I like the tradition in meteorology of giving good, beautiful names to thunderous and destructive storms willy-nilly.
You have heard for example of names such as hurricane Katrina, hurricane Allen or tropical Charlie, et cetera. And you think, by their good names, these tropical storms do the good. But wait a minute! Thousands of lives and property are lost.
Maybe we should give good names to political storms as well. Let us call the current Malawi political storm, ‘Tropical Chaponda’. Sounds like a good name! Yet, it is not the first political storm to have wrecked Malawi in recent times.
Political storms such as this are usually a reflection of a bad year of hunger and starvation. As we look at the ‘Tropical Chaponda’, we should always bear in mind that these are the characteristics of a great of famine.
All the great years of hunger have their own different news and political storms.
The years of hunger are a season of silence in the village but are also the years of political crisis. Such is the characteristic of a ‘Tropical Chaponda’.
The seasons of political storms such as of ‘Tropical Chaponda’ starts with the sun in the clear skies dazing cruelly, sucking the last drops in the earth, with the rains fleeing and with mocking clouds that hopelessly hang in the dull skies, bringing a deathly silence at night.
Then, it is ends up with the desperate Africans attempting to change the forces of nature through sacrifices of blood with some bizarre rituals. So you can guess that your fate with the ‘Tropical Chaponda’ started with last year’s poor rains.
In the year of a ‘Tropical Chaponda’, the barren earth mirrors the reality of the withering souls and barren hopes. It is usually the season for the village charlatans, incanters and witch-doctors to make their own fortune through false promises of rain or a little harvest.
The years of hunger are also politically fragile. There are always silent wars between government and the opposition or civil societies groups. In this article, focus is on that; in a country of hunger or rumours of hunger, there is no peace and brothers always fight. There is always fighting within political parties. The fighting ends only until the next harvest.
With the ‘Tropical Chaponda’ in a village life, the fighting of siblings in the plate is a common picture. The extended families are disintegrated and everyone eats for his own mouth.
But in the season such as this of a ‘Tropical Chaponda’ hunger, it is wise to look at things askance. The years of hunger are seasons of speculations and are lies are vended as truths. These are the seasons that people lose their heads and say anything that passes the mind.
The seasons such as this of a ‘Tropical Chaponda’ have been in Malawi before.
The 1949 famine during the British colonial government was also a season of some political crisis. The famine preceded the formation of the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC).
After the famine, the nationalists’ movements rallied much support because the government was blamed for failing to manage the hunger crisis. The government responded in many ways such that in the same year, for the first time, Malawians were allowed to sit on the legislative council.
During that period, the only newspaper then, The Nyasaland Times, ignored reporting on the hunger as it was managed by British editors. My research at the Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL) archives, found copies of the 1949 editions of The Nyasaland Times but without a single report of the famine.
Instead, I only came across pictures of the white ladies and moustached old colonialists sinking into some bottles of wine. And the impression that one get is that in Nyasaland of 1949 all was well. You may guess, the editors that time and the government had nothing to do with Africans dying of hunger.
In the great years of the drought of 1991-1992 which affected most parts of Southern Africa, the hunger fanned the already glowing embers of the anti-Kamuzu regime. Some Malawians who were increasingly feeling unsafe in the hands of Kamuzu Banda, thought the government was responsible for the famine.
The government had failed to manage the food crisis and Malawians were introduced to Genetically Modified (GM) maize. They called it yellow maize. However, this drought was reported to be the worst in Southern Africa’s living memory.
According to a journal article by Chistopher Eldridge “Why was there no famine following the 1992 Southern Africa drought? The Contributions and Consequences of households responses” this drought, caused the drying of many wells and some perennial rivers, killing over 1.3 million cattle and affected 86 million people in the region.
The political storm that blew over this season was the Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter ‘Living our Faith’ which came out in March, 1992. The pastoral letter bashed the government for its administrative ills. The letter was meaningful, because during the time people were suffering.
Another famine visited Malawi in 2001-2002. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), this was the most devastating famine in Malawi’s recorded history. The famine caught the Bakili Muluzi government unawares. There are many theories that attempt to explain the cause of this great famine.
The government and the International community had not assessed the food situation in the country prior to the famine. Many theories lay blame on Muluzi’s administration for mismanaging the national food reserves by selling the staple grain neighbouring countries.
The Muluzi regime had done an excellent initiative in ensuring the country’s food security by establishing the National Food Reserves Agency (NFRA) IN 1998. But the irony is that the Muluzi administration failed to see the significance of the food reserves it established.
Critics of this particular famine say that the memories of this famine are painful because it could have been avoided. The international community attempted to help with the food crisis that faced Malawi by providing maize as a short term relief. For instance, the US envoy during that period, Roger Mecee, pledged to help Malawi with 7,000 metric tons. But this was too late, as the situation had already gotten out of hand.
The Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation during that season of hunger was Aleke Banda. He too, like the recent Minister of Agriculture, George Chaponda, made some desperate attempts at alleviating the food crisis but to no avail. He went to town and villages preaching about winter cropping, after hundreds had died already.
According to the UNDP report, the reports of the impending famine first surfaced as rumours whispered in in rural areas in the country around October 2001. By the time that the national food shortages were determined as severe, from January to April 2002, between 500 and 1000 people had died of hunger or hunger related diseases mostly in the southern and central parts of the country.
This food crisis had its own stories of political storms. The Minister of Finance in that season was Friday Jumbe. This was the time that some United Democratic Front (UDF) party members started pushing for Muluzi’s infamous Third Term Bill. One UDF Blantyre urban governor, Eric Chiwaya, for example, rhetorically warned Muluzi, “If you will decide not to stand in 2004, the party will break. We will take you to court if you decide not to stand because we cannot allow our party to break”.
Here was a governor, who like the colonialists in 1949, had no nothing to do about the people dying of hunger in that season but pushed his own selfish agenda. There was no peace among brothers in that season. It is this season that made Muluzi lose his popularity. If Muluzi had managed that food crisis, people would be grateful and would have considered supporting the Third Term Bill on his presidency.
In 2005 Malawi was again visited by famine though in small magnitude. Thanks to the new leader, Bingu wa Mutharika, who had promised Malawians food security and an ambitious irrigation green belt project, the famine was foreseen and he adroitly moved to buy maize from other countries to supplement the country’s reserves.
The Minister of Finance who was trusted with the task of budgeting money for the buying of the supplementary grain was Goodall Gondwe. In that season, there was no political crisis but only excitement with the new leader, Bingu wa Mutharika.
2016-2017 was the season of the ‘Tropical Chaponda’, here again with Goodall Gondwe as FNANCE Minister but with another Mutharika, Peter. This season of hunger, evoked much fears and a sense of dejavu to the 2001-2001 famine. Though, the fears were for nothing.
The situation was treated as an emergency such that President Mutharika declared a National State of Emergency on April 12, 2016 appealing for humanitarian relief assistance from the international community and the private sector. About 6.5 million people were feared as being food insecure. The government development a Food Insecurity Response Plan with the United Nations (UN) to help avert the impending food crisis.
Among other interventions by the government went about sourcing the maize grain from other countries a situation that caused the ‘Tropical Chaponda’ with a fierce storm blowing from Zambia. The good news is that Official reports so far have not indicated any deaths resulting from the ‘Tropical Chaponda’.
Of course, it takes good leadership of a country to manage such storms. Had President Peter Mutharika behaved like Muluzi in the 2001-2002 season of hunger, the assumption is that Malawi would have experienced the worst food crisis in recent memory.
Now the ‘Tropical Chaponda’ has stormed Malawi and is almost subsiding, what lessons have all of us learnt; the government, the opposition, the civil society and the common man.
Lest, we have not come across this Ashanti proverb: ‘By the time the fool has learnt the game, the players have dispersed’.
All of us need to learn something and be wise on how to handle situations like this to avoid repeating mistakes. (
By Nyoni wa Nyoni)