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 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.
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. The long view has its place, but Malawi’s crisis needs the urgent call that has come from the MHRC.