Malawi’s flag war

So the Catholic Church and the Malawian president are facing off over… a flag.

The president recently decided to change the flag, without much consultation, according to available reports.  The old flag has black, red and green horizontal bands, with a red half-sun rising from the center of the flag.  The new flag has red, black and green horizontal bands — did you get that little shift there? — and a white sun, whole, smack in the center.  Get it?  The sun has risen?  Or, as the president put it, “We cannot permanently live in the past….The new flag depicts the status of our development.”

That’s right, Malawi is developed!  Did you miss the memo?  Or were you distracted by Malawi’s ranking as the 16th least developed country in the world in UN’s Human Development Index released last week?

The country’s bishops have come out against the flag, which they say is an expensive distraction from pressing public issues.  They also object that the president didn’t consult people adequately — although there was an expensive campaign to convince villagers to accept the new flag.

Speaking of consultations, the other thing the bishops don’t like?  The president’s apparently unilateral decision to delay municipal elections, now slated for 2011, according to the Southern Times.


  • Luso Mnthali says:

    Jina, this is not a ‘flag war’ as you so casually put it. In terms of using the word ‘war’ when an African country is at peace I find it rather offensive. The change of flag is not the only thing the bishops are against. Your post seems to make light of some serious issues going on in my country. There has been a lot of development, but as we can see it is still a poor country, so the president’s tone is self-congratulatory. One of the most important things is that there is now a quota system that will decide who gets to go to university. This disproportionately affects people from the North, mainly the Tumbuka, of which I am one. We Tumbuka do not have any power in government, yet we are arguably the most educated segment of the society. We are a minority, and are once again, through such a measure, as in Hastings Kamuzu Banda days, being ill-treated. So it is not a simple matter of a flag, even though the bishops are right – there was little consultation, and it seemed a unilateral decision. All of a sudden there’s a new flag. What for, when that money could be put to better use? The vice-president’s powers are also under scrutiny in the Pastoral Letter that the bishops sent out. This is an important post that seems to have been undermined in recent years, and is significant because a woman has the job. The bishops talk of the pain the country continues to suffer through bad leadership decisions which will continue to affect the growth of the country. They urge leaders to care more, and to make better decisions for the good of Malawi. That is the main gist. There is much more here, and a more indepth analysis could have served you well.

    • Jina Moore says:

      Thanks for your comment. Actually, “flag war” is the appellation of an African news site, not my own imposition.

      I’m grateful that you’ve added so many details — there’s incredibly little detail in the news articles I was able to find on this. Do you know how much the new flag actually cost? I saw reference to it being “expensive” but I’d love to know how much it actually cost.

      Alas, I can’t do an in-depth analysis on items about which I have very little information. The president’s self-congratulatory tone deserves to be ridiculed, I think, and that was the goal of the post. I also mentioned the delayed elections in order to illustrate that the lack of consultation seems to go farther, and to more serious issues, than a flag. (On the other hand, some people take flags very seriously, so…)

      If you’d like to explain more about these matters in a guest post on my blog, I’d be delighted. Let me know if you’re interested, and we’ll chat it through by email.

      • Audaub says:

        I have to agree with my countryman, if you were intending to ridicule the president’s ‘self-congratulatory tone,’ I really think you missed the mark. The way you write ‘over….a flag’ and describe the change as a ‘little shift’ makes the object, and not the subjects, appear the target of your derision. I find this insulting, because if Obama decided to change the stars and stripes to polka dots and flora for the ego-trip, Americans would be outraged. As would Britons be if they woke up to find the Union Jack was black, green and yellow. And they would be entitled to their anger because a flag isn’t just about the design or the colours, it’s about what it has come to symbolise for a nation. Malawi doesn’t have galleries filled with Great Malawians, an exportable culture, it hasn’t made its unique stamp on manufacturing, and that’s not because it can’t or never will. But it hasn’t happened yet. The flag is one of the few things we have that says this is us; this is what speaks to our national identity. So for you to suggest that a fight over the flag is an unworthy battle is as offensive as it is typical of an outsider commenting without bothering to really look in.

        Regarding the cost there is, of course, no final or stated cost for you find! Its not the cost of a designer, a printer and fabric, it’s the cost of changing every picture hanging in a public office, every flag lining the roads of Lilongwe, every Malawian publication coming out of Chancellor College, and the cost to my people’s pride because we know that despite our so-called democracy, an ill-informed blogger and arrogant leader can sweep aside our sense of nationhood with a lazy dismissal.

        One last thing, Malawi actually ranked as the 17th least developed country on the HDI. Now I have serious misgivings about these rankings, what do they actually mean, and what purpose do they serve other than to prioritise spending for overstuffed developed agencies trying to justify their d’être? Nonetheless, that’s a jump of five spots, and looking at the whole results it’s actually the highest change listed, so I’ll take that. Things won’t change overnight like our flag, but if we can replicate this change again and again, you’ll know how many spokes are coming out of our sun, like I know how many stars sit next your stripes in no time at all.

        • Jina Moore says:

          I’m not suggesting the fight over a flag is unworthy at all, as a matter of fact. I meant to suggest, and I clarified to your colleague, that the president’s sounds to me tendentious. Also, I think the Catholic Church was making the point that there are better uses for funds and attention, right? It’s not just me saying that. Would you agree?

          I disagree about the interpretation of my tone, but I’m sorry if it angered you. I didn’t mean to “sweep aside [your] sense of nationhood.”

          I share your misgivings about the HDI… but it’s a metric we have, and it gets used, for better or worse. (More on this to come…)

          • Audaub says:

            Thanks for the clarification. My point regarding the cost is that we will never be able to measure it. The changes that are required will take so long to filter down to every crevice of society that by the time the final bill is prepared, we will have stopped trying to calculate it, let alone cost it up against economic development or infrastructure budgets.

            I stand by the interpretation, it, of course, belongs to me alone and me alone. I can accept however that the intention was altogether different. My anger comes from passion for my country and my frustration with it’s leaders, and I apologise if it offended.

            My aside regarding the HDI seems to have obscured my thoughts, I’m not proud of our ranking but I am proud of our growth.

          • Jina Moore says:

            I get where you’re coming from on the cost-measurement thing. But if someone could follow that — a pie in the sky dream, I’m sure — but if someone *could* tally it all up, even as an estimate, that would be fascinating, and possibly meaningful, esp. in terms of the argument about better spending of money. I’ve spent the last few days talking with people for an HDI story, and every one offers a variation on the adage, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” (Though I believe there was an Einstein paraphrase that went, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t count. But not everything you can count counts.” Or something like this. Also true.)

        • Jina Moore says:

          Thanks for the HDI fix; I’ve got a data set that is missing Sudan, for some reason. I just cross checked it with by downloading a new copy of tabs, and you’re right — 17th.

        • Luso Mnthali says:

          Hi Audaub.
          I really do not think that Jina is the problem here. She has tried to give voice to an issue that even we Malawians have found difficult to fully and adequately describe. She also explained that the use of the term ‘flag war’ was from an African news site, but I still think she should not perpetuate that, no matter who came up with it. We as Malawians have normally dealt with internal issues peacefully – yes in Banda’s time people were detained, I am intimately familiar with this part of our history – but nevertheless we have never gone to war with each other. That was what I found distasteful about the title of the post. Kudos to her for talking about issues affecting Malawi. Perhaps we should do more to educate the rest of the world about what happens there? As I’m based in South Africa it’s hard for me to have a really good idea of what’s going on in Malawi, but some news sources have been helpful. As long as we’re not being muzzled, which is also another possibility when it comes to Malawi media, and is a contentious issue that the bishops also mentioned.

          • Jina Moore says:

            Dear Luso & Audaub —

            Thanks for the continued discussion; I’ve posted a new version of this — incorporating Audaub’s very eloquent statement about the meaning of a flag. It’ll be syndicated by the Christian Science Monitor shortly (either today or tomorrow); thanks for contributing to the improved version.

          • Audaub says:

            Hi Luso,

            Hmm… I am not certain what issue was being addressed here and perhaps therein lies the problem. I can accept however that the intention was not to trivialise the public feeling about the flag, and certainly it is good to put the issue out there.

            I’m not grateful for a journalist discussing issues in Malawi, because I believe we live in one world, no state deserves a larger presence on the world stage because of it’s size, history or GDP. We all have a duty to report on injustice wherever it is, wherever we are, because we are all here together. We also have a responsibility to seek this knowledge out. But the reporting should start from within, and then it should filter out to us in the Diaspora, so that by the time Jina is reporting she has a litany of first hand accounts, and second hand-contextualised commentary to refer to.

            I’m proud of the fact that we are not a warring nation and I agree wholeheartedly about that misrepresentation, but sometimes I worry that the kindness of Malawians manifests as weakness when fighting for our rights. We both challenge and accept very little! I really don’t know if this because we are a product of our very recent history or what happened with Banda was a product of our warm sensibilities. Which is why, though I regret any offence caused, I own my anger about the flag and the initial post. I think Malawians need to get angrier, we need to protest against undemocratic changes to our constitution, demand our local elections. and comment on imprecise blogs when they refer to us.

  • Teweli says:

    Excellent post Jina,

    Even more interesting is the dialogue it sparked, that’s what a good post does!

    Welcome to Tanzania, I would love to see your take of issues in Tanzanian poli-trics.

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