The Current Crisis and the Long View

24 November 2022

Delighted to be able to share this guest post from SMP member Professor Ken Ross.

Two very different documents have featured in Malawi’s public square during the past few weeks. On 14 November the Malawi Human Rights Commission issued a powerful and much-needed statement of its position on the social, political and economic situation in Malawi. A month earlier, we had the Lilongwe launch of Beyond Impunity: New Directions for Governance in Malawi – the book supported by the SMP and edited by Asiyati Chiweza, Wapulumuka Mulwafu and myself.

The two are very different in character. The MHRC statement is an urgent call to action, highlighting matters of life and death that require immediate attention. Beyond Impunity offers more of a long view, attempting a detailed academic analysis of some of the enduring problems that have bedevilled Malawi’s governance through successive administrations. Yet there is a clear connection between the two as the MHRC cites Beyond Impunity to lend authority to its critique.

Taken together, the two will set alarm bells ringing for those with Malawi and its people at heart. One of the challenges with a large multi-authored academic book is that it takes a long time to produce so that, by the time it appears, it is not necessarily well placed to speak “to the moment.” This is where a body like the Malawi Human Rights Commission is needed to speak a word in season. But it is much to the credit of the MHRC that it informs its thinking with the best available academic analysis.

Much of Beyond Impunity was written at one of the more hopeful moments in Malawi’s recent political history – in mid-2020 when a peaceful and constitutional process had overturned the result of a stolen election and brought to power a new administration committed to eradicating corruption and ushering in economic prosperity. To give credit to the book’s contributing authors, they did not get carried away by the euphoria of what appeared to be a new dawn. Instead, they set about identifying the systemic issues that underlay the political crisis that engulfed the country in 2019-20. When the book had made its way through the rigour of peer review and the publication process, this is that it could offer to the country when it was published in 2022.

Much as the contribution of the book was appreciated, there was also a certain sense of frustration that it was not directly addressing what seemed, by this time, to be building into another crisis. This is not something that it was equipped to do. But it is exactly what the MHRC have done with their statement this week.

There are clear lines of connection between the two. Beyond Impunity highlighted maladministration of public finance as a long-running disease. The MHRC point out how this has surfaced again in the saga of the procurement of fertilizer for the Affordable Input Programme where vitally needed Government funds apparently disappeared without producing any result. Beyond Impunity exposed the tendency for formal procedures of accountability to be undermined by informal patronage networks. The MHRC point out that the AIP procurement scandal is an example of how public officials apparently have incentives not to comply with formal rules in regard to stewardship of public funds.

The urgency of such issues is amply demonstrated by the MRHC when they set them in the context of the rising cost of living, frequent and lengthy power cuts, shortage of petrol and diesel. When people lose their lives in hospitals because of lack of medical supplies and when prisons are unable to provide food for their inmates, it is clear that basic issues of human rights are at stake.

The punchline of the MHRC statement draws directly from Beyond Impunity. The book includes a sustained consideration of the question of citizen trust – how far the people have confidence in the institutions and officers entrusted with authority in the governance system. The MHRC bring this to bear on the current crisis by underlining the importance of prompt action by Government to address the acute threats to the enjoyment of human rights being experienced by Malawi’s citizens.

Malawi is not the only country facing challenging times. But in Malawi’s case the pressures of the current crisis are exposing long-term structural problems in the country’s governance. These are what Beyond Impunity attempts to address by taking a long view. The MHRC statement addresses with urgency the moment we are in right now. Its 23 recommendations deserve thought and action from all who would like to see Malawi emerge stronger from the current crisis.

Professor Kenneth R. Ross,
16 November 2022.