10 Malawi chiefs as tourists in Zambia

The 10 traditional leaders in President Peter Mutharika’s entourage to the 20th Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa) summit in Lusaka, Zambia, this week, was in itself not a bad thing. But not for what Information Minister Nicholus Dausi touts—that their inclusion in the entourage was meant to foster regional integration and coexistence. That is, to say the least, nonsensical against Mutharika’s expressed commitment to cutting expenditure on external travel. For one thing, Mutharika ought to lead by example if public servants are to take him seriously on fiscal prudence.

Government’s lead spin doctor—Dausi—said the benefits of having such a huge entourage of traditional leaders on the trip outweigh the costs. I wish Dausi told us the expected benefits. Strictly speaking, there are none. It is just a bad way of spending good money. Government spent millions of kwacha on travel, food, accommodation and allowances on the chiefs whose deliverables from the meeting are non-existent. The chiefs were, at best, only good tourists and may just have enjoyed sightseeing and shopping in the Zambian capital. It is an old tradition. The country’s founding father, Kamuzu, used to say travel is education. He thus used to take along with him several of his ‘mbumba’ during his international trips. The women would, no doubt, learn one or two things during the trips. They would welcome him on his arrival in the foreign country and see him off back to Malawi. But when the women returned home, all they did was just to praise the Ngwazi more and more for taking them to places they never dreamt to visit in their lives.

It is a well-known fact that the aim of taking the chiefs to Zambia is political patronage. But that is being done at the expense of providing social services such as health care delivery, education be it at primary, secondary and tertiary level, fighting corruption, improving efforts to catapult food security, among other things.

Talking about health care delivery in public hospitals, those mandated to speak for government will tell you there are no drug stock-outs in hospitals, but this is a blue lie. For example, insulin—the treatment for diabetic patients—has not been available in some public hospitals including Kasungu District Hospital and its satellite health centres for quite a long time now. As a result, diabetic patients are forced to buy the drug from private clinics if they can afford. If they don’t have money, the consequences are dire. This has been the case for quite a long time now. Whenever the drug is procured, clinicians sell it to private clinics. I want health personnel to challenge me on this issue. I have a list of patients I am ready to parade to attest to this. And I know for a fact that insulin is not the only drug that is not available in most public hospitals.

Of course, complaining about drug pilferage in public hospitals has become a cliché. Nobody cares. Yet these are the issues government ought to be spending money on. Nobody is made to account for drug shortage in public hospitals.

Talking about education, many schools don’t have basic learning and teaching materials, classrooms, et cetera. In addition, thousands of deserving needy students cannot access students’ loans for university education. The social malaise is endemic. As this newspaper showed last week, institutions established to fight graft have over the past few years been systematically crippled through reduced funding. Result—corruption is on the rise. The once vibrant civil society—which has hitherto played an important role in making government accountable, has also been systematically suffocated. The few still sticking out their necks against the rot in government are being seen as rebels.

The inclusion of the 10 chiefs on the Comesa trip was good tourism for Zambia—maybe that is what Dausi means on regional integration and coexistence. For Malawi it is part of a systematic propaganda campaign to either silence the chiefs from speaking against the ruling party or to disparage the opposition. Sooner rather than later we will begin to see some of them being paraded on the public broadcaster badmouthing the opposition leaders.