Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. –Matthew 24:35
Twenty-five years after Malawi became a democracy, the country this week learned through a video, that the Malawi Defense Force (MDF) is in a red-heat search for one of its soldiers, a veteran of the peace keeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The soldier, Mbewe and a Zambian soldier known as General Kanene, have recorded a song that decries the meagre pay for their peacekeeping work.
The song is addressed to three of Malawi’s 2019 presidential hopefuls, namely Mutharika, Chakwera and Chilima.
The song asks the three when they win, they must address the plight of the soldiers in the peace-keeping missions.
On top of the song, Mbewe also recorded a video in which he relates that the MDF has taken his wife, children and car, and forced him to go into hiding.
On reading this, I was reminded of two instances from the one-party state and another that took place after Malawi became a democracy.
During Banda’s autocratic years, it was usual in Malawi for the government, through its Censorship Board, to censor songs, books, and movies declared by a team of censors as inappropriate for residents in Malawi.
BANNED: songs such as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” Joe Mosiwa’s “aNambewe,” the bump dance, songs of Percy Sledge, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the book that critiques capitalism and more.
But going into democratic Malawi, the authorities continued repressive acts: Davis Matafale died while in police custody for his songs that critiqued the Muluzi government.
Since then, other Malawians and some foreigners, expressing themselves were either “dealt with” or deported – Danish diplomats deported and British High Commission closed.
The other instance was on the shortchange saga the Malawi Army was dealing to the brave soldiers participating in the peacekeeping mission in the DRC.
After Muluzi took power from Kamuzu Banda in 1994, he enlisted the Malawi Defense Force in the United Nations Peace Keeping missions.
But within a few months, I received a letter from a soldier complaining about how the Malawi Army was cheating them by underpaying them – they were getting a fraction of the amount the MDF was receiving from the UN.
As Editor-In-Chief of The Independent, the letter’s simple request: asking for their full pay and outlining the arduous work of peace keeping, made me cry.
For years I had seen my mother during my two cousins’ secondary years, demanding for the rights of cousins Mungo and Gordon.
Their father was a WWII veteran, deceased) to have their CELOM bursaries increased or released in timely manner.
I dispatched a letter to then MDF General Manken Chigawa. His response was to invite me to a personal interview at Kamuzu Barracks in Lilongwe.
Before leaving Blantyre, I told my staff if they don’t hear from me after a certain time, they should call the embassies.
I found General Chigawa alone in his office; we were soon joined by the Army’s tallest high-ranking officers, totting guns on one side of their hips and a sword on the other.
I was frightened for about three minutes, as about six of these tall types walked in one by one, placing themselves where I could see them in one glace.
I was covered by my boldness as a journalist, in a new democracy (we had survived fighting Banda for multi-party democracy), and yes, my trust in God.
After informing the group about the letter, which the General asked to see, I refused and said even if they threatened me, I will never reveal the source of the letter.
“The Malawi Army protects our democratic culture; but the army is guided by different rules. There is no democracy in the military,” he repeated the last line with emphasis.
I did not leave without saying asking why there was the need to have all the armed officers in the room.
General Chigawa laughed and said: “We never hurt our citizens, we’re here to protect you. I know you know all of them personally, and here as part of transparency. That’s the only democratic thing in the army. Please tell your soldier friend, we give them the proper salaries and allowances.”
Alarmingly 25 years later, our soldiers still leave their country and families, risk their lives, sleep on hard ground or grass, eat rations. The allowances are still a pittance.
To the MDF Commander In-Chief and the Commander, instead of taking offense at the song, or threatening the outspoken soldier, we advise they look at the root causes of the plight outlined in the song.
The problem that sprang-up in 1994, is lamentably still unresolved. The soldiers’ plight has been been repressed, in a democracy.
MDF is asked to address the soldiers’ complaints:
- The MDF department officials, should look to fixing the anomaly in the peacekeepers’ benefits;
- The MDF leadership should consider establishing channels of communications for soldiers and officers to present concerns, with solutions offered;
- It will be really very bad optics for the MDF in particular, if anything untoward should happen to Mbewe or any members of his family.
Long live genuine democracy!