By Eugenio Njoloma
Basically, a civil society entails a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity. Its prominence is significantly propped by constitutionally recognized formations, which champion various causes of the society at large.
As they are known, civil society organizations (CSOs), such as faith or community-based as well as non-governmental organizations, are non-State, not-for-profit, voluntary entities separate from the State and the market.
Their significance is held by advocacy work for the rights and wishes of the people. This is in areas such health, environment, and economic rights. They also fulfill critical duties of checks and balances, which makes them signifiers of government accountability and, thus, key influencers of public policy.
These attributes, significantly, buttress their epitomic posture as enablers of a health participatory democracy. This, therefore, necessitates the CSOs to always revere their missionary mandate of ensuring the prevalence of an untainted political space for a healthy social, political, and economic life of the citizenry.
What is the Malawi story?
In order to do justice to the subject matter, a brief review of the CSOs’ life in Malawi is imperative. For records sake, the CSOs’ vibrancy can be traced to the post-1994 multiparty elections period.
Precisely, the political war by the Catholic Church through its college of bishops did not only spell the demise of Kamuzu Banda’s autocratic rule but importantly served as a critical stimulant of popular activism.
Since then, various “representatives” of the civil society have risen against perceived political injustices orchestrated by various regimes. However, their most emblematic role in this regard vividly manifested between May 2009 and April 2012 during the Bingu wa Mutharika presidency.
In the most glamourous comfort, it seemed the president had mistaken his unwavering popularity for political omnipotence. Consequently, he grew unbearably autocratic tendencies, which, in no time, facilitated the erosion of his once admirable reputation.
As a matter of fact, his decisions became incredibly uncharacteristic. Memories are fresh when he once sought to unilaterally install his brother, Arthur Peter Mutharika, as DPP’s successor. This decision led to the estrangement of his former ally and vice, Joyce Banda.
He was also responsible for the unceremonious expulsion of the British High Commissioner, Cochraine Dyte, for criticizing his rule. He silenced his critics and presided over a corruption infested government. Some people including, for example, Robert Chasowa, died horrendously, apparently for pointing out the ills of his regime.
The consequences of Bingu’s “political irrationality” were dire. In particular, the county’s economy entered an agonizing hibernation mode, a situation, which in most Malawians had triggered the reminiscence of the Zimbabwe crisis under Robert Mugabe. Indeed, the Malawi that had, at one point in Bingu’s rule, worn the recognition as an epitome of prudent economic management could no longer hold the steam.
The wave of ire in the masses surpassed the strength of hurricane Katrina. No one could stop the defiance that the majority of Malawians had, either physically or emotionally, mounted against Bingu’s rule. Without proper coordination, it became impractical to individually effect regime change.
Only when Undule Mwakasungula, Rafiq Hajat, Billy Mayaya, Gift Trapence, Macdonald Sembereka, just to name a few, showed significant brevity, Bingu’s government got closer to the margins of collapse.
Indeed, the immensity of their activism could only be measured by the 20 July 2011 catastrophe that saw twenty people dead and several others injured by live ammunition in the hands of police.
A year later, the president succumbed to a heart attack. So While people’s resolute could not be doubted, the incredibly vigilant and brave CSO leaders, to a very considerable extent, planted the seed of determination in Malawians in the fight for political justice.
The depth of political vigilantism in the civil society also manifested between May 2014 and June 2020 during Peter Mutharika’s rule. In particular, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), through numerously incessant mass protests it organized, leaned on the determination to prevent Mutharika from serving another term of presidency.
This time around, Timothy Mtambo, Gift Trapence, Macdonald Sembereka, and others, ensured that the quest for regime change materialized. Because President Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had become too insensitive to people’s needs, the electoral triumph of the Tonse Alliance formation, which HRDC had considerably orchestrated, again, exalted the CSOs’ messianic role in the country.
An objective answer to this question can be elusive. Only honest considerations of the CSOs’ positions, particularly in the aftermath of an ascendancy to power by a particular leadership can be vindictive. Here, Joyce Banda and Lazarus Chakwera’s rise to the presidency are cases in point.
Bingu’s death in the office ignited joy in many people including a significant quarter of the CSO leadership. Joyce Banda, whose political recognition the CSOs fiercely fought for, became the president. In no time, however, the previously vocal CSO leaders lost their biting power.
Against principles of neutrality and impartiality, for example, Billy Mayaya used Joyce Banda’s face as his Facebook profile picture. Macdonald Sembereka, whose house had been torched in Balaka by thugs in the blue colours of the DPP government, happily accepted a position in the Joyce Banda government. Several other CSO leaders also grew cold following appointments to various positions in government.
Fast forward to 2020, barely 60 days since Chakwera became the president, CSOs, particularly those that vehemently opposed Mutharika’s DPP government, have become mum despite countless blunders the president’s administration has so far endured.
Indeed, how can they bite when, for example, Billy Mayaya, again, has Chakwera’s face on his Facebook profile? How can they admonish the Chakwera government when the once respected friend of the masses, Timothy Mtambo, has immediately become accustomed to political rape?
What drives their egos?
The Mayaya, Sembereka, and Mtambo cases only reveal the absence of objectivity in their purported fight for freedom. In other words, their ‘noises’ are all but a tool for gaining personal comfort. Indeed, their activism voices sound more political than those that would inspire liberation.
If the revolutionary wars had indeed been authentic, Timothy Mtambo could have ensured the consolidation of his political popularity from a neutral base policed by the CSOs. Indeed, by now, the editorial prowess of, particularly Times Media Group and Zodiak Broadcasting Service, could have loudly pinpointed Chakwera’s apparent indecisiveness on matters of national importance.
Indeed, mass protests could have been organized against an apparently nepotism-infested cabinet which president Chakwera announced in his early life of the presidency. As the DPP government faced street protests for promoting nepotism, the CSOs leadership seems stuffed with political yellow buns in their mouths for unnecessarily giving the Chakwera presidency benefit of doubt for similarly nepotistic tendencies.
It is also possible that the activism by some CSO leaders was only in the service of revolutionary demands by certain political leaders. Precisely, amatumidwa (they were being sent) to disturb government policies. Yes, when a new government attained power, it all ended. Yes, why is the HRDC’s silence deafening amid all the incongruent decisions the Chakwera government has made since the election.
How different is the recently Covid-19 gazette from the one by the DPP government in the early days of the pandemic? Why did the leadership of the CSOs bark then and seem at ease this time around? Is president Chakwera above the law to attend a funeral with more than fifty people? Why are the watchdogs quiet?
As civil society leaders have seemingly chosen to close their eyelids amid numerous political irregularities, the mass public seems quite awake in calling for government accountability by itself. Today, while dispelling the relevance of the DPP cadets in performing the function of checks and balances, followers of the Tonse Alliance are happily calling themselves olamula ndi wotsutsa wokhawokha.
What to safeguard?
It is clear that the civil society has cultivated immense power to see, feel, and act against politically retrogressive practices. Yet there is also strong evidence that its representatives, the CSOs, have often tended to lose steam when a new political power comes in place.
There is always the expectation that CSOs stick to their mandate so as to play that critical coordinating role for effective democratization. Indeed, CSOs should be helping in giving a voice to the people as they also assist rights holders, monitor governments’ and parliaments’ activities, give advice to policymakers, and hold authorities accountable for their actions.
It is therefore important that civil society actors involved in promoting fundamental rights need to be able to exercise their rights fully and without unnecessary subjection to any pressures. As things are, the once vibrant CSOs have become lethargic.
*Njoloma is a regular contributor to The Lamp magazine. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org