In this interview with our Staff Reporter JOHN CHIRWA, Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) chairperson Gift Trapence has warned that the organisation may return with a new wave of protests if government does not contain the socio-economic crisis that the country is experiencing. Excerpts:
Prior to the court- sanctioned fresh Presidential Elections in 2020, the Tonse Alliance made a lot of promises to Malawians. Two years down the line, what is your assessment of the delivery?
While the Tonse Alliance has fulfilled some of the promises made during the campaign, the administration has failed to live up to the expectations of Malawians with visible signs of economic misdirection, ever-rising unemployment and rising cost of essential goods, resulting in inflation that has left Malawians poorer than before. For instance, the Tonse administration promised one million jobs, but two years on, there is no evidence to show that they have created them. Moreover, government has not even issued a plan for job creation, making the promise the biggest campaign hoax of all time. Even the disbursement of loans to women and youths and other micro- entrepreneurs under the National Economic Empowerment Fund (Neef) remains murky as political interference rears its ugly head once again. Funding to the initiative only goes in dribs and drabs, leaving many young men and women disappointed.
How has the Tonse Alliance fared on corruption?
In his early major speeches, President Lazarus Chakwera vowed to disinfect Malawi to remove the stench of corruption and fraud, saying the evil twins are largely responsible for Malawi’s retarded development. But the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality of the levels of suspected corruption is like day and night. The ACB report on businessperson Zuneth Sattar has further dented the image of the Tonse Alliance which came to power on the higher moral ground of ending corruption.
The Tonse administration has witnessed more than one large-scale heist in which a large chunk of the K6.2 billion allocated to the fight against Covid-19 was allegedly abused with little action taken against most of those involved.
The administration has also failed to audit the K17.2 billion of taxpayers’ money and more than K300 billion in Covid-19 donor aid despite promising to do so. Actually, a recent audit by the National Audit Office indicates that K3.5 billion of the K17.2 billion is unaccounted for. Yet, two months after this report was issued, no one has been taken to task and no arrests have been effected. It is business as usual.
How about its promises to reform the public sector and deal away with nepotism?
Despite all the zeal and fanfare that surrounded the public sector reforms, the programme seems to have resulted in a stillbirth as President Chakwera seems unwilling to implement the recommendations that were presented to him by Vice-President Saulos Chilima and his team. What is also disheartening is that despite funding the exercise, the nation will never know the contents of the report as the President has decided to keep the document secret.
The Tonse Alliance has also been characterised by nepotism. Public appointments are highly skewed towards the Tonse’s political base of the Central Region at the expense of those who come from Southern and Northern regions.
Recently, you described the Tonse Alliance government as dictatorial. Would you elaborate?
Yes. This is because for the past two years, we have seen the government passing laws that restrict people’s freedoms. Last year, we saw the President assenting to the Labour Relations Amendment Bill, which restricts the freedom of workers to hold strikes. This year, we have seen the President assenting to the controversial NGO Amendment Bill which violates a number of fundamental rights, including the constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of association. What is particularly concerning in all this is the way the President has consistently ignored legitimate concerns and gone ahead to assent to such bad laws.
What has been the most limiting factor for the Tonse Alliance to fulfil the campaign promises?
The biggest DNA of the Tonse Alliance government is inconsistencies, slowness and indecisiveness in decision-making, particularly on matters of national interest. For instance, Malawians were promised the Cabinet would be assessed within the first six months and non-performers would summarily be dismissed. But two years down the line, the assessment is not forthcoming. For months, some statutory bodies such as Nocma [National Oil Company of Malawi] have people in acting capacities. The problem has been emanating from the Office of the President and Cabinet which has been allowed to operate at its own pace, caging decisions and holding the country at ransom.
You fought against nepotism, corruption, cronyism, impunity and State capture during the Democratic Progressive Party regime. Two years down the line, Malawians feel shortchanged with the Tonse Alliance. What are your plans as HRDC?
It is true that Malawians are going through very painful times. If things remain the same, HRDC will have no choice, but to bring back those waves of protests. Those protests will be done at the right time.
What do you say to some people’s claims that HRDC is also captured by the State, thereby not being as vocal as it used to be?
HRDC has not been quiet. It does not speak for the sake of speaking like some of the many new emerging groups. We have been speaking on issues that matter. HRDC will continue doing this noble work to hold this Tonse government accountable without fear or favour.
What needs to be done or changed to stay the course?
We need a strong civil society, a strong opposition and an active citizenry on checks and balances. Malawians should stay vigilant to take leaders in positions to account. It is only when we have active citizens that this country will develop. We need citizens to be speaking out when leaders are not performing even if that means holding demonstrations. We also need a listening government that can hear the suffering of its citizens and take actions at the right time. Malawians do not want impunity and an arrogant style of leadership, but a servant one.