It was a surreal moment. There I was a couple of days ago, in my hotel bedroom in Lilongwe, following the Aljazeera News as usual, when on my TV screen a waving mass of saltires suddenly materialised. The Smith Commission had reported. The cameras swept along the façade of the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, fifteen minutes from where we live, and up the cavernous walls of its great hall. There was Lord Smith on his dais patiently going through his report, and there shortly afterwards were the local politicians, predictable comments at the ready: smug stolidity from the one and the usual moaning and whining from the other.
There is a certain piquancy in seeing one’s home town on the television, wherever you are; it is particularly odd to see one's country featuring as a lead item on news broadcasts thousands of miles away. It may seem bizarre, but the fate of the United Kingdom has been a hot topic of discussion across the world for many months now.
And then, at breakfast this morning, for once the television was tuned to BBC World instead of the usual incessant football. For two minutes, before they turned the channel back to Arsenal or Chelsea or Manchester United, the cameras focused on the bright blue, yellow and red of the massed flags of Catalonia. There was the Prime Minister of Spain addressing his supporters and, no doubt, uttering mollifying words to those who wish to break away.
The citizens of Malawi have been following the Scottish vote with considerable interest. So, I understand from other friends, have the citizens of Ethiopia, which went through its own painful separation experience some years ago. Ethiopia may be a tough country to live in, but Eritrea, born in desperate circumstances, contributes more to the sad wave of asylum seekers than just about any country in the world, apart from Syria. Indeed, Anglophone NGO workers in Ethiopia apparently found themselves being effusively congratulated by random passersby on the day the Scottish No vote was announced.
Why this interest in the independence debates of Scotland and Catalonia in African countries so far away from Europe?
Well, Malawi has its own constitutional issues. Federalism is the word of the moment over here. Scarcely a day goes by without an argument in favour of one stance or another, for or against, appearing in the national press. At its heart is a probably quite legitimate complaint that the outlying regions of Malawi, particularly the north, have been neglected for far too long. Many of the concerns expressed are about the centralisation of key services around the capital, Lilongwe.
Nevertheless, my taxi driver is quite clear in his views. He says that in a desperately poor country like Malawi, you can’t afford to provide key services in the far north, the far south as well as the central region. He gave as his example one of the latest grumbles: the building of the country’s national cancer hospital in the vicinity of Lilongwe. Joe says that if there is only one of something for the whole of the country, it makes sense to locate it at the centre, the transport hub.
Kamuzu (Hastings) Banda, leader of the independence movement in the 1950s and 1960s and first President of Malawi, chose the centre of the country as the site for the new capital, Lilongwe. Until 1975, the capital city had been in Zomba, far to the south. One glance at a map of the country will show you what the issues are.
One of the problems experienced by Malawi, as with Uganda where we used to live, is the sheer illogicality of its national boundaries, which were determined in the nineteenth century by its colonial master, Britain.
Just look at the shape of Malawi: this narrow strip following the line of the Rift Valley and its eponymous lake from north to south, with Mozambique curling round the bottom third in the shape of a Y. At its widest, just north of the capital Lilongwe, the land is barely 50 miles across, 70 if you include the lake. In the far north and far south, the country is just 30 miles wide in places, sometimes less than that. The distance from the far north, which borders Tanzania and Zambia, to the far south where the borders are embraced by Mozambique, is about 520 miles, 840 km. The lake itself takes up 15% of Malawi’s surface area.
Malawi is one of the smallest countries in southern Africa. Some areas are densely populated while other areas are quite the opposite. On this narrow lakeside strip live 16.3 million people, most of them in the central region and to the southwest, around Blantyre, the country’s second city where most of the industry is located.
Federalism has had quite a bad name in Malawi for some years now, and for good reason. The old resentments are still aired today. Under colonialism, Malawi, originally Nyasaland (from Lake Nyasa, the old name for Lake Malawi), used to belong to a three-part federation with Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The federation became particularly controversial during the 50s and 60s, when Southern Rhodesia started flexing its political muscles as it attempted to hang onto white minority rule and dominate its two neighbours. Both Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland would have black governments once they became independent.
The current proposal for federalism is quite a different concept, nothing to do with the two old Rhodesias. Political activists, mostly but not exclusively, from the north, are arguing for a federal Malawi, with autonomy being given to both the north and the south. There is even a Yes campaign, mirroring the Scottish independence movement of that name.
The north of Malawi is currently underdeveloped despite the area being rich in natural resources. It produces barley and tobacco like the rest of Malawi. However, oil and natural gas have also been found there. Some activists in the north are proposing that it should have its own parliament and be allocated a share of the national budget, rather like the current Scottish parliament. Other influential people like Paramount Chief Kyungu have suggested instead a rotating Presidency.
However, the south also has some complaints about the way the country is currently being run. Its infrastructure, it is claimed, has not developed in line with that in the rest of the country. Human Rights activities and trade unionist Richard Chirombo insists that the desire for federalism should bypass the traditional chiefs, whom he finds to be too conservative and populist. He claims that a federal approach would eliminate tribalism and increase participation in the democratic process.
Although the general impression is that there is no great enthusiasm for federalism, apart from in the north and among People’s Party members, the current President, Peter Mutharika, has proposed a national dialogue to gather views on the federal issue. Only this week, the Public Affairs Committee, an inter-faith democracy watchdog, organised a two-day stakeholder forum which involved trade unionists, lawyers, politicians and civil society to debate the issue.
Whether all this activity will lead to a referendum, who knows. My guess is that the country of Malawi, with its major economic problems, a declining education service, a struggling health service and a stagnating farming industry may have other priorities just now.