Views on Political Tensions in Malawi

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Malawian Watchdog
By public demand, Many Malawians especially students from both Mzuzu University and University of Malawi’s Chancellor College have asked us (through our inbox) to re-post the great article written by one of Malawi’s great son, DD Phiri on Federalism and Secession.

Your Wish is our Command, Below is the academically powered article by the esteemed man himself, DD Phiri. I think this time around, we encourage you students to share the status on your timeline, or just copy paste and save it in your PC’s for future references. We will not bring it back once you miss it this time around. Enjoy the Wisdom contained in this article from the great man himself!



I continue to receive representatives of the media who want me to explain what federalism entails and who seek my views on secession.

First let me make my position clear about these issues: federalism would be unsuitable for a small state like Malawi, and would most likely aggravate the antipathies that exist between the regions and the communities.

Anyone advocating secession is advocating civil war. People who are ignorant of history are prone to repeating foolish mistakes of the past. What happened when the Igbos in Nigeria wanted to secede and form a state called Biafra? Sudan was burdened by civil wars for 50 years because the southerners did not want to be part of Sudan. What sort of news do you read about Ukraine?

The Russian speaking part called Crimea wants to secede but the Ukrainian government is trying to subdue the secessionists. Were we all reading about the Tamils in Sri Lanka who for 20 years fought for secession in the name of autonomy? The whole tragedy ended in a pyrrhic victory for the government.

Two weeks ago or earlier I heard that two paramount chiefs up north had denounced the idea of federalism. More recently I heard that they have modified their stand to the extent that they have in effect repudiated what they had said earlier.

It is not that the traditional authorities are fickle, but that like many people that have talked to me they do not seem to know the costs and benefits of federalism. They are subjected to partisan propaganda and are not able to independently see both side of the coin.

I understand the Public Affairs Committee intends to convene a meeting at which these issues will be discussed. The idea is good but first thing first: federalism is not a new phenomenon in the history of Malawi. From 1953 to 1963 this country was part of the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Before importing the federation, the British government sent a commission of inquiry to obtain the views of people from all walks of life. Experts on that commission defined the structure of federations, objectives and found out the objections. The first commission came in 1938 known as Bledistor Commission and the other in 1951 was headed by Andrew Cohen the future governor of Uganda.

Those who advocate federalism say under the present set up the Northern Region is being denied development in the term development. In the term development, what do they include? What is there in the south and centre which is lacking in the north? Universities? There is the new university in Thyolo (South), Luanar in Lilongwe (centre) and Mzuzu (north). The University of Malawi located in Zomba for the whole country. It had to be somewhere.

I understand some argue that the other two regions have a railway going all the way from Salima to Lilongwe and Mchinji. This is true but the Illala or any other steamer does not go to Mchinji either before or after reaching Karonga.

Transport facilities have to be where they can support and can be supported by an economy. Railways compete with road transport for passengers and freight. A railway built from Lilongwe to Mzuzu would compete not only with buses and lorries but also the ship that ply on the lake from south to north. At the present level of development there would not be enough business for all the three modes of transportation.

The stalling of road development like Jenda to Edingeni makes some people furious. In 1970, I used to visit the Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) Chiradzulu to collect material for my biography of John Chilembwe. The road to PIM was full of twists and turns as well as potholes. Thirty years later when I re-visited the PIM I found the road had undergone no improvement.

Differences of levels of development among the three regions are exaggerated. A commission of enquiry should lay bare the facts and the resources available to the government for development. If the unitary state of Malawi finds it difficult to raise funds for simultaneous development all over the country how will a region state that is the size of chiefdom do it?

Grievances of the northerners are stronger when it comes to appointments in the civil and diplomatic services. In the 50 years of independence a number of civil servants have held the position of chief secretary and head of the civil service and none of them was a northerner. Only briefly during the UDF and Aford coalition did a northerner hold the position of Inspector General of Police or Commander of the Defence.

Otherwise there seems to be a policy not to appoint a northerner to topmost positions when diplomatic postings are announced one rarely comes across the name of a northerner.

These discriminations do cause grievances.

My late friend a very able minister wanted to contest for the presidency. He was told “I cannot sponsor you because most Malawians are not ready for president from the Northern region.” That was the time when South Africa and the United States had decided that there was no reason they should not have a black president.

In politics tact is an essential tool for keeping a nation intact. Was it fair for students of Nkhata Bay or other northerners to be excluded from secondary school within Nkhata Bay? If a secondary school either in Dowa or Mangochi was occupied exclusively by students from north would people in Dowa and Mangochi be happy?

A national secondary school as a matter of policy should have students from all over the country to promote the idea of “we are all Malawians”. These are problems we can sort out within unitary state. We do not have to fragment Malawi. Those who are privileged to belong to large region should follow the example of the English in the UK who never allocate the top positions to themselves at the expense of the minority, Scots or Welsh


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