Last week I wrote on Facebook that the slogan ‘boma siliphethira’, literally translated as government does not blink, is one of the most shameful lines that I have ever heard since Malawi became a democracy. I was shocked the first time I heard it and every time I see or hear it I feel very uncomfortable. It is the most poignant sign of how much we have regressed as a democracy.
Just in case the euphemism of the slogan is lost on anyone, the line is a veiled warning to all and sundry that you don’t mess with government. That government is some monstrous institution that all of us have to be wary of and not dare challenge lest we suffer the consequences. I remember the late Bingu wa Mutharika underscoring this point by citing the Holy Bible where Jesus Christ is quoted as saying: “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Matthew 21:44 – NIV).
Now, I am willing to tolerate a person in Mutharika’s position – president of the country – saying this. As a man in power he would want to be perceived like that – a formidable and invincible force that everybody must cower before. But when that comes from a fellow citizen, regardless of the political party they are coming from, I get very worried and this entry is an attempt to justify my consternation.
If Malawians need to be reminded, this country was a dictatorship until May 1994. In that political system there is a domineering political force that is meant to think and act on our behalf. All the citizenry has to do is to pay homage and sing praises for the leadership. You step on the foot of the omniscient and omnipotent leadership and you are doomed. As the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda would often put it, you would be meat for crocodiles.
If anyone had coined the boma siliphethira slogan during that time I would have fully understood. Were we not being told as young boys that Kamuzu was able to eavesdrop on living-room discourse in our homes from the comfort of his Sanjika Palace? That is the whole essence of a dictatorship where all the power and might are vested in one individual and a few of his sidekicks.
This is exactly what we wanted to get rid of when we voted for democracy on June 14, 1993. We ultimately were transferring power from a few individuals to the masses. The roles would now be reversed in the sense that instead of people fearing their leaders it would now be the other way round. The people would not only choose who should lead them, but they would also dictate how they should be led.
Listening to slogans like boma siliphethira however, it is easy to notice that we did not exactly achieve that through that historic national referendum. The only power we have now is to choose the set of dictators to lord it over us and we are willing victims of whichever hegemony we choose. We are happy to forfeit the power that the Constitution gives us and give those in authority the power they should not have.
Truth be told, it is all about selfishness. Because we want that job, that contract or whatever favour we can get from our leaders we are pleased to make them feel invincible, untouchable and infallible. And they start believing and living that fallacy. When they unleash their might on a perceived adversary we jump in delight to urge them on with the pitiful slogan Boma siliphethira! How much more pathetic can a citizenry be? We forget that it may be someone else today but that same might may just descend on us one day.
The problem in Malawi is that the majority of us have entrusted our whole futures in the hands of politicians. We cannot envisage survival away from politics and politicians. That is good news to the politicians but very bad news for our democracy because it Is a blank cheque to the leaders. They feel no need to be accountable because our behaviour encourages them to abuse their power and the resources under their charge.
It is the same selfishness that makes us give wrong advice to our leaders or shamelessly defend the wrong decisions they make. Take the decision to fly party flags alongside (in some cases above) national flags during national celebrations, for example. We have turned politics into some kind of sport where people are engaged in an incessant fight for supremacy. In fact, sport is even better because we see what is called sportsmanship time and again.
In Malawi politics there is nothing like statesmanship. Those in power and their zealots want to relentlessly remind their opponents that they are in the driving seat (chiwongolero dziko lonseee) and those in opposition are on a habitual mission to undermine the authority of the ruling elite. That gamesmanship gives room for such thoughtless and dangerous slogans as boma siliphethira.
It is high time we reminded each other that the duty of the citizenry, regardless of the party they support, is to hold those in power accountable. Actually, the biggest responsibility on that front goes to those who support ruling parties because there is a bigger chance that such demand for accountability is not motivated by malice but a desire to help the leaders deliver better.
Our Constitution is very clear. Those in power hold such power on trust and they owe it to the masses that put them in power. The citizenry should refrain from anything that suggests otherwise. So, next time you hear anyone saying boma siliphethira, know that they are ceding their power to people who should be servants. They are actually celebrating being subservient. They are sycophants. They are, as a matter of fact, enemies of democracy.