On 16th September 2017, I attended a session at Jacaranda Cultural Centre in Blantyre, where I was introduced as a historian, economist and writer. I was then invited t read a paper for the audience to sample a bit of what I know and do.
My paper consisted of summaries on the history of ancient Egypt, the Malawi economy and the art of writing. I had to speak briefly on each of these because I was not sure which of them would appeal to the audience. Most of them asked what can be done to transform Malawi from a poor country to a prosperous one. People are tired of hearing now and again that their country is one of the poorest in the world.
Since when has Malawi been categorised as the poorest I don’t know. In 1924, there arrived in this country he Phelps Stokes Commission or education in Eastern Africa from the United States and United Kingdom one of whose members was Dr James Aggrey from Ghana known as “Aggrey of Africa”. The Commission summarised its report on Malawi as follows:
“The inevitable conclusion of the fact concerning Nyasaland is first that the colony has great resources which have not been adequately developed and second that the million and a quarter native people with capabilities above the average have not been able to take full advantage of the unusually effective type of mission education provided for them almost entirely intended of government aid. Nyasaland with greater possibilities than any African colon of equal size is, therefore, the lowest in output and the poorest colony in Africa.
For this wretchedness, the commission pointed out two reasons: first poor transportation facilities, especially no reliable railway systems connecting the country with sea ports in neighbouring Mozambique; secondly, the government had done little to make use of the people educated by the missions who were to develop the country. The commission reiterated an old maxim.
“Everybody’s responsibility is nobody’s responsibility”.
It appealed to Britain statesman concerned with colonial affairs to do something about the situation in Nyasaland. Did they respond? In 1926, for the first time the Nyasaland government established a department of education headed by a director of education. Hitherto according to the Phelps Stokes Commission, the government had been spending more money on the prison department than on African education.
Economically, the policy had been prescribed by Harry Johnston, the first governor with the title of commissioner and consul general. The administration of the country was to be in the hands of Europeans, the development by Asians while Africans were to provide labour. There was no policy of introducing Africans to cash crop growing.
Contrast this with what the British did in other colonies. In the Gold Coast (Ghana) they encouraged cocoa growing and Africans prospered as cocoa farmers. In Uganda and Tanganyika, they encouraged coffee growing and there also Africans prospered as coffee farmers. In Tanzania, the Chagga of Mount Kilimanjaro were among the most prosperous and modernised people in Africa.
In Malawi, the Misuku Hills have always been suitable for coffee growing by peasants, coffee was not introduced there until after independence. Tea growing could have been grown by African smallholder in Mulanje and Thyolo, but it was a monopoly of white farmers. The government saw Nyasaland as a source of cheap and hardworking labour for their mines and farms in the Rhodesians and South Africa.
Four or five years ago, the World Bank issued statistics which implied that Malawi had not just remained one of the poorest countries of the world but had become the poorest of that lot. This nearly a century has passed since the Phelps Stokes Commission noted that Nyasaland was the poorest colony. If we do not discover exceptional leadership that can revolutionalise Malawi’s economic development, we will continue to be the poorest nation for another hundred years. Development does not come about as a matter of good luck.
In the field of economic transformation, I have three heros: Margaret Thatcher former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Charles de Gaulle, former president of France and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Whoever is contemplating of entering the presidential race in 2019 should get hold of the autobiographies of these three great people and try to learn something about their achievements.
The common thing among these leaders was that they understood the critical excuses of their countries problems; they went out of the whole hugg to attack the stumbling blocks to economic recovery or in case of Singapore, transformation.
When Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, Britain was being called the sick men of Europe. One of her predecessors, Harlod Wilson, of the Labour Party had to send his minister to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ask for loans just like a developing country. n