Saturday, August 10, 2013

Of identity politics and its identifiable problems: The case of Mulhakho wa Alhomwe then and Chiwanja cha Ayao now

Factually, what one is stems from what one is made of. Similarly, what one is culturally is informed by the passed traditions, customs, and heritage of one’s ethnic foundations. This being the case, ardent followers of current affairs are witness to the growing instances of groups—of like mind and creed—uniting to champion causes, usually taking the face of religion and statehood. 

The tendency for like-minded people to come together has its own extensive history and wayward justifications. Those in the know in political circles would say that this tendency has its primary appearance in America’s dark political days, thanks to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.

In recent history, the liberal traditions of fairness, equality, democracy, and freedom of speech has given this phenomenon a new face; now the like-mindedness takes the form of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and citizenship.

Identity politics—the coming together of members of a specific subgroup for socio-cultural and eco-political change—seems to have found a new haven in Malawi.

It would be culturally naïve to assume that there has not been identity politics in Malawi. That be true as it may, it is of special interest to learn the great political impact identity politics has had in Malawi with the launch of Mulhakho wa Alhomwe in the late Bingu wa Mutharika administration. This period is of special interest because it is during this time that identity politics became highly organized, seriously powerful, and obviously fierce.

The fact that this phenomenon became the kingmaking lobby group in the late Mutharika days should give the current administration hard days. Seemingly clear to President Joyce Banda of the importance and seriousness of identity politics, she, at the annual uMthetho Cultural Festival for the Ngonis last year, pleaded with the Yaos—herself being a Yao—to form a Yao cultural group similar, both in form and fashion, to Llomwe’s Mulhakho wa Alhomwe.

If recent reports are anything to go by, it is clear that the Yao cultural group to be called Chiwanja cha Ayao will see the light of day soon as the group’s foundations seem to have been already laid and positions already filled, and President Joyce Banda will be hunted to be its patron. And closely studying its interim leadership, Chiwanja cha Ayao, unlike Mulhakho wa Alhomwe before it, happens to take both religious and ethnic identity ideologies to its fold. 

The inevitable fact of cultural groups is that they cause ethnic and political isolation and division especially when they take politicians to be its guardians and more so when the politician guardian is Head of State. This fact should be all the more clear if we would go back in recent history and observe the ethnic and political damage Mulhakho wa Alhomwe caused to the Malawi nation.

Some would argue that identity politics cements one roots in oneself and that one is assured of devoting one’s energy, talents, and expectations with like minds on a singular purpose. That is true and positive. Others still would argue that the formation of cultural groups simply celebrates cultural differences. That is also true and positive.
But, sadly, focusing on a single purpose has its own dark side too. It has been elsewhere argued that focusing on one purpose makes group members to be close-minded about the bigger picture. In other ways, group members tend to focus on issues from their perspective ignoring the others’ equally intelligent perspectives simply because they are not members. 

And much as acknowledgement of differences cements the spirit of tolerance, cultural groups have always tended to pursue isolationist practices. This would not be surprising given the events surrounding the cultural and political dealings of Mulhakho wa Alhomwe. It is therefore difficult to predict a different outcome coming from the Chiwanja cha Ayao.

It is at this point that it appears clear to many Malawians that the formation of cultural groups and as led by presidents has a lot more problems than profits to nationalism and pursuance of national interest. To this end, it becomes obviously Malawian if formation of such groups would be meant to re-awaken identity only and not to serve as political lobby groups as sadly was the case with Mulhakho wa Alhomwe then, and as would most likely be with the yet-to-walk-baby Chiwanja cha Ayao.

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