This is Africa. Of the things that have almost become normal is to see politicians settling scores. These retributive tendencies include seeing those in opposition ending up in police cells and, at worst, in prison.
Malawi is not spared this malady. This is the reason why, while the late president Bingu wa Mutharika’s brother Peter spent a third night in a cell at Lumbadzi police as I write, theories about political retribution are unraveling.
Given Malawi’s political pedigree, such theories can not just be dismissed. They always need to be proven to be without merit.
In Malawi, like most parts of Africa, sending a politician to prison has always been seen to be retributive even when there is merit because, for one thing, the conditions in what are supposed to be reformatory centres that are jails are discipicable.
Therefore the view is that a politician can only be taken there to be punished by his political adversaries for political reasons, regardless. Even the politicians themselves are the first to deplore the conditions in prison, but only when their turn comes to be thrown there.
The refusal of Peter Mutharika and crew to be sent to Maula Prison illustrates very well my preceding point. They refused to enter that jail fearing the inhumane conditions inside there. Not that the conditions at their cell at Lumbadzi police are any acceptable. No, but compared with Maula, the Lumbadzi cage is some lodge.
What is interesting is that almost all politicians that complain about the heinous conditions in prisons when they are incarcerated there are those that were in government or in position to influence effecting of reforms that are badly needed there.
When John Tembo, the current leader of opposition, was arrested and kept at Chichiri prison back in 1995 for his alleged role in the Mwanza murders, he deplored the lack of a bed and pillows in his jail cell.
And yet his jailing came just a few months after an administration in which he had been Minister of State and a powerful politician had just lost power it held for 31 years.
How could someone who had been in power for 31 years complain about conditions in prisons just months after losing that power?
Two years later, in 1997, I visited a friend incarcerated at Maula Prison. What I saw is unmentionable. It is disheartening that almost 16 years later today, things have not changed. In fact, they could even have deteriorated. And yet since that time Malawi has had two Presidents: Bakili Muluzi and Bingu wa Mutharika who did nothing to make the necessary changes.
People get surprised why almost every politician falls sick from some ailment when they hear they will be sent to jail. The conditions are chilling. This is the reason they would rather spend their time in hospital, and most of them are seen back to their normal self when they are freed on bail.
And yet these are the people, and their governments including their parliament are the ones , that keep spurning the opportunity to make the difference in prisons, so that in the event that they, the politicians, are sent there one day they will find better conditions by the measure of a reformatory centre.
Bakili Muluzi was in power for 10 years. This means he had 10 budgets appropriating public finances to various activities. Is it not ironic that seven years later after he left office in 2004, his son Atupele, when remanded at Maula last year, found the conditions as bad as they were before his father came into office?
Bingu wa Mutharika too, before his disruptive death last year, had been in power for eight years. Almost everyone who refused to be taken to Maula yesterday were part of his administration and holding influential positions. It is a sickening irony that after losing power just a year ago, they are complaining and getting frightened by the conditions in prisons and police cells. What did they do with their time in power? Who did they think would improve the conditions there, if not them while in power or positions of influence?
With these deliberate missed opportunities to effect the needed changes in prisons, sometimes am inclined to feel that it is necessary that these politicians should be locked up once in while so that probably it will get into their thick heads that reforms in our holding centres are long overdue and they can’t continue to fluff the opportunities that privilege presents to them.
Lots of reforms need doing. It doesn’t stand to reason, as it is now, that a suspect on remand should be held together with those serving their sentences.
Our system is so horrendous and chaotic Iwould not be surprised to learn that someone on death row is housed in the same room with someone suspected to have stolen a chicken.
To me this practice is unconstitutional as it undermines the very principle of “innocent until proven guilty” because remandees start getting the full weight of punishment before they are found guilty by a court of law.
Documented literature on life in our prisons makes it impossible for them to pass the standards as per the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or The United Nations’ Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners just to mention a few.
It is a matter of common sense that when you are packing people in a windowless room, like saldines, you are creating a recipe for a health disaster that includes spread of HIV and Aids through rape or sodomy.
And yet this continues to happen in our jails without anybody in authority feeling remorse and be nudged into action.
Replacing some prisons is long over due. For example, why is the Zomba Central Prison still holding inmates when the Inspectorate of Prisons, headed then by Appeal judge Duncan Tambala, recommended for its demolition as away back as 2005?
This level of successive negligence has now put this new administration under avoidable strain of striking a very delicate balance between investing limited resources in productive areas that will eventually rescucitate the economy and making sure its record of good governance and human rights is not tainted by the hang over of past carelessness.
I can only hope that when the dust finally settles, this administration will see the need to act on the issue of the prisons.
As we wait for that, maybe it time those in authority considered locking its doors to recycled brains.
My feeling is that some of them have been over-recycled to the point that they have lost their value, while others have overstayed their shelf life, and thus can’t see things differently to influence meaningful interventions to correct their mistakes of the past.
This will ensure that another opportunity is not missed.