Politicians and agenda for change

By Joseph Kayira

Until now for our politics, it remains a scene of same script, different actors. But even the actors are not so different from those of the 1960s through 70s, 80s and 90s. Politicians, as someone coined it, are the same. They always will be. That is why when new actors appear, promising change, Malawians must take that message with a pinch of salt. They must analyze every politician. They must be critical of all political party manifestos and every political agenda that politicians produce every election year.

However, politicians are not daft. They know that most Malawians are disillusioned and will not ask many questions on topical issues. For instance, prior to last year’s Tripartite Elections, not many political parties produced enough copies of their manifestos to distribute to the electorate. All they talked about was change. Those in opposition said once President Peter Mutharika and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were removed from power, Malawi would be on a new path to change.

Politicians are clever. They say things people want to hear. The opposition for instance capitalized on the fact that the DPP-led government failed to deliver on some of its campaign promises. They hit the DPP for failure to successfully implement some of its agricultural policies. One of the key topics has been the continuation of the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP) which targets poor households.

Over the years it has been highly politicised and compromised. The end result has been that the targeted beneficiaries of this important programme have not benefited after all. In some instances, a single bag of fertilizer was shared among three or so beneficiaries. Those who do not support the programme have also claimed that it is only where the ruling party has massive that more bags of farm inputs are distributed.

The Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has fought for what it thinks is more robust agriculture programme – the universal subsidy programme. It argues cheaper farm inputs for everyone would help fight hunger at household level. What is wrong to put a bag of fertilizer at a subsidized price of K5,000 for every Malawian? Would that not help everyone? After all fertilizer ends up in the soil, argues proponents of the universal fertilizer subsidy. In a country where almost every household has a garden such is the news they would want to hear every growing season.

The question that these households have not asked is: who would finance such a subsidy? Would donors, who all along have been against subsidies, all of a sudden come in and fund such an expensive venture? Would there be change of heart just like that? Late President Bingu wa Mutharika defied donors to launch FISP back in 2005. It was a risk he took just one year in office whose results surprised even his detractors.

In Malawi, where agriculture constitutes the backbone of the economy, and maize is the staple food for many districts, any good news regarding the prices of farm inputs such as fertilizers can bring change. Any wonder that Bingu won a landslide in 2009 General Elections despite a difficult five-year term? The FISP was kind of a magic wand and a life line for his political career.

This time around Malawi needs change. But what change? Perhaps change in all spheres of life. From politicians to civil servants to farmers and businesspersons and to youths. Change should just not be about politicians in positions such as President, MPs and Ward Councillors. Change should somehow begin with the way ordinary Malawians think about things around them. Do they understand politics? Do they value leadership? Do they care about the way civil servants handle their taxes? Do they ask critical questions?

Largely, it is the indifference that is pushing this country into a dark abyss. Since independence in 1964, Malawians have been subjected to a culture of silence. Those in authority instilled fear in Malawians so much that for a long-time critical thinking became ‘a crime’. Questioning certain decisions at the time meant rebellion. It meant disrespectful to those in power. But that time is long gone.

Malawians must take a new path but with caution. They must begin to ask questions if the much-revered change will be meaningful. They must understand the change they are being asked to vote for. What if the agenda for change that is being talked about means autocratic rule? What if it means more looting of state coffers? What if the change is about ambitious leaders who think now is their time to ‘eat’? Who will be able to stop them after they have consolidated power?

The bottom line is that change indeed must come but it comes at a cost – everyone must spare some moment to participate in the process of bringing change to Malawi. Malawi is in this state today because a larger part of the population was inclined to believe that politics is a dirty game – yet the players are professors, doctors and at times even priests. What’s in this dirty game that lures all these learned sons and daughters of the soil?

So, in this election where everyone is talking about change, are Malawians ready to start scrutinizing the political players? Again, what change are they trying to talk about? Is it the change Malawians want? It is never too late to scrutinize and understand better this change before the presidential election.