Why did we become independent?

Why did we become independent?

Muluzi, Bakili

“There situation in Africa in terms of economic reform is not changing. There has been so much interferecne when we have tried to do something for our own good. ‘Oh no, don’t do that. We must tell you what to.’ The question I ask is: Why did we become independent?” – President Muluzi talks to New African’s Baflour Ankomah and Khalid Bazid. The full interview:

Baffour: Last year, you published a book, titled Mau Anga. What does it mean?

Muluzi: Mau Anga means “my words”. It is a background to the democracy in this country. You know that Malawi went through a very, very autocratic rule for 31 years. So I wanted to tell the story of what we went through. The book, therefore, is more or less a narration of our history – politically and otherwise.

Baffour: You say in the book that: “Even if the Western world may claim to be more democratic, there is no such thing as an ideal democracy. Like any cultural paradigm, democracy must fit into the cultural patterns of every society.” Is that what we have in Malawi or in Africa in general? If not, why not?

Muluzi: First of all, let me mention that democracy, as the West understands it, is a new phenomenon in Africa. A new phenomenon in the sense that it is now being entrenched. In fact, Africa has always had its own democracy for centuries. It was there in the olden days. We had chiefs in the villages, and we still have them. The chiefs had councillors who advised them. And the councillors would consult the people in the villages where they stayed. That was part of democracy. So democracy was there, except that it was not like Western democracy in which elections are held. In our case, the councillors were appointed by the chief.

In Africa, the problem we have is trying to copy what Europe is doing now. It is a problem because it is not possible for us to copy Europe, which has been independent for centuries. You take America, 200 years of independence. Our democracy, in Malawi, is only nine years old. Now it is wrong to compare or say “let’s be like what the Americans are”. We have to go through a transition during which we have to educate our people to understand what democracy is. That is Point No. 1.

Point No.2: I feel very strongly that democracy must be guided. You don’t just say we have democracy without guiding the people. Then you will bring anarchy. It is a process. We must move forward with the process. That’s why in Malawi we introduced free primary education, because it is an investment in democracy, to help our people understand the issues.

Baffour: You also say in your book: “The best example of democracy is in our villages”. So, then, why don’t we have this “best example of democracy” at the national level. Why haven’t we as a people and continent refined and elevated diis “best example of democracy”, which was practised by our ancestors, to the national level? America has its own unique democracy. They elect their presidents through a collegiate system, not first-past-the-post. In the UK, the prime minister is not even direcdy elected by the people. He becomes prime minister because he or she is the leader of the party that wins the most seats in parliament. So why can’t we as Africans have our own unique democracy as the others have?

Muluzi: Ah, you see the problem my good friend. Africa is a poor continent. And we seem now to be guided by the principles of the Western world – “Do what we want you to do, you must do it our way or we don’t give you aid or money.”

Uganda tried its own unique democracy. People were elected. It was not one party but one system of government. The people elected their own leaders. Yet President [Yoweri] Museveni has been under pressure to do away with that system. They tell him: “That’s not democracy. Democracy is when you have multiple parties, 10 or 16 parties, and then you can call that democracy.”

I don’t agree with that. I think democracy can mean the free choice of the society. Once they have that, that is democracy. And it happened when our forefathers practised the system that I have just described in the villages. But if you try to say we Africans must do whatever we want to do, believe me, at the end of the day you will get nothing [no Western aid]. That’s what the world is all about.

Khalid: Malawi has something that people don’t talk about – peace and stability. Your army stays in the barracks, they don’t interfere in politics. I think that the transition in Malawi was quick and you’ve done very well so far. I also think that sometimes Malawians do ask for too much, even more than the Europeans themselves. The people of Europe and America know how far they can go and where to stop, else they might destroy their societies and economies. Is that how you see it?

Muluzi: You know, we’ve got too many good things in Malawi that we don’t talk about. Tourism is one of them. Such a beautiful country, beautiful lake. But nobody knows about it. I think we must take the blame for being too shy to tell the world what Malawi is all about.

I was the chairman of the SADC until August last year. In that capacity, I attended so many meetings on the conflicts in DRCongo, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Angola. And I told the journalists covering these meetings: “You are painting a very bad picture of Africa, because you are only picking these countries in conflict, but Africa is not only Angola or Burundi or Rwanda or Congo. There is Malawi. There is Botswana, for instance – a very good example of democracy. Go to South Africa. Nobody wants to talk about the great strides achieved in South Africa.”

The problem with our journalists or journalists in general is that they want to pick up sensational news. That’s news. Malawi has enjoyed peace since independence in 1964. Yes, we went through a very autocratic rule under Dr [Kamuzu] Banda. But in terms of peace and stability, Malawi is the best example in Southern Africa. But nobody tells the story. I hope you will be able to tell the story through this interview.

Khalid: Yes, that’s precisely why we are here. The Americans have CNN, the British BBC, the Arabs Aljazeera, but the Africans have nothing to tell the story from their point of view.

You know, I went to college in Denmark in 1967. I was a young student. On my arrival, one of the questions they asked me was: “Oh where did you get the clothes? Did you buy them at the airport?” They thought we were sleeping in trees, and that we didn’t have any clothes. This is the image of Africa in Europe. They don’t know Africa.

Khalid: This was 36 years ago, but it hasn’t changed much.

Muluzi: Absolutely. I told them that we had a house, that my father had been in the military, fighting for the Allies in the Second World War. We had electricity and so on. But this is the image people are still painting of Africa, a sleeping giant (to quote Chinua Achebe) waiting to be awakened.

Baffour: You announced recently that there would be no third term for you. But your opponents are still not happy, they say you have hand-picked your successor, instead of allowing your party to do so. Others say the president claims that he will go, but he won’t.

Muluzi: Oh sure, don’t worry about that. Let me tell you, I am a total believer of democracy. I am a human rights activist if I may say so. The issue of third term never came from me. When this issue came up in cabinet and the national executive committee [of the party] in September 1999 and also in 2001, I told them four things:

Point No. 1 – I said, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t want you to ask me to stand again just because you want to please me, because I don’t want to stand.

Point No.2 – There are 12 million people in Malawi and I believe that out of these 12 million people, surely, surely, there must be somebody out there who can take over from me as president.

Point No. 3 – I am a democrat at heart. I have democratic credentials to keep. And I don’t want the issue of the third term to sort of “spoil” my democratic credentials.

Point No.4 – I said my own family, my children, don’t just want me to continue. You know I started the underground movement against Dr Banda in 1983 when I was in private business. I fought with Banda for 10 years. Of course, I was arrested by the police and imprisoned several times, but that didn’t matter. I wanted people to express themselves, for our journalists to write whatever they want. Freedom, there is nothing you can replace it with, because that is human dignity…

Baffour [cuts in]: So you did tell your colleagues all this?

Muluzi: Yes, I did. But their argument was that because [Western] democracy was new in Malawi, it had to be nurtured. There was the necessity for continuity, not necessarily for me as president, but for the country. In Africa wars have started because of leadership, people have gone into the bush. [Jonas] Savimbi went into the bush for 30 years when he wanted to become the president of Angola. We have seen wars in Burundi and elsewhere because people wanted to become president. So in order to bring peace, stability and continuity to Malawi, Mr President, can you continue? And this is not a new thing. It happened in Namibia. The same Western world supported Namibia, there was no problem.

So when the whole thing later blew up and became a divisive issue, I said to them, listen, the thing has become personal. People thought it was Bakili Muluzi who was saying he wanted to stand again. So when I returned from the African Union meeting in Ethiopia [in February this year], I sat down and said: “No, I don’t want this issue of third term to continue. Lets resolve it. I don’t want it to divide Malawians. I don’t want it to bring hatred among Malawians.”

Because of that, we had to identify somebody in the party who should take over from me. Naturally the name of Dr Bingu wa Mutharika who has a very distinguished career in both economics and politics, was identified. And he was discussed in cabinet, freely. At the end of it all, I said if he stood in the elections and won, he would have my support.

Now, the question is: what is democracy? To me, democracy is when people sit down and choose their leader or leaders. Dr Mutharika was, yes, chosen by the party, not necessarily by me. He is not my brother, he is not my uncle, he is not my relative. he is from a different religion and a different tribe.

Khalid: In my personal view, I think you should have stayed for the third term. I will explain very quickly. It is rare to find leaders of quality in Africa. So we must hold on to the few we have. In your case, it’s like you’ve started the house and did not finish it. For me, this is crucial. I think the interest of Malawi is bigger than what the West says. Why is it that whenever we have someone who wants to do something good for the people, others interfere?

Muluzi: Indeed, indeed. You know you are making a very, very important point. The problem is, again to come back to what Baffour said and what you are saying – there is no limitation for prime ministers and presidents in the whole of Europe. You can go to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany. In France, it was just in 2000 that they changed the presidential term from seven years to five, but it is still unlimited, he or she can stand as many times as they want.

But in Africa, now you tell me, where is democracy? Democracy is when people express their opinions. Democracy is the will of the people. Now, when the people’s will is expressed, they say this is what we want. And the West says: “No, no, no, no. Don’t do that.” So what democracy are they talking about?

Baffour: But Mr President, why do we as a people and continent, allow them to push us that way?

Muluzi: Because we are poor, my friend. For instance, this issue of third term, when it was talked about in the European Union, by the British and American governments, they said: “We will not give Malawi aid because of the third term issue.” Now as a Malawian, I won’t like Malawians to be punished because of me. You see what I mean?

I don’t make money from politics. I came from a business background. So why should the people of Malawi be punished because President Muluzi wants to stand for a third term? Let’s face it, it is because we are poor. Otherwise we would have said: “Listen, we don’t care what you people say. These are our democratic principles. The people of Malawi have decided. And for their own good. We want a peaceful transition and also to consolidate democracy.”

Baffour: So, where is our independence then?

Muluzi: Exactly, exactly! The question we should ask is, why did we become independent? I have always said: “Please leave us alone. We may be poor but we want to be poor looking up, not looking down.” I have said it many times. “Don’t try to push us too hard because you are going to push us through a wall. And once we hit the wall, we lose our dignity.”

Khalid: The other problem is visibility and continuity. Because the challenge facing our countries is so huge, you just can’t do four or eight years if you are good at your job.

Muluzi: First of all, let me say this: democracy with poverty will never work. It cannot be! We need economic sustainability. The foundation we built in 1994 after the democratic elections, we are still building on it. Not only that, even on the economic front, we’ve been going through a structural adjustment programme with the World Bank and IMF.

The inflation rate at the time I took over in 1994 was 98.4%. We’ve been working very hard over the years to reduce it to 10.3% now. Naturally, because of the fluctuations in the world economy, the value of the US dollar and what is going on in the Middle East, our interest rate is still very high. I would have wanted it to go down further, so that we could attract investors to create employment and bring in foreign exchange.

But no, the West doesn’t want stability. They want a new person to come in, so that we will continue to be dependent. When you look at our poverty profile in Malawi and also in the whole of Africa, it is still 64% below the poverty line, the same figure as when Malawi became independent in 1964. The average African is living on less than $ 1 a day. Honestly, you tell me, where are we going? And yet, we’ve had all these World Bank and IMF programmes, and the aid programmes from Europe.

Where are we going?

The situation in Africa in terms of economic reform is not changing. There has been so much interference when we’ve tried to do something fot our own good. “Oh no, don’t do that. We must tell you what to do.” The question I ask is: Why did we become independent?

Baffour: Which naturally leads me to my next question, on Zimbabwe. You recently went on a mission to Zimbabwe with Presidents Mbeki and Obasanjo. Even before you arrived in Harare, there was high speculation that the three of you had been sent to “sort out” President Mugabe, that you had gone to talk about “regime change”, to tell Mugabe to step aside. Did you actually go with regime change on the agenda?

Muluzi: No, no, this is where people should avoid the notion or the thought that they would like to change the leadership in Zimbabwe. It isn’t a question of leadership. The Zimbabwe problem has been there because of the land problem, and it affects the whites. In fact, all of us in the region supported the land programme because there is no freedom without land. And democracy is about the equitable distribution of wealth. And in Zimbabwe, there was no equitable distribution of wealth.

What was wrong in Zimbabwe was the way they did it, by violence; for instance, when people were killed. That we didn’t support. I was the chairman of the SADC then, and I said “this cannot go on”.

The issue of land, yes, even in Malawi we are now going to go through a land reform programme, not necessarily to go through the same path like Zimbabwe, no. We are saying those of you who have enough land, Malawi is only 45,193 sq miles, we are a small country, lets distribute the land according to what we have.

Baffour: So you didn’t go with an “exit plan” for Mugabe?

Muluzi: We went to Zimbabwe on 5 May for two things: One, you know there have been serious economic and political problems there of late. The donor countries have stopped giving aid to Zimbabwe, some of them have in fact imposed economic and other sanctions on Zimbabwe. Z$2,000 is now worth US$ 1, from Z$7 to US$ 1. The inflation rate is 228%. Now you cannot sustain that economy. And as I always say, bad economy is bad politics.

So we said, look why don’t we help our brothers in Zimbabwe, first, to encourage internal dialogue between the government and the opposition. And secondly, if possible, once dialogue is achieved, why don’t we encourage a government of national unity like I did here in Malawi? I brought the opposition into government, including those who were very critical of my government. My God, every day they were criticising us. I told them: “We are Malawians, forget about political differences. If you want to come into government, please you are welcome.” You try to bring tension down, so that our politicians can go to the north of the country without people throwing stones at them. Now there is stability in Malawi.

Khalid: It worked?

Muluzi: Oh yeah. It worked. In 1989, the same thing had happened in Zimbabwe when there was war in Matabeleland. President Mugabe was magnanimous enough to bring Joshua Nkomo into government. And that ended the war. What we said to President Mugabe when we went there was why don’t you do the same, to bring tension down? And I think it is going to happen.

Khalid: Which brings me back to my previous question. Africa or the African Union need leaders to intervene in matters like Zimbabwe’s. If we are, through African initiatives, to solve the Zimbabwean problem which is the biggest in Africa since the end of apartheid, we should keep leaders with experience, not lose them.

Muluzi: Sure. I think it is you people in the media who can sensitise our international community. Because they have a very negative view of us, they think we don’t think. But we do think. Oh yes, I feel that we’ve got the will and the desire to serve the people, and to honestly do so.

They think that we don’t know I what we are doing, and that we are all corrupt (laughs). To go back to the third term issue for instance, it was not only my ruling party but even the opposition supported it. They came to me and said we want to support it for the good of Malawi. Not for the good of Bakili Muluzi.

I am comfortable with my family. But supposing that I leave tomorrow and something happens. That might be the beginning of a bigger problem for Malawi.

I will give you an example. In Cote d’Ivoire, President Houphouet Boigny was a very charismatic leader. He led the country very well. He died and Konan Bedie who succeeded him was overthrown in a coup d’etat. And what do we see now? Total anarchy. There is fighting.

What unifies a country, particularly in Africa where you have different regions, languages and tribes, is the leadership. It is the unifying factor. You cannot move away from that. We are not like Europe. Europe has had a long, long history of practising and refining its brand of democracy. Here in Malawi, we’ve just started.

I will give you another example. In 1994, I said to my mother: “Let’s go and vote.” She replied: “For what? Is it something new?” I said to her, of course: “To vote for me anyway” (laughs).

Baffour: Did your Grandma vote, too?

Muluzi: Yes, both are still alive. Bless them.

Baffour: I read in your book that anytime you go to visit her, even as president, she makes you sit on the floor with her and tells you to leave the presidency thing in town?

Muluzi: (Laughs), yes, she tells me, “that’s your problem, this presidency thing”. She still calls me a boy (laughs). To them, as long as they’ve got a school, a road, and water to drink, they are satisfied. All these tenets of what they call democracy, it’s something artificial. We are becoming too Westernised.

Baffour: Going back to the Zimbabwean issue, what do you think about the role played by the outside world in the collapse of the economy?

Muluzi: One, they are not consulting some of us who are nearer to Zimbabwe. And secondly, if you accuse somebody all the time, that person will naturally take a defensive position, to defend himself. So I feel that is a disservice.

When I had discussions with Tony Blair in London two years ago, I said: “Listen, yes attack Zimbabwe for want of a better word, but I think it is important that you must talk to some of us in the region because we understand Zimbabwe better than you do. I can pick up this telephone here and call President Mugabe right now, and have a straight talk with him, and tell him where he is going wrong. But to always criticise him, and even try to demonise him as the worst country in Africa, he will feel that you are doing so because he is poor, and therefore he is being oppressed. So I think the approach should change. It is not helpful to use all this unilateralist approach…

Baffour (cuts in): Economic sanctions and all that…

Muluzi: Yes, using economic sanctions, and thinking that the land problem would go away. It will never work.

Khalid: So how do you see Malawi’s future.

Muluzi: Well, Malawi has got a very bright future. We need now to consolidate the political reforms. We also need to move very drastically on the economic reforms. Like I said, democracy without development is absolutely useless. I would like to see poverty in this country reduced. 64% of our people living below the poverty line is just not acceptable! Let us wage a war on poverty. If we can’t eradicate it completely, at least reduce it considerably.

As president of mis country, I am working towards that, using sound economic reforms. My concern is really with the 85% of our people who live in rural areas. The will of the government is there.

Khalid: And what is the role of Dr Muluzi in this future?

Muluzi: Well, my role is to give direction. A leader cannot be a follower, he must lead and direct the course of events in the country. My role is to see the economic reform programmes through, for Malawians to enjoy a better standard of living. Well, it is ending in 2004, but I think I can still play a role one way or the other.

Baffour: I think Khalid’s question was looking beyond 2004.

Muluzi: Well, my party has asked me to stay on as president or chairman of the party. I am now president of the party and president of the country. They are now restructuring the party to separate the two functions. So that I can still play an advisory role to the government when I cease to be the president of the country.

Khalid: Like Nelson Mandela in South Africa?

Muluzi; Like Mandela, and like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania.

Baffour: You talked about tourism, but is there any real push by the government to promote Malawi. It is a beautiful country like you said, but not many people know where Malawi is.

Muluzi: Let me take you back. The previous government [under Dr Banda] made a very big mistake. The laws they put in place deterred tourists from coming to Malawi. If you had long hair, you couldn’t come. Journalists were not allowed to enter Malawi. If you wore mini skirts, you were not welcome. Even though some people here wanted to see mini skirts (laughs). It was not good. We have now removed all those laws. Malawi is now an open state, free for anybody to come.

We need to make tourism a priority. It was not on the priority list of the government. Today, tourism is an international industry We will allocate more resources to tourism so that it can play a meaningful role.

We will also improve the infrastructure. In April this year I went to Nyika with the president of Tanzania. We couldn’t fly because it was late, so we drove. And the road was very bad. And I am telling you: How do you have tourism when you have a road that people cannot use to reach Nyika? So the infrastructure is very important, telephone, water, everything must be in order. Tourism is really something my government and I will seriously support. It is an industry that can bring in a lot of foreign exchange. We have to be aggressive, go to international fairs and advertise Malawi.

Baffour: Remember, you only have one more year to the end of your second term. So practically what are you talking about?

Muluzi: Practically, we will make financial resources available to tourism. That is something I would like to support in the budget. Secondly, when people talk about tourism they think the government alone should do it. No, the private sector has a big role to play.

That’s why we are saying even within the SADC and the African Union, we are saying tourism is an industry we must always support. A tourist is a dreamer. When he comes to Africa, he doesn’t know what he is going to see. But he doesn’t only want to come to Malawi, he also want to go to Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, so we must work regionally here.

What I will do within the next year is to push our Department of Tourism and Air Malawi to be aggressive. The world is becoming very competitive, it’s business. People running our airline, Air Malawi, will have to coordinate their routes and flights with the international network. Passengers coming to Malawi should not be stranded in Johannesburg, because Air Malawi left before the international flights landed in Johannesburg. We must change the attitude of Air Malawi.

Baffour: Mr President, we’ve talked about foreign interference, we’ve talked about the poverty level, we’ve talked about how outsiders dictate what we can and cannot do, for example, by telling us that you cannot have a third term even though your own people might want you to have a third term. So, is there a future for Africa?

Muluzi: That is a very good question. I wish I had the answer. As long as we remain poor like this, I don’t see Africa being independent as the meaning of the word says.

Baffour: But we have all the resources. As Nkrumah once said, “the people of Africa are poor, but Africa as a continent is not”. The continent is rich. We can turn the wealth in the ground into riches and power – both economic and political.

Muluzi: The good news is that the future is there. What we need to do is to put our efforts together. Africa has gone through so many problems – we’ve gone through slavery, we’ve gone through colonialism, we’ve gone through apartheid, dictatorships, military governments. Now I think we are transforming ourselves. We think about the economies of our countries. That is good news.

With the African Union, we are saying let’s have our own bank, let’s have our own parliament, let’s have all those ingredients that make us independent economically. I hope it can work, as long as we are serious about it. When I attended the African Union meeting, I said I don’t just want to go there and have a cup of coffee, what is it we are doing? Let’s chart a programme for ourselves so that we can be self-sustainable. As long as we are self-sustainable, then there is a future for Africa. NA

Copyright International Communications Jul 2003

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