselves couldn’t use their own resources to create economies that work for the benefit of African countries.

Tanzania has many natural resources including natural gas (See the following links Tanzania’s Natural Gas Reserves Almost Triple on New Finds ; Statoil makes another natural gas find offshore Tanzania ;  BG Group touts Pweza as its largest Tanzania gas find ). The country’s economy is growing at a rate of 7% which is quite high and above the international average. If those resources are utilised properly by the government of Tanzania for the benefit of the country’s citizens (as opposed to liberally auctioned-off to the highest corporate bidder) they could be a source of some serious economic development that would create jobs for young Tanzanians, investment into security, and used for infrastructure development, investment in Education, Healthcare and women’s issues.

That investment, derived from wholly Tanzanian owned resources, could be a serious game changer if utilised wisely.

But if some corporation is allowed to own a majority stake, or lions share of Tanzania’s Natural Gas resources, I can tell you now what difference it will make to the Tanzanian economy in the long run:

NONE.

The profits that corporation makes will be wired out of Tanzania to already developed and rich countries. Countries that needs the benefit of the resource much less, and that have billions in cash reserves to fall back on. And those profits will find their way into the fat pockets of already rich shareholders in those rich countries. Ultimately such funds will trickle down to contribute to the tax system of those already rich countries, benefitting their economies.

Meanwhile, poor Tanzanians already struggling with poverty, low incomes, unemployment, high cost of living, government corruption, who do not own property, poor healthcare in hospitals and the lack of medicines, no electricity in most areas, deforestation, poaching and lack of clean water in the villages will not have benefitted proportionately from such natural gas deals. Instead they will have to continue receiving handouts, breadcrumbs from aid organisations – when their country possesses the natural resources that could be used to create wealth for them…all just because of greed of some corporations

How absurd and stupid is that?

So the scare mongering self-serving attitude against Tanzania choosing to teach their students in Kiswahili is wrong, It’s anti-African and I vehemently disagree with such dishonest views.

Africans and other developing countries have been stamped on for too long. We must end this corporate driven theft and madness and begin to create economies which are designed to serve and benefit us as Africans, just as others have been building economies to benefit their own economies, and their own people.

Who is interfering with MACRA’s mandate?

It’s a sad state of African politics that sometimes influential people attempt to hijack the institutional and democratic processes of doing things, for personal gain. Often money, lots of it, must have changed hands, and you end up with bigwigs attempting to influence or hijack decision-making in matters such as awarding of contracts, in legal or constitutional affairs, when the law is clear about how such things should be handled. This is bad for our countries across Africa, and is singularly the most common reason why our institutions fail to function properly. Leading to abuse that deprives the continent of billions. Because some people are willing to sacrifice the common good. In Malawi, a few days ago a story broke out on Nyasa Times alleging that one Ben Phiri is apparently pulling the strings behind the scenes to influence the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) to award a licence to Lacell Private Limited. Now Lacell has an interesting history in Malawi. In 2008, they failed in its bid for a mobile license because they did not meet the criteria.  Lacell came 5th in the tender process after the other participants were either disqualified or pulled-out. It seems that after months of lobbying politicians (see another link here) they threatened to sue the Malawi government, claiming that they had been led to believe that they would be awarded a license. That they had participated in pre-contractual negotiations and had invested in Malawi, therefore deserved a license. But the ‘license’ they claimed, for which they received some media coverage, never got authorised, let alone gazetted. The Malawi Communications Act 1998 stipulates that a license is not awarded unless it has been gazetted. You can engage in negotiations or receive political promises but unless a tender has been advertised, bids received and reviewed, the bidders vetted and the preferred bidder selected, the succesful bidders are then passed to the president through the relevant ministry…and after some obscure governmental protocols at the highest level, a winner selected. The resulting licence is gazetted, and only then is the licence said to have been awarded under the laws of Malawi. Any contract award that does not follow this set out procedure as laid out in law is in contravention of the law. Thus, for renegotiation with Lacell to begin out of the legally accepted procedure stipulated by the law, outside the tender process, is not in line with the laws of Malawi.

But this resumption of talks is not entirely surprising. In appointing boards of MACRA, the Department of Statutory Corporations [which is part of Office of President and Cabinet (OPC)] issues lists of competent persons which are recommended as members for nomination to parastatals. The President then approves such appointments. But for the current board of MACRA, which was appointed in November 2014, rumour has it that the recommendation list was largely ignored, or the legal process was not entirely observed. Whether this was politically motivated or not is anybody’s guess. What is clear is that when selecting a new board for a regulatory authority, it is required that the composition of the board have people who possess the skills, knowledge and expertise relevant to the functions and mandate for that institution. For MACRA, the Communications Act states that certain numbers from the outgoing board should be retained for continuity. This makes sense because a new board unversed in the operations, intricacies and current affairs need time to adjust. To examine all the issues which the board has been wrestling with, and come up to speed. But when more than half, or all of the previous board have been replaced, what’s to stop a noisy, disgruntled and desperate former bidder who for years has been claiming the moon, to take advantage of the situation and try to bulldoze its claims, perhaps helpfully assisted by some monetary gifts to important people within a newly elected government. This it appears, is where Lacell comes in. Because  the last board of MACRA was replaced in its entirety, and surprise surprise, Lacell, who popped up during Bingu’s regime causing many headaches, who showed up again and again during Joyce Banda’s tenure, has once again showed up.

According to the OPC website: The Department of Statutory Corporations mandate is to ensure parastatal sectors optimal utilization and management of resources, in compliance with Government regulations, thereby contributing to national development. The Department provides financial, administrative and managerial oversight to the parastatal sector. Doesn’t the in compliance with government regulation mentioned in this mission statement mean that MACRA must operate by the law? Why then is Kondwani Nankhumwa, the minister of Information, Tourism and Culture, talking as if a deal with Lacell could be hashed outside the law? Disregarding the lawful processes. And the institutions that have been mandated to police and protect the processes?

Something fishy is going on. President Peter Mutharika would be best advised to put a firm stop to this fishy business, because it is not going to help Malawi in the long run. Our public institutions must be allowed to operate independently, without duress, and in line with the law.