After saying yes, pull-out missed opportunity

“I mean, the way CSOs are behaving can easily give the governing elite the excuse that the groups that lead the protests are not interested in discussing or having a dialogue on the concerns they claim to have, but rather just want to attract headlines or score debate points.” This is what I wrote a couple of weeks ago in this column.

On Wednesday, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) pulled out of a dialogue meeting with government representatives. The talks CSOs abandoned were meant to melt the current impasse between the administration and the coalition.

The decision to pull out of the talks after agreeing to them was a missed opportunity for civil society organisations (CSOs) and a perfect folder for the Peter Mutharika administration to peddle the narrative of an unwilling cabal of CSOs uninterested in serious discussions on the issues that have brought conflict between the two parties and which were set to lead to nationwide demonstrations yesterday.

The basis of HRDC’s last minute pull-out was that in line with “our unwavering demands for transparency and accountability,” certain senior government officials should be part of the dialogue.

The senior government officials they wanted at the table included President Peter Mutharika; Finance, Economic Planning and Development Minister Goodall Gondwe; Information and Technology Minister Nicholas Dausi; Chief Secretary to the Government Lloyd Muhara; Attorney General Charles Mhango, Inspector General of the Malawi Police Service, directors general of the Anti-Corruption Bureau, Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority, Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and chief executive officers of Admarc, Escom and Teveta.

In other words, everyone and every institution the CSOs have an issue with should be bundled together in the same room to face the HRDC team of Timothy Mtambo, Gift Trapence, Happy Mhango, Billy Mayaya, Masauko Thawe and Madalitso Banda.

The first thing that came to my mind was that these CSO leaders have a litany of grievances they have on each of the 13 individuals and institutions they wanted in the same room at the same time.

Now, what format would accommodate an effective dialogue on the tens of issues around the 13 individuals and institutions? How would the agenda be set and prioritised under such a multitude of characters and issues?

Would all these be accomplished in one afternoon? What was really going on here? To me it smacked of a lack of focus on the part of my civil society friends and a deficit of clarity on what exactly they wanted to get out of this ‘dialogue’ crowd.

The second thing that hit me was that  as a conflict resolution tool, my understanding is that dialogue is a process, not an event; that Thursday’s meeting was a stage in a long journey, not its beginning and its end.

Thus, I reckon, to trigger sustainable change, there is need for stakeholders to develop joint ownership of the process—pull together the diverse positions into a microcosm of a larger society and become part of the team that identifies the concerns the players have and how to address them.

That is why I think my CSO leaders should have gone to that Wednesday meeting where they should have presented their concerns—and their pre-conditions for the talks.

They would also have had the opportunity to listen to why the government side thinks it would be inappropriate at this stage to bring all the people the CSO leaders are demanding.

I mean, dialogue is not just about talking, it is also about listening and learning; self-investigation and self-reflection. It can also be about adapting and even adopting.

It can be a painstakingly slow and irritatingly incremental process, but it is necessary to reach shared goals by addressing not just the symptoms of the problems ravaging our people nationwide, but also the root causes and the possible solutions (the changes that need to be made).

So, yes, CSOs, who had initially accepted the invitation for dialogue, should have gone to the venue and make their case there. That way, they would have shown Malawians that it is not just their ego influencing their desire to meet the most powerful people on the land, but a genuine desire to serve Malawians.

By staying away because government had sent ‘small boys’ to meet ‘the Big Six’, the CSOs had lost the one thing crucial to their claim to representing all of us: It is not about them—the HRDC Six.

Of course, the government too is at fault for waiting last minute to call for this dialogue. The civil society leaders announced their protest dates several weeks ago. Instead of calling for the talks much earlier, the administration used dirty tricks of a duelling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) event that, as earlier feared, turned out to be just a gimmick to derail the planned protests.

That was a waste of time; hence, today, even if the dialogue can be an honest attempt at finding common ground and pitching solutions to improve governance challenges, what would stop the CSOs from thinking that it is just another ploy for kicking the demonstrations cane down the road?

That said, the CSOs did agree to have these talks, so they should have at least showed up there and renegotiate the conditions, not pulling out at the last minute.

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