Recently Malawians have been protesting against government corruption and cronyism. The focus of citizen anger is President Bingu wa Mutharika. The state’s response has been state violence and repression; in some instances fatal. Last month Robert Chasowa, a student leader, was murdered under mysterious circumstances. Malawi is of course a democracy. Malawians last coped with this kind of thing under Life President Hastings Banda who ruled from independence in 1966 till 3 years before his death in 1997.
For those looking for a speed-read on recent events, I would suggest reading Malawian Steve Sharras’s recent post at Global Voices. But for a more longer, analytical view there is celebrated poet Jack Mapanje’s new memoir, And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night. It just came out and as Elliot Ross (he is an AIAC contributor and grew up in Malawi) writes for Guernica, the book “could scarcely be more timely, offering as it does a history of local tyranny at a time when political violence has escalated to a pitch not seen since Banda’s demise.” Mapanje who was imprisoned by Banda’s regime in the late 1980s, writes “an alternative history of the nation seen through the lens of [his] prison.” Mapanje, for Ross, is Malawi’s “most vital and furious historian” and his imprisonment is “best understood as one of the paradigmatic events in Malawi’s history since independence”:
As with Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party in Ghana, SWAPO in Namibia, KANU in Kenya, and more recently Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe and the African National Congress in South Africa, so in Malawi the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which had achieved liberation from colonial rule, slipped [over time] into what the South African poet Jeremy Cronin recently described as “a problematic habit of identifying themselves as ‘the nation.’” This process of substitutionism, which saw political legitimacy monopolized by a single party, was in turn extended to the [ruling Malawi Congress Party] leader, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. He dubbed himself the father of the nation, yet, in a fashion one might almost think of as curiously trinitarian, his power relied on his embodying the nation even as he announced himself its sole progenitor. The investment of such power in Banda alone conveyed enormous political meaning upon his personal narrative, which was parroted within the Malawian public sphere to the exclusion of all others, inculcating a set of myths about the man which even today retain a powerful hold over how he is remembered and memorialized. For Banda was never merely Kamuzu. His most common praise names included the Ngwazi (Conqueror, or Chief of Chiefs), Mpulumutsi (Savior), Wamuyaya (President for Life) and Nkhoswe (Number One). All state institutions were compelled to refer to him as “His Excellency The Life President Ngwazi Dr H. Kamuzu Band.”
Mapanje is able to write his nation’s history so well through memoir because the signal feature of Malawi right from the start of its existence has been the vicious antagonism of the ruling government towards the country’s most talented people. The scale of the waste this has entailed cannot be reckoned with, but with And Crocodiles there is at last a measure of elegy being set down for the droves of bright lives that have been lost or blighted by exile and imprisonment. In a poem written not long after his release, Mapanje situates this group in bitter terms:
And you brethren in dissent / Are out of bounds, meat for crocodiles / Mere cliché in our country’s anthology /Of martyrs, perhaps even smudges on /The blank page of this nation[.]
When Mapanje, exasperated in his cell, poses the question, “What can anybody be, when everybody must play Mr. Nobody?,” he does so surrounded by the weary victims whose detentions show that Banda’s avowed anti-intellectualism, deep-rooted as it was, was just part of the wider system of aggression toward any Malawian who rose above quiescent anonymity.
And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night is the work of many years of reflection in exile, and though the structures and habits of the Banda-era still linger, those years may seem a long time ago for a country whose population is as young as Malawi’s. Yet the memoir’s publication this summer could scarcely be more timely, offering as it does a history of local tyranny at a time when political violence has escalated to a pitch not seen since Banda’s demise. In the last few months, citizens peacefully protesting government corruption and cronyism, fuel and foreign exchange shortages, abuses of academic freedom and attacks on civil society groups, have repeatedly been met with tear gas and live ammunition. The current Vice-President Joyce Banda, who has long been at loggerheads with President Bingu wa Mutharika, last week described the emergence of a “reign of terror” in the country. In all of this, the university remains as crucial a site of resistance now as it was under Banda …
The situation is dire, but Mapanje’s memoir provides invaluable historical context, especially so as President wa Mutharika has imitated the style and character of Banda’s dictatorship as unimaginatively as he has. His attempts to recuperate the substitutionism which concentrates sovereignty in the presidential person alone, to make himself sole “decider” (as the second Bush had it), have necessitated the concomitant cultivation of a cult of personality. He has taken on Banda’s best-known honorific, “Ngwazi,” and even formed a copycat youth militia. Political opponents including clergymen and rights activists have had their homes fire-bombed; others have been publicly hacked by the machete-swinging youths of the Democratic Progressive Party Cadets. Wa Mutharika even has his own Lady Macbeth-Cecilia Kadzamira, his second wife Callista, who recently accused NGOs of spreading homosexuality in the country and told them to “go to hell.”
The Banda-like stylings are obvious, too obvious to convince. While Banda cast himself charismatically as lion and liberator of the nation, the cupboard of sovereign myths available to wa Mutharika is bare. An elderly former World Bank technocrat, he possesses Banda’s egoism and scorn for others, but none of the political gifts that made Banda popular in his time as well as feared. Malawi’s civil society, and much of its population, are in more or less open revolt. Wa Mutharika is in the second and thus final term of his presidency: he is a nuisance with horizons in a way that the immutable Banda could never have been for Mapanje.