Those calling for the secession of the Northern Region of Malawi or the creation of a federal system of government which involves the recognition of the Northern Region as a federal state shoulder the onus of substantiating their proposals rather than appealing merely to their personal perceptions of victimization based on alleged regional identity. A proposal as serious as this one should not be made lightly, and when made, it should be supported by scientifically proven facts. Thus far, we have heard sporadic barking from the proponents of the proposal, but nothing about a position paper or scientific or systematic study providing the specific elements of the proposal and its evidential base.
For the bid of secession or federalism to be given serious attention, it must first be proven that the Northern Region has indeed been consistently marginalized and dominated in Malawi’s socio-economic and political landscape for a considerable period of time. It is not enough to point to a few bad roads in some parts of the Northern Region; this can easily be rebutted by evidence of bad roads in other parts of the country. It is also not enough to cite instances of abject underdevelopment in certain rural areas of the Northern Region, again because similar instances can be found in other parts of the country. In fact, some districts in the Northern Region are in a much better state of economic development than other districts in the Southern and Central Regions.
One way of proving the claim, which by no means exhausts the burden on this front, is to show that the government of Malawi has consistently allocated the resources of the state in a discriminatory manner. Given that the budgeting system in Malawi is not based on regional identity but rather on ministry votes which in turn are compiled based on national rather than regional data, such evidence is difficult to extract and is in any case less likely going to support the claim.
Proving that a particular region has consistently received fewer resources in physical terms does not of itself establish that the allocation is unfair or unjust. Accordingly, it must be further shown, apart from proving consistent unequal distribution of state resources, that the Northern Region has suffered disproportionately in comparison with the other two regions. Many factors such as population size and distribution, extent of poverty and underdevelopment in other areas and population mobility within a country have to be thrown into the calculus.
The source and pool of resources is another important consideration. Claims of economic marginalization are usually made more strongly in contexts where a particular geographical section of a country is endowed with a substantial portion of the state’s resources but those resources are exploited without regard to the rights and needs of the people of that section and without sharing the benefits thereof with them. Apart from the recent mining activity that has occurred in the Northern Region, it is difficult to support a claim that the Northern Region has over a considerable period of time received considerably less from what it has contributed to the national pool of resources.
Granted, there have been occasions when different regimes have implemented ethnic policies, eg imposing Chewa as the national language, district or origin based education admission policies at public universities and secondary schools. However, these have tended to be reversed as soon as a new regime has come into place. Moreover, many Malawians including from those the regions perceived to be politically dominant agree that ethnic-based policies are unjust and counter-productive. Overall, there has not been any sustained period of time when the government implemented widespread regionalistic policies.
As long as the claim that the Northern Region has been socio-economically and politically marginalized remains unsubstantiated with hard facts, the call for secession or federalism is nothing short of beer hall chatter.
However, even if the first hurdle was overcome, to call for secession or federalism requires proof that ‘Northern Region’ constitutes a fundamental basis of the identity of the peoples of that region. This is probably the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Is there something that unites the peoples of the North in a fundamental way by virtue that they come from that part of the country? It is necessary to answer this question because it has a bearing on whether federalism or secession will resolve the root cause of the alleged discriminatory treatment of that region.
I would like to argue that, to be from the Northern Region, apart from providing proximate information about the geographical location of one’s home of origin, does not confer any particular form of shared identity on the various peoples who come from there. Quite on the contrary, the Northern Region is the most heterogeneous region in Malawi; it has numerous ethnic groupings that practice different cultures and speak different languages. There is no unique shared identity between the Tumbuka of Mzimba and the Lambia of Chitipa, any more than there is between these and the Sena of Nsanje and Lomwe of Thyolo.
Occasionally, a semblance of regional identity is fomented during politically charged moments, but this is no more than a pigment in people’s imagination. At a deeper level, there is no common identity that holds together the peoples of the Northern Region. The whole notion of ‘regions’ is in any event a recent imposition as much as the notion of ‘Malawi’ as a country is. These geographic regions have no history before the colonial government.
Thus, if the argument for the secession or federalism is that Malawi as a national identity is artificial and does not bring together reconcilable groups of people or that it can better ensure even development throughout the country, the same argument would bring down any federal state or new states that might emerge as a result of the initial break up. Indeed of the three regions, the Northern Region would be the most likely candidate for further secession claims because of its rich ethnic diversity and a lack of shared beliefs, culture and conceptions of a worthy life among its peoples.
The right to self-determination guaranteed by international law and the jurisprudence thereon has been interpreted very strictly to limit the scope for secession and the range of claimants of this right. It cannot be proven, as this jurisprudence demands, that the various ethnic groups in the Northern Region constitute a ‘people’ in order for them to receive protection under this right. International monitoring bodies have also clearly said that they will not impose a particular political method to deal with issues of political inclusion. In particular, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has said that claims for secession or federalism must be backed up by evidence of consistent gross human rights abuses against the group claiming the right to self-determination. Given the constitutional and political set up Malawi has, it is far-fetched to claim that the various ethnic groups from the North do not participate adequately in Malawi’s political life or that they have suffered peculiar human rights abuses compared to peoples from the other regions.
No doubt, Malawi faces many socio-economic and political problems. Some of these pertain to the ethnicisation of politics that happens from time to time. However, in our assessments of where we are, we must not ignore the gains the country has made in forging the ethic of unity and in entrenching the ideals of democracy and fundamental freedoms. Unsubstantiated calls for secession or federalism detract from those gains.
* Danwood Chirwa is a Law Professor at University of Capetown in South Africa