Growing insecurity in Malawi and efforts by the country’s security services to bring it under control has dominated the local new media headlines and public discourse in the recent weeks. President Peter Mutharika has declared “war on crime” and the security services have conducted a security sweeping exercise in the country’s major cities where 2119 suspects were arrested and two firearms have reportedly been confiscated. It is unknown how many of these arrests will lead successful conviction or how many will even go into trial.
In theory this sounds very good commendable but in practice, the security services have had their critics, especially civil society organisations and “human rights defenders”. The police have acknowledged the importance of balance between people’s democratic freedoms and combating crime. However, I have been amazed that the security sweep and the “war on crime” have only come up after robberies and break-ins in high places, down town ordinary citizens have had these problems all along.
I agree that the state has to do something about insecurity in the country but I have to say that this exercise resembled some form of class warfare. The exercise followed robberies in high places, including a break in at Vice President’s residence but it is the ordinary folks loitering the city streets that are arrested. Those up and down in their cars fine, so much for a country that has freedom of movement – pity for those who fall on the wrong side of archaic social stereotypes.
Recently Lot Dzonzi, the Malawi Police chief blamed the urban crime on increasing urbanisation. The top cop is right but he fell short of identifying drivers of this unsustainable urbanisation. Urbanisation resulting in industrialisation and economic growth is not always bad. People go to the cities because there is demand for workers. In the case of Malawi, people are running away from rural poverty thinking they will find employment in towns – work that is not there in the first place.
In his 2014/15 national budget statement, Finance Minister, Goodall Gondwe noticed that in the last 50 years Malawi’s GDP has tripled, which I think is very good but then Gondwe also revealed the caveat, there is always one: the population has quadrupled within this period. In other words, population growth has outpaced economic growth. Social scientists will tell you that conflict is the most obvious outcome from this mismatch.
In 1994 the United Democratic Front (UDF) government initiated free primary education (FPE) in government schools. According to UNESCO, “in the first year of FPE, enrolment increased by over 50% from 1.9 million in 1993/4 to about 3.2 million in 1994/5.” It received a remarkable, which has undoubtedly contributed to the improved unacceptably high illiteracy rates in the country. Yet, UDF and all administrations after it have failed to put in place structures to absorb young Malawians emerging from the education system. Once you are done with your education, never mind at which level you call it quits, you are on your won.
Here the problem is that the Malawi education system is such that those that stay in school, even only up to standard 8, rarely acquire survival skills such as kulima, running small business or any craft that may bring some income in absence of employment. It is harder for unemployed graduates, not only in Malawi but sub-Saharan Africa, to survive than their uneducated counterparts who have spent years horning survival skills than getting their heads around difficult academic theories libraries and classrooms.
Those that enrolled in primary school in 1994 at the begging of FPE and stayed in school are now out on the streets ‘hustling’ and looking for all sorts of work, which we all know is not there. What do they do instead? Selling plastic bags, razor blades, mobile phone chargers etc. other are forced into life of crime and prostitution.
Simplistic and dismissive way of looking at this is that “uhule ndi ntima” as somebody sang but this is easy to say when you are on the other side of the river. There is a limit to what citizens can realistically do without state intervention. A life of crime is despicable and unacceptable but in many cases it is a situation created by broken political promises, and lack of political will.
UNESCO notes that Malawi government was cautioned that FPE needed proper planning to avoid social chaos but the UDF government did not budge because the move was “essentially a politically imperative.” Ultimately, dealing with the problem needs honest and realistic state intervention. As it is Malawi has a huge socio-political problem that needs a socio-political solution, not security lockups or some kind of state-of-emergency policing tactics – how many people can the state realistically arrest?
The majority of those loitering the streets of our cities not thieves, they are a symbol of failed political projects. In the drive to make Malawi a secure country, it is important to realise that there are no more thieves on the streets than there are in white-collar occupations. ‘Cashgate’, the country’s largest single organised crime to date, was perpetrated by folks in their well cut designer suits and ties, not on the dusty filthy streets of our cities. In fact, those on the streets are victims of white-collar crime like ‘cashgate’.
Jimmy Kainja is a Malawian academic, news media & communications ,Blogger ,Columnist , politica analyst Patriot ,Interested in political & social changes. He tweets @jkainja and can be contacted here