IRIN interview with democracy activist, Rafiq Hajat

Rafiq Hajat describes himself as a "political activist and grassroots person". He is an executive member of Malawi's ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), vice president of the country's chamber of commerce and industry, chairman of DEMAT, the Development of Malawian Traders' Trust, and also founding director of the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI). He spoke to IRIN about the pressing issues facing the impoverished country.

QUESTION: Recent developments in Malawi, for example parliament trying to have MPs and High Court judges sacked and regular reports of journalists being harassed, have raised fears that Malawi's young democracy is being eroded even as it finds its feet. Do you think these fears are justified?

ANSWER: Democracy like life itself, is a dynamic process, it's a constant evolution. Yes, democracy is often under threat - in the same way that when you cross a road and you don't look left and right, you may be run over by a car. That does not mean to say you don't cross the road. It's a path we follow, we are still learning, it's embryonic and we have a fledgling democracy. But we have further complications, such as the fact that we have a hybrid system in Malawi. We don't have a presidential democracy. We don't have a parliamentary system. It is actually a mix between the two. We've tried to 'cut and paste', to use computer terminology, from the British and American systems. So what we have is a normal consequence, a tug-of-war between the four arms of democracy, or the four pillars. They are: the executive, legislature, judiciary and civil society, expressed through the media. What happens is that when any one or more of these pillars is weakened or imbalanced, then you find the whole balance of democracy out of kilter. That is what we are experiencing now.

Q: Explain this.

A: What is happening is that we have a mindset here that has not fully grasped or appreciated what democracy is about - that it is not only about rights, but it is also about responsibilities, that it has greater responsibility. It's easier to sit in a dictatorship and do what you are told to do (when) you have no responsibility - you do what you are told.

In a democracy you have to think for yourself. Now when you have over 60 percent of a population that is illiterate, then they are guided constantly and it is difficult for them to perceive what is the way ahead and what path we should follow. So it is up to the intelligentsia of the country to lead. However, you also have a very smart group of political pirates, if you like, who would like to use the situation for their own benefit.

This is why you talk of a system of checks and balances, where the executive is balanced by the other three arms. What is happening here is that of late, parliament has shown an increasing tendency to ramrod bills which intrinsically change the spirit of the constitution. They follow the process, we are not disputing that, but it changes the spirit of the constitution, which is in effect a social contract between the people of Malawi and the government, and once that spirit has been warped, it is like a roller coaster or a juggernaut.

Civil society and the media in Malawi are extremely weak - so weak that they are finding it very difficult to act as a coherent and persuasive force to counteract the other side, the other pillars. What is happening is that the other side, because of its single-minded pursuit for power and wealth and all the other things that these interests normally vie for - that side is gaining ascendancy and they are also prepared to stoop to any lengths to get what they want. They are certainly not encumbered by ethics or morals such as good governance, honesty, integrity. That is lip-service.

Q: That is interesting coming from a national executive member of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). When the UDF came to power in 1994, it campaigned as a proponent of democracy and promised democratic reform, yet over the past year there have been repeated reports of democracy being undermined, of intimidation and violence allegedly perpetrated by UDF activists calling themselves the 'young democrats'. What is happening within the UDF that one cannot rally this spirit of democracy? Why does the UDF seem unable to change?

A: The UDF did introduce democracy into this country. It won the first multiparty elections and the second one as well. There is an ongoing process called the Democracy Consolidated Programme and also, now that the institutions of democracy have been put in place, the next move is how to strengthen them. All these things are being attended to, but the UDF (and I am not speaking as a national executive member, I'm speaking as a political activist and observer) in my view, is still a loose coalition. It has not yet coalesced into a party. It doesn't have a fixed membership roll, or a properly defined hierarchical system, or even a head office to speak about really. So what happens is that within that loose structure you find all sorts of things, the element of control is very difficult to maintain and you have all kinds of interests and different kinds of people who see an opportunity and go for it. So a lot of things that are done in the name of the UDF may not be done with the approval of the highest policy-making body of the UDF, which is the national executive.

Q: With due respect. I accept the scenario, but even as a member of the national executive, you say that many decisions are not ratified by this body. How does this happen? Why can this state of affairs not be resolved by the party's leadership. Surely there are disciplinary measures?

A: We have a disciplinary committee, but it is shackled by these limitations. You can get a thug from the street who puts on a yellow T-shirt and beats up a reporter because he believes the reporter has published something wrong about his favourite football team, and its blamed on a 'young democrat' ... so what I am trying to say is that it is the looseness of the coalition that is the root of our problem because the coherence is not there.

Q: Turning to another controversial issue, are there government efforts to proactively rid the civil service and government of corruption and to entrench transparency?

A: You have touched on a very complex problem. It is a repeated problem and I am probably the wrong person to talk on this issue because I am an anti-corruption activist. I am a founder member of Transparency International - Malawi. Well, corruption as a phenomenon is prevalent all over the world ... We have an Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) here. It is funded to a large extent by the British and we have an expert from England who is seconded to this office. This body has been actively investigating all allegations of corruption. But they are hampered by-the lack of funds for investigation and the bureaucracy in bringing cases to court. For example, some civil cases lodged in 1993 have yet to come to court, so when you confront that and you look at the channels the ACB has to go through, like handing its investigations to the director of public prosecutions who then decides whether to prosecute or not to prosecute, you realise the choice is not really the ACB's.

... We are a country with a per capita income of US $160 a year. We are probably about the 6th or 12th poorest country in the world. What has happened here is that we have developed over the years a syndrome of acute poverty - mental, physical, financial and spiritual. It needs a total mindset change. You can address the symptoms, it will not correct the cause, and the cause is dire poverty in all its manifestations.

Q: What positive developments can you point to in Malawi in the past 10 years and what do you think Malawi's challenges are?

A: In the past 10 years we introduced free primary education. It was a revolutionary move for a poor country like Malawi. The standard of education may not be perfect, it may not even be acceptable to many, but it is better than nothing. We have taken a step forward. Now there are plans for girls and women to get free secondary education because they will be the mothers of tomorrow and educated mothers tend to educate their children. This is a move coming in now, so it shows that first we are addressing the problem of illiteracy.

Secondly, a lot of state controls, especially on food, like maize, has been moved into the free market. It means farmers can get much better prices for their crops than they used to get, but again we have this same handout mentality. For example, in places where people were given farming starter packs last year - enough to plant a quarter of an acre - all the produce consumed, nothing was left over for the next year and so they are back to square one. It boils down to education.

We have a slow but inexorable process whereby the institutions of governance are being looked at and being firmed. Even the parliamentary committee system is being looked at. It has been given, I think, about 36 million kwacha to reinforce and enable it to work, so that when you have specialist committees, they can scrutinise bills far more deeply, improving the calibre and class of legislation that comes out of parliament.