The restoration of Alliance for Democracy (Aford) has re-ignited concerns about simmering regionalism in the country.
In the minds of architects of the rebuilding of the party that has been in free-fall since the restoration of multiparty politics in 1993, this is the return of a sleeping giant that won all parliamentary seats in the Northern Region then.
They envisage Aford growing in both might and reach, saying it has the potential to win the presidency in 2019.
This feat eluded its fallen father and founder Chakufwa Chihana when he was at his peak 23 years ago.
But the renewed calls for a fresh start restores optimism in the party which was already warped by accusations of regionalism, power struggles and political harlotry before the death of its iconic creator and pro-democracy advocate in 2006.
Shortly after recapturing Karonga Central legislator Frank Mwenifumbo to its fold, Henry Chingaipe, a political scientist based at Chancellor College in Zomba, said this could likely turn the North into a sway State to watch.
“Successful regrouping of Aford-especially if it were to succeed in capturing all seats in the North as it used to do in its heyday-could be a game-changer since no political party could govern without Aford’s support,” he explained.
Such was Aford’s dominance in the North at its onset, when Chihana, fresh from his famous detention for publicly denouncing founding president Kamuzu Banda’s tyrannical rule, was the poster face of the struggle against one-party rule.
Now, the party only has one member of Parliament-Enoch Chihana, the son of its fallen tsar-in the 193-seat National Assembly.
Warps of regionalism
When the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) dispatched its secretary general Gresselder Jeffrey to Karonga recently, she suffered a backlash for supposedly insinuating that the North will never win the presidency until Jesus Christ comes again.
Some agree with the subtle dismissal of Aford’s chances, but others say it is overt regionalism that relegates people of the Northern Region as second-class citizens with no right to vie for the presidency.
This feeling of exclusion was more the reason Mzimba West legislator Harry Mkandawire told Parliament in 2015 that the country needed to adopt federalism to ensure each region to decide its destiny.
The heated debate over the proposed change of political system took a new twist when fired Peoples Party (PP) provincial governor for the North, Mzomera Ngwira, called for secession of the North to overcome inequalities when it comes to distribution of development projects and public positions.
Jeffrey denies uttering remarks that purport that more populous Central and Southern regions are more entitled to the presidency than the region, saying she said Aford has no muscle to unseat DPP sooner or later.
Politics may be a game of numbers, but the voting pattern since 1994 shows regional affiliations determine the outcomes of polling.
The undertones of regionalism, especially what politicians say during rallies, were already a burning issue before the late Gwanda Chakuamba trekked to Nkhotakota in 2008 and instigated his hearers to start beating Lhomwes.
Gwanda was later convicted and given a non-custodial sentence for inciting violence against the tribe of the then President Bingu wa Mutharika and the incumbent, his brother Peter.
But regionalism remains a major worry in metropolitan Malawi.
Just in February, sacked Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development George Chaponda was heavily criticised for downplaying a parliamentary inquiry into his role in the scandalous importation of maize from Zambia as a regional issue.
Through his regionalism-rimmed lenses, Chaponda accused the panel of being dominated by antagonistic northerners who did not care to summon Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe because he comes from their region.
But Gondwe said he had nothing more to say after retired Secretary to the Treasury Ronald Mangani appeared before the committee.
In this regard, Jeffrey’s remarks further puts the ruling party under microscope-barely months after its campaign director Jappi Mhango ruled out the North’s chances to govern this country.
She may have been discrediting the Mwenifumbo’s optimism that Aford, the party which catapulted him to Parliament in 1999, has the allure to overpower DPP in 2019 Tripartite Elections.
When we phoned her, Jeffrey asked for a more opportune time to explain her side of the story.
However, she told Capital FM that the issue “was blown out of proportion”.
But Mwenifumbo says the “tribal tirade” from the DPP leader has instilled in Aford and people of the North “a strong sense of belonging than ever before” that they are Malawians.
“The remarks have not degraded us an inch,” he says. “The DPP has displayed a great deal of ignorance of what Section 80 of our Constitution says on the eligibility of a presidential candidate. The party has demonstrated their inability to govern this country as one nation. They have completely demonstrated divide-and-rule tactics.”
Look beyond regional lines
Political analyst Mustapha Hussein urges politicians to rise above regional lines.
Manipulation of ethnicity to achieve political gains is a muted crisis of multiparty Malawi, he says.
He described regionalism and tribalism as a deep-rooted problem plaguing this multicultural country.
“The problem comes in as the ethnic backgrounds tend to correspond with regional blocks,” he argues, explaining: “Despite that every region has several ethnic groupings; there are some dominant ethnicities in the North, Central and Southern regions.”
In his words, politicians and their followers should learn that using ethnicity to attain political or economic gain is “breaking the nation” to antagonistic blocks.
“People who do this are practising nepotism, which is a corruption in a way. In politics this defeats the tenets of democracy which borders on tolerance, free and fair elections, transparency and accountability, fairness, respecting human rights and good governance, among others,” he says.
The political scholar, based at Chancellor College, wants politicians to borrow a leaf from the country’s first president Kamuzu Banda.
“He preached unity and he practised it. At least, he tried. When we look at his Cabinet appointments, there were people of various ethnic backgrounds, including Gwanda Chakuamba from the South and Robson Watayachanga Chirwa from the North,” said Hussein.
In concurrence, Mzuzu-based political analyst Emily Mkamanga says it is unfortunate that the country’s politicians still use tribalism and regionalism to advance their selfish agenda in the 21st century.
Malawi is a democratic country where citizens are expected to be united and to live in harmony, she says.
Mkamanga says: “Unfortunately, politicians do this off the cuff. They plan to do so. Such remarks reflect on the divisive values held by the politicians making them.
“But that should not be the case. Yes, they are entitled to their opinions, but what they say should not bring disorganisation in the country,” she says.
She called for issue-based politics, saying politicians should always stick to transformative ideas when on the podium.
Says Mkamanga: “When speaking for their political parties, politicians should stick to their party’s ideologies because people are interested in development. When they start regionalism, tribalism, nepotism and other isms, they will divide the country.” n