In my quest to find progressive views and forward-thinking ideas which if embraced could potentially improve Malawi’s economic situation, I found myself interviewing Sir Edward Clay, the former British Ambassador to Kenya, whose interview will be posted on this website soon. He spoke about some very interesting things, including introducing me to another individual, a British historian in the form of Nick Wright, who has spent several years in Africa, including some time in Malawi. It is my pleasure to share with the readership of this website his insightful observations:-
1. You’ve had some exposure to Malawi and Africa in general… if you were to summarise your experiences, what has been your African experience?
My wife spent several years as a physiotherapist in Mulago Hospital, [in] Kampala. We had several Ugandan friends from that experience. After leaving our jobs in Australia, we enrolled in the (British) Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO): I as teacher of English in Chimwankhunda Community Day Secondary School in Blantyre, Malawi; she as physiotherapist at Malawi Against Polio (MAP), also in Blantyre. We were there for two happy years. I became interested in Malawian politics at that time and started as Malawi correspondent for the London-based Africa Confidential. Journalism of this sort continued for several years after our departure from Malawi in 2001 and obliged me to make several return visits to Malawi in order to conduct interviews. I met the leaders of all major Malawian political parties and the heads of some government departments, foreign embassies, aid-agencies, newspapers and business enterprises.
2. Most of the African countries in which you spent time in gained their independence around early to mid-1960’s. And at the time, Pan-Africanism was probably at its peak, with a freedom fervour sweeping across the continent, something that can probably be compared to what we recently witnessed in North Africa with the so-called ‘Arab spring’; It’s now close to 50 years since those ‘glorious days’, but to what extent in your view have the goals or overarching expectations of ‘independence’ conceptualised by the founding fathers of African countries been realised for the majority of their citizens?
Nkrumah’s pan-African ideal of the 1960s was never adopted because arrogant African presidents, like Hastings Banda, were (and still are) too attached to the trappings of a threadbare sovereignty to be able to surrender all the flags, palaces, UN flummery, and motorcades. I think the Western powers had an interest in divide and rule, too.
I once wrote an article which mourned the collapse of the East African Federation for just such reasons: “Central Africa’s Sovereign Issues”. Regional federations, as stepping-stones to wider unions, make good sense for Africa – especially for land-locked, resource-poor, Malawi – and they must not be allowed to remain the modern taboo that Kamuzu Banda made them.
This is another example, I’m afraid, of too much power in the hands of Presidents who scorn institutions like Parliament, the Judiciary; the printed media; the Civil Service, the Constitution which are set up to be their “checks and balances”. Presidents are told by everybody around them (until they are toppled) that they are God Almighty, and they come to believe it. Only Nyerere came close to the ideal of a model, modest, president, and his modesty was treated with contempt by the others
I developed a healthy respect and liking for individual Malawians but a very strong feeling that Western aid policies were failing Malawi badly. Why? Because: (1)they fed complacency, idleness, irresponsibility and corruption within the Malawian elites; (2)they fed arrogance amongst the expatriate community who were forever in the company of grateful and respectful poor people; (3)they created passivity and feelings of helplessness in ordinary Malawian people, including those in government who had their responsibilities taken away from them. Whilst being aware of the many individual benefits brought to poor Malawians by individual aid- projects, I felt that the real beneficiaries of aid-money in Malawi were: (1)state-presidents and their family members, friends, and hangers-on; (2)the staff of a multitude of NGOs and aid-agencies, and (3)expatriate consultants expensively employed by DFID, the EU, the UN etc to write expert reports. Bingu wa Mutharika was on the right track with his angry denunciations of Western aid but his protestation was undermined by his own lavish personal spending and his grotesque toleration of corruption. How can a person who makes all the decisions in Malawi and whose immediately previous experience was in minibus driving and in the corrupt bureaucracy of COMESA(Bingu) or small business (Muluzi), be trusted to act solely in the public interest of Malawi? Bakili Muluzi was more likeable as a man than Bingu but identical in his failure to distinguish between personal and public.
3. And if such goals and expectations have largely not been met, what are the main reasons as to why they have not been met?
Far too much unchecked power is in the hands of individual Malawians, especially the President, because of the “Big Man” [similar link here] culture which prevails in the country and the weakness of public institutions. The independent national newspapers, like The Nation, do a reasonable investigative job but are easily intimidated by threats to their advertising revenues and by their own lack of resources; the MBC public broadcaster is entirely under government control and biased in favour of government; the Malawian churches retain a sporadic consciousness of their responsibility as “public conscience” of Malawi but are often distracted by their own factionalism. The Parliamentary committees occasionally exercise oversight on public spending but only when in session and they are often starved of vital evidence by government departments and tend to divide on party-lines. The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) is widely considered to be only for “small-fry” financial criminality, and firmly under presidential control where corruption itself is often centred. Western embassies, (individually and collectively), sometimes exercise a restraining hand on the presidency through their aid-policies, but their staffs are usually too comfortably entrenched in their own luxurious lifestyles, and too suspicious of each other and of China, to risk serious confrontation with the president. The Executive arm of government (effectively the President) is overwhelmingly powerful in Malawi, and this patrimonial model of government filters down to all levels of administration. “Letat cest moi”
4. While there has been visible progress in some parts of Africa, when one travels in other parts, especially the rural areas, the story of suffering is the same. If it’s not wars and ethnic violence, then it’s disease and poor healthcare, or famine and hunger, else it’s lack of resources, poverty, corruption…the list goes on. After over 50 years of foreign intervention and billions of dollars in aid, what in your view is preventing Africa from getting its act together?
Aid is ruining Malawians self-respect and their natural honesty and capacity for hard work. Its gradual removal will cause as much consternation in Western donor capitals (“What will Bob Geldof say about all the hungry people?”) as it will in some of the poorest households of Malawi (“See how our politicians cant provide “Development”). But it is a “bullet” that must be “bitten” for the greater long-term good of Malawi. The Fertiliser Subsidy (FISP) which absorbs most of the agricultural budget has become a millstone around the neck of Malawis agricultural development.
The subject of overseas aid is a very important one and for the reasons explained above. Why should the presidency take note of competing institutions when the Executive is virtually guaranteed free money from overseas? Why should government departments do their jobs properly when overseas experts with university degrees in International Development seem to know all the answers? Why should Presidents feel the necessity of proper financial accountability?
All aid should be phased out. The endless tinkering between “good” and “bad” aid will not do for Malawi any more. It is ALL bad! If its abolition means the collapse of Western-style democracy in Malawi, then let it go. It will return in a different, better, African, form!
5. One of the problems that has been cited as holding back the growth of African economies is the relatively low levels of Venture capital investment into Africa, when compared for example with the Venture capital investment that has been flowing into Asia or South America. Do you agree?
Venture capital is largely absent from Malawi, except in uranium-mining at Kayelekera, and in tourism (i.e where Malawian control and profit-taking is minimal)
Nick Wright has worked in the History Department at Adelaide University (1975-1991) and for Africa Confidential as its Malawi correspondent (2003-2010).
Other Articles by Nick Wright: