BY ALICK PONJE:
If you ask those who were around when Malawi gained her independence from colonial rule 54 years ago, they charge with heavy hearts that the country was supposed to be better economically than its neighbours.
From those days, they argue, hard work, dedication and patriotism were prevalent among Malawians until a new dispensation ushered in in 1994 changed these tenets.
“I was there when we got independent. I was already married with children. With our country in our own hands, we were more dedicated than ever before to improve our own welfare. That is no longer the case, and what we are now cherishing is our poverty in peace,” Gilbert Chilondola, a 73-year-old resident of Mchesi Township in Lilongwe, says.
He adds that the promise of independence has not been met yet because the majority of Malawians are living in poverty and access to basic social services remains a big challenge.
“Look at how poor most Malawians are. Look at how our schools remain of poor standards; talk of how hospitals are struggling. That is not the promise of independence,” Chilondola laments.
He states that it saddens his heart to see most civil servants earning peanuts despite their various contributions to national development which is hampered by corruption.
Well-known historian, Desmond Dudwa Phiri, warns of the drastic consequences of inequalities where poverty and riches stand side by side.
He says: “Gross inequalities have been the causes of social and political upheavals. The general poverty of a country does not often give rise to revolts and civil wars, provided there are no gross economic and political inequalities.
“Some countries in Africa have known revolts and the size of the Arab Spring though they are much wealthier than Malawi. This is because of the inequalities. So far, the inequalities in Malawi have not been blatant, hence most people have been difficult to invite into revolts.”
Phiri, however, warns that Malawians should not be taken for granted, arguing they can change from their apparent docility to violence when they notice the privileged basking in luxury with the majority living in poverty.
And Chilondola is also worried that inequalities, especially in urban locations, have the potential of sparking violence if not checked quickly.
“With democracy, everything is possible. We seem to be proud that we are a peaceful country. But no one eats peace. I have seen people expressing themselves more and more freely these days and the threat of them getting tired one day cannot be completely ruled out,” he says.
And while more and more people are of the view that Malawi’s independence is not complete because it is just political, there are those who seem to be happy that the little performing economy should serve their interests more than the rest of Malawians.
For instance, Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, Goodall Gondwe, announced during the last budget meeting that he had reduced the fiscal plan by K50 billion because of poor economic performance but Members of Parliament (MPs) at the same secretly agreed to raise their subsistence and sitting allowances from K60,000 per day to K80,000.
But economists are of the view that the country’s current economy should not be strained further.
A University of Malawi professor of economics, Ben Kalua, states that the current performance of the economy demands prudent spending in all sectors.
In Kalua’s views, while MPs have their entitlements which include decent accommodation in the course of their duties, “we must cut our coat according to our cloth”.
He says: “Of course, they contribute quite a lot to the development of the country but they should not overrate their productivity. Elsewhere, things are tougher and civil servants who were supposed to be enjoying good allowances do not get that.”
As it is clear that Malawi’s economy cannot absorb most demands by public officers, it also follows that economic independence remains far-fetched.
Yet, that was the dream of founding president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda when he took over the country from the colonial government.
And according to commentators, without the country’s economy developing at a steady pace, there is nothing to celebrate regarding Malawi’s independence as even the national budgets continue to have glaring deficits and many sectors including health are largely supported by development partners.