On Sunday I celebrated my birthday and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of goodwill from many people who know me. I also had a few surprises here and there. One of the things that make my birthday special is that it is always a public holiday, nay it was never a holiday during the rule of Atcheya Bakili Muluzi and his United Democratic Front. I will never forgive them for that.
My birthday is a public holiday not because of me, not yet anyway. Malawians rest on this day because the nation’s founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda declared it his official birthday. I say declared because, by his own confession, it is not known when he was actually born. Malawians who were there before 1952 will recall that they commemorated the official birthday of King George on the same day.
Whenever Kamuzu Day comes there are always mixed emotions among Malawians. There are those who feel the country is right in remembering the man who won this country its independence from British rule and there are, obviously, those who feel insulted by the apparent glorification of a man they have no fond memories of.
Love him or loathe him, Kamuzu will always be part of the country’s history and I think there is no debate on that one. Where people can and do differ is on how he should be remembered. Should he be celebrated as the hero who liberated us from colonial rule or he should be reviled as the pantomime villain who treated his people as zombies and literally fed them to vicious aquatic reptiles?
It goes without saying that there was general consensus among Malawians between 1992 and 1994 that there was something terribly wrong with Kamuzu’s rule. What was hitherto discussed in hushed voices was proclaimed by the country’s Catholic bishops in their Lenten Pastoral Letter and the rest, as is often said, is history. The nonagenarian president became a subject of ridicule and was booed off as he made his way from Sanjika Palace to his retirement home at Mudi.
There was so much collective hatred and resentment towards Kamuzu at the time and the UDF regime’s decision to scrape off Kamuzu Day from the list of public holidays was a popular move at the time. If you carried out a poll on Kamuzu and his rule today, however, you will see a remarkable shift from this overwhelming feeling. Part of it is because people say time heals and we also have a generation which was not there during that time and is now in a position to vote.
For me, however, the renewed affection for Kamuzu is a damning indictment of the regimes that have come after him. If Muluzi and his UDF had delivered on even a third of the expectations they had built in Malawians, if Bingu wa Mutharika and his DPP had gone beyond reinstating Kamuzu Day and adopting his Ngwazi title, if Joyce Banda and her People’s Party had shown some real leadership and had Peter Mutharika and the DPP showed a bit of care; all this fondness for Kamuzu would not have been there. Not at the current levels, at least.
There were definitely problems under Kamuzu’s rule and it was important and necessary that things changed, but the change fell short of what it promised. Either the promises were misguided or those who took charge did not have the capacity nor the will to deliver on them. Inevitably, people are going to notice things that are missing from their previous life. And they did. They still do.
When people look at what used to be productive rice schemes and other structures run down to ruins, when they recall that they could get text and notebooks for their primary education and their children now can hardly access learning materials, when civil servants recall that they could take their whole families home every holiday on government warrants but are now struggling to get their basic pay, they are definitely going to miss Kamuzu and his days.
I could go on and on but the point is that had Malawi become a better nation after his ouster from power, Kamuzu would not have been remembered as fondly as is currently the case. Obviously his rule had a very dark side, especially on the enjoyment of some fundamental human rights, but as we learn even from the Holy Bible, bread and butter issues matter more than anything else to many people. The Israelites started longing for water melons and onions as they trekked back to freedom.
We have people even now who are slaves, even if they may not readily accept it, simply because what matters to them is to put food on their table. They can even expose their bodies to extreme danger by painting their bodies blue, yellow or orange for a mere K1,000. They will accept to be used as mercenaries to attack political adversaries either physically or on social media for a bumper payday. They think they are free but they would not be doing all this if they had alternative and nobler ways of earning a living.
So, Kamuzu’s dark spots are forgiven (I don’t think they are forgotten) and rationalised because those that have succeeded him have failed to perform better in areas that he did well and have, in some cases, done worse in areas where he disappointed. That made it easy for people to accept Bingu wa Mutharika’s decision to honour him by building the mausoleum and statue in Lilongwe and reinstating Kamuzu Day.
If you asked me, therefore, this is a day we should retain. Not because it is also my birthday or because Kamuzu was an overall successful leader, but because he is our first president and his rule offers many leaders of the future key lessons which we have so far failed to take. Let us use this day to see the dos and don’ts of a democracy – what ought to be done at both the level of leadership and on the part of the citizenry. We are missing a great opportunity by occupying ourselves in pointless debates.