5/14/2015

Flattering a dictator

Dictators ought to be flattered…unless you want death.

There are a few ‘unlesses’ when it comes to flattering dictators with most of them, however, centering around death. You have to flatter them, unless you want death or unless they are dead.

Today, 14 May, is a holiday in Malawi. Malawians today have been forced to stay at home; most of them for a reason they do not understand. Others, for a reason they are confused about. Yet some are mistaken to think it is for a good cause.

A struggling economy lost a productive day, today, to honour the life of a dictator: Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

For 31 years, Banda sat at the helm of Malawi he had turned into a personal estate: detaining, exiling and killing – people! Yet, today, the country saves a day on the calendar to celebrate him. On the false premise that Banda fought colonialism and brought independence to Malawi. 

It is such a mistaken attitude that, up to date, others call Banda with a title he erroneously awarded himself: father and founder of the  Malawi nation. 

Our history is warped. It is less followed. Before and during slavery, our history gets distorted. Colonialism comes in, the history gets lost in translation as well. Thereafter, dictatorship, no history we are told is accurate.

For the bit of dictatorship, however, there are other versions of history that have emerged. Contrary to the one that Banda and the system decided to sell Malawians. This other bit of history dismisses the idealistic notion that Banda was the founder of the Malawi nation.

Kanyama Chiume, exiled by Banda, was one of the people that fought for the independence of Malawi. With others, Chiume led the path for the birth of what has come to be Malawi. If we are to talk of any father of the Malawi nation, there should be Chiume in there. After falling out with Banda, and exiled, he wrote a book. It does not flatter Banda’s dictatorship modern Malawi has come to worship. That is the other unless when it comes to flattering dictatorship…unless you are beyond its claws, you must flatter dictatorship.

Jack Mapanje, a writer, was imprisoned by Banda. His book, published years after Banda died, speaks not well of Banda’s dictatorship. It tells the story that modern Malawi is forcing us to forget. His tale seeks to represent a voice our consciousness as a country seeks to stifle, for nothing really if not just that the President who started this crusade of promoting Banda, Bingu wa Mutharika, was himself an autocrat doing his best to cut the cloak of his garment to fit in multiparty – albeit with less success.

Granted, the two tales are as well littered with traits of bias and therefore not the kind of Bible in the gospel against the good name of Banda, but what those tales hold for us is a mirror that reflects into the past that Kamuzu lived. The real Kamuzu, not this bleached version we encounter from old people nostalgic of what they call ‘good old days’.

From these accounts, we hardly encounter a man worthy of any praise – let alone a day reserved in his honour.

I have heard the proponents of a Kamuzu day. I have heard ‘Kamuzuists’ toss around arguments that Banda’s time Malawi was developed and, then, multiparty ruined everything. These rush to point at infrastructure Banda erected in 31 years and then ask us to point at anything that multiparty has done.

I refuse, mostly, to engage in such a comparison. I know the infrastructure Banda erected in 31 years. I am actually a beneficially of a part of it: my alma mater, Chancellor College, was erected in his tyrannical rule and since then it has metamorphosed into a forgotten museum with the first ‘democratic’ government of Bakili Muluzi littering it with a hostel.

But, in having to acknowledge one person obtaining a loan that is paid back by national resources as intelligent defeats me. It is normal, and natural, for one to do that. Banda was supposed to provide that for Malawi. Malawians deserved that. We owe him no kind words for doing what he had to do. We should owe him words of condemnation for letting him get away with murders, imprisonments and cruelty. For having imposed such a dictatorial hold on a people that they cannot think beyond him, we should hold him responsible.

The argument might be that the others, after him, borrowed but built nothing. They stole. Well, it makes sense – sort of. Just sort of. It is not as if Banda did not steal. It is not as if the person who came to Nyasaland almost owning nothing, if the testimonies by Chiume are anything to go by, died one of the richest in Africa means he was doing Malawians a service. No! He was doing the country a disservice while servicing his pockets. 

Trace his bank accounts, at the time of his death, and see if you will exonerate him among the rest in the pack that have come to represent the proverbial rats guarding over a pack of groundnuts.

Even among the others, I would argue, Banda does not really stand out as a development conscious individual. Banda, in my opinion, was much more concerned with securing his position than doing anything to Malawi. However, to find a justification for his power, he stumbled upon things which he kept reminding Malawians that it was him who had done it.

I have a problem with statistics. I know they can be, and are, manipulated to achieve goals. But even when it comes to statistics, Banda's days are not years of prosperity as per United Nations Development Programme rankings when compared to what we have today. Yet, today, we are told he developed the country and things were better in his time. A claim void of substantial evidence. 

In comparing Banda with others after him, as well, we fall into a trap. We compare people operating under different contexts yet expecting them to achieve in equal measure.

For instance, the argument that Banda was better than Bingu wa Mutharika is not uncommon. They all say Bingu was close to Banda but Banda stands out. 

Banda presided over an estate, not a country. Under Banda, Malawi was a farm in which the people were chickens being surveyed by a farmer carrying a slaughter knife in his hands. All chickens had to obey lest the knife land on their small throat.

With no opposition, for about 25 years, it is strange that somebody expects Banda to have done nothing. This, I argue, is shallow for even if it were the Presidential underachiever of all times, Joyce Banda, blessed with the same privileges that Kamuzu had she as well could have left a mark.

Perhaps, as a country, we always search an excuse for staying away from work but - realistically speaking - some of these reasons are as lame as the people they are supposed to celebrate.

It is strange that while the conversation tips towards annoyance every time a report is released from North Korea of the dictator there flexing his muscles amongst Malawians on social media, the same people aim to hail the days of Kamuzu. The past that is the present North Korea then.

By the way, for writing this, in the days of Banda I would have been, at the very least, imprisoned. Without trial. Like Mapanje.