On common Malawian identity, citizenship

The contributions appearing in this column over the past two weeks have revolved around the question of identity and citizenship. In last week’s contribution, Chikosa Silungwe spoke about pernicious results of ‘othering’, a process whereby a group defines itself and then attempts to juxtapose its identity as oppositional to that of other group(s). Taking my cue from the last two contributions, allow me to express my views on Malawian identity and citizenship.

In a global environment that is dominated by the nation state, citizenship revolves around the notion of a people belonging to a nation in which ‘the people’ are at the centre. The people remain active agents in shaping their collective life. Citizenship also speaks about bonds. On the one hand, the bonds are between the people and their government.

On the other hand, the bonds are as among the people. Government is willed into existence by ‘the people’ to represent and promote their common interest(s). It is the bond of citizenship that also allows, almost entitles, a government to call upon its citizens to serve in various capacities. The same bond, however, must compel a government to always prioritise the interests of its people in governance.

After over 50 years of independence, we ought to be confident of asserting the existence of a Malawian nation. The existence of the Malawian State is less susceptible to challenge being an entity whose definition follows from a fairly well-settled legal concept. Our nation, however, is made up of Malawians of all hues in so far as these Malawians share a common identity and allegiance. A common identity, however, does not mean that we all must have the same ethnicity or speak the same language. Our common allegiance to ‘Malawian-ness’ suffices. The prevalence of this common allegiance engenders the entrenchment of a common Malawian identity. A commitment to shared ideals i.e. the love of peaceful coexistence, is certainly foundational to our Malawian-ness.

The country, meaning its leadership (government), must always strive to treat citizens fairly irrespective of their other ephemeral attributes. Differentiation in the treatment of citizens, when undertaken by a government, undermines citizenship. It breeds resentment. It, unwittingly, sends the message that there are different classes of citizens and that some may be more deserving of better treatment than others. This should never be the case.

Geographically, Malawi is a small country, especially when considered in relation to our neighbours. Nevertheless, we remain, culturally, a diverse country. We must learn to celebrate this diversity. It is an asset. It is narrow mindedness of the highest order to use diversity as a wedge for separating the various peoples that make up Malawi. No government should be allowed to do this and the same proscription applies to private individuals whether acting alone or in association with others. The space that is Malawi belongs to all of us. Given the geographical confines of the country, it makes no sense for people to further set cultural, linguistic or ethnic barriers to intra-Malawian interaction.

We must learn and internalise tolerance and accommodation. We must teach our children the beauty of diversity and not poison them with prejudices. Admittedly, differences exist among us Malawians. These could be linguistic, cultural or ethnic but as long as we all owe our allegiance to ‘Malawi’, we shouldn’t let these get in the way of our common citizenship. Difference and diversity should not be feared but embraced.

Allow me to quickly speak about politicians and their role in cultivating a Malawian citizenship and identity. Politicians have a special responsibility to help mould our citizenship. For this reason, they must, by way of example, watch what they say publicly. Cheap inflammatory rhetoric may win votes, the perils of popular democracy, but it erodes the common core that ought to be holding us as Malawians together. It breeds resentment which though latent may explode with catastrophic consequences at a later date. Policies adopted by political parties, whether they be in opposition or in government, must also deliberately seek to cultivate a common Malawian identity.

Lest I be accused of presenting a one-sided narrative. Citizenship has its own responsibilities too. By way of example, as good citizens we should always exercise our civic responsibility to participate in the political processes by forming political parties or voting in elections. Yes, payment of lawful taxes is also part of our civic duties-and then we can together try to ensure that our tax revenue is properly utilised.

As may be obvious, one of the key duties that citizens have is to oversee their government to ensure that it always discharges its constitutional mandate. As citizens, it is our duty to collectively monitor government for compliance with the Constitution.

In the end, the Malawian identity is a mosaic. It is made up of a lot of things. Malawian-ness is a combination of ethnicities, cultures, languages and even races, among other things. Although we are not, expectedly, a homogenous society, our common allegiance to Malawi should always unite us. We are all just Malawian, regardless of the shape of our noses or our foreheads. Let us cultivate our diversity, nurture it, cherish it and celebrate our common Malawian citizenship. n


* Mwiza Jo Nkhata is the Associate Professor of Law at the University of Malawi


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