The making of an African dictator through dissent

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It has been half year since I visited Malawi. The story on how Malawi was developing, up until last year, has been very impressive.

A good agriculture programme which has transformed the country into a food exporting country and the infrastructure which has catapulted the country out of ancient times all conspired to tell a promising story.

The villagers, who used to queue for food aid every year, were actually struggling to get their harvests to the markets. It was a different set of problems altogether.

But Malawi seems to be at crossroads. Its democracy dashboard is flashing red lights with fears that development achievements may be reversed as the leadership is accused of being dictatorial. This raises a number of questions about the causal link between development and democracy.

Over the past few years there is been a general assumption that democracy is the platform upon which development can be achieved. Based on this fallacious assumption, so much money has been pumped into the democracy project in Africa with the hope that development will ensue upon achieving democracy. The efficacy of this theory has equalled to zero so far, but saying it in public remains taboo.

In recent times the world has witnessed and watched China and other Asian countries rise to economic emancipation without a trace of democracy. In fact, as people rise out of poverty in these countries, they started enjoying more of the freedoms than those pursuing the opposite route.
While democracy is an illusionary beautiful lady, history and evidence on the ground offer little in terms of examples of countries that have emerged out of poverty as a result of democracy.

The foundations upon which Western democratic economies are built were not established during democracy. The US’s economic foundation was built during many years of free slave labour, abuse of non-white people and exploitation of other countries, the same way the West set up its infrastructure.

The new and emerging economies such as China, Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa and many others were not built on the foundation of democracy either and yet today they have managed to become among the strongest economies in the world.
Perhaps it may be time for African countries to self-introspect if they can afford to concurrently pursue democracy and development, especially if the West does not stop fiddling with internal politics in the name of democracy. The absence of democracy does not always mean the presence of dictatorship. India, which some people want to call the biggest democracy, offers a good example of that. While most people are allowed to vote, not everyone is free to enjoy all the freedoms and certain rights.

Like billions of other people across the world I also love democracy, but I am not convinced that the pursuance of this project under the tutelage of the West and its institutions will lead the almost a billion Africans out of poverty.

Malawi offers a good example of how the West can transform a well-meaning leader into a dictator. Firstly, they refuse to fund his agriculture programme; he pursued it without their support. As the programme began to achieve results, there is stampede to be part of the success story, but not without skirmishes. After one of the Western ambassadors was sent packing for describing Bingu wa Mutharika as a dictator, funds were withdrawn from the national fiscus. Instead of these funds supporting the agriculture success story, it was re-allocated to the civil society whose terms of reference are to fight for democratic space. And to their credit, for the first time in many decades Malawians demonstrated, pursuing an agenda of which they were not well informed. The withdrawal of fiscal funds left a huge gap and the government had to introduce some survival measures in the form of increasing in-come tax. A bank cash withdrawal attracts 6% government tax. Like the Zimbabwean story, foreign currency is in now in short supply resulting in a potentially crippling fuel shortage.

All these have as expectedly provoked emotions which is turning Malawians against their leader. The dislike for the current government is so telling, despite most Malawians admitting that wa Mutharika has transformed the country in the shortest period of time compared to the past two presidents since independence.

Calls for him to step down from civil society are uncommon. And of course evidence of dissent is all over the media. And the million-dollar question: Do Malawians really hate their president or is it an agenda that has been sold to them which they have to participate in without analysing it? His “dictator” status grew stronger when he sent he sent one Western ambassador packing.

Wa Mutharika feels under threat from invisible forces which are turning his people against him. He sees the foreign currency and fuel shortage as acts of sabotage by those who control the global economy. He views the anger by the people as artificial and remote-controlled. And instead of focusing on national development as he did in his early years in office, he has refocused his attention on defending and protecting himself and propping up his image. For one to achieve these objectives, some firm measures have to be applied which can be easily translated or viewed as muzzling of certain freedoms.

One can not help but wonder why a simple fallout with one country can turn things upside down for ordinary Malawians. It also raises questions as to whether dictators are born or made. In the case of Malawi, it seems if the current leadership is dictatorial, it is surely human-made whereby withdrawal of financial support, stifling foreign currency inflows and causing a fuel shortage turns people against their leadership. Only time will tell.