The season of Lent, traditionally for Christians a time for self-examination and repentance, in Malawi has taken on a political and national significance. This is because it was a Lenten letter of the Catholic Bishops in 1992 that “broke the spell” of the one-party dictatorship that had held sway for the previous thirty years.
I remember well the electric atmosphere that gripped the country as the Bishops’ letter circulated. After decades when no public criticism of the ruling regime had been tolerated, all of a sudden there was a forthright and damning assessment of the prevailing political system. It rang true, and a furious Government reaction only sealed the doom of the one-party system.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of that defining historical moment. However, rather than striking any celebratory note, the Catholic Bishops 2022 Lenten letter is sombre. Its main point is that many of the ills of the country that were exposed thirty years ago are still in evidence today and some have got even worse.
It does recognise areas where things have changed for the better, such as greater freedom of speech and association, as well as the independence of the judiciary. But these are heavily outweighed by its sharp critique of a political system that privileges a small elite at the expense of the great majority of the citizens of the country.
It does not spare the current Government which will be stung by reference to “state predation, big man politics that prevent servant and people-centred leadership, corruption and kleptocracy.” The bishops echo an oft-expressed frustration with a President whose soaring rhetoric is rarely matched by decisive action: “Empty promises couched in beautiful speeches must stop.”
Above all, the 30th Anniversary letter is a ringing call for the resources of the country to be mobilised to serve the needs of the ordinary people – good quality education, a dependable health service, and opportunity to live in security and dignity. The unfinished business, the Bishops suggest, cannot be left to Government but every citizen must take their share of responsibility. Meanwhile Malawi’s journey is more like Lent than Easter, but the struggle continues and is empowered, for many, by faith in the risen Christ.