Friday, September 24, 2010

Sam Mpasu: Out of Prison Walls

Lives of politicians are rarely short of paradoxes and contradictions. Promises are made and never fulfilled; mistakes are made and never corrected, yet their versatile tongues worm through the hard hearts of humanity and finally win them. That is why politicians hardly ever have permanent enemies. At least, such is the case in Malawi.

Yet, sometimes in life, you never find everything that you wanted to achieve, even if you are a politician. And many other times, you sometimes find yourself getting something that you never anticipated. Some things just happen automatically and you are left wondering whether you are one of the most blessed or just one of the most cursed dwellers of the universe.

Some people have found themselves fiscally established out of the blue while others continue basking in the agony of poverty, and this is where it makes sense to argue that nature is the best controller of human progress.

Some have found themselves in prison when they least expected they would ever step their feet in such a place while others have found themselves totally free when they expected that the least they would get if lady luck smiled at their face would be a 5-year jail term. Such is life.

Such is what fully describes it. It brings in its course the expected and the unexpected, sometimes to test our souls. And for Sam Mpasu, the second test, perhaps was to harden his soul further. He had passed the first one, and hard luck brought him the next. He took it and has just completed its contents.

The correctional facility is the last place any sane individual would ever dream of living in. It is a place where sometimes, life itself seems to be a very useless affair. Even a two-week jail term may seem like eternity. This is in virtue of the fact that the place itself – at least in Malawi – is mostly designed to punish law-breakers, not necessarily to reform them.

However, the most disturbing irony of justice is that not all those who rob banks, shed innocent blood or receive bribes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Sometimes they are not even brought anywhere near trial.

Yet, still on the other hand, there are others who find themselves in untold anguish, not because they broke the law, but because they failed to convince the judge that they did not break the law. Just like one American politician said, poverty is imprisonment it is own kind or imprisonment waiting to happen.

But sometimes even the most compassionate nuns fail to have any feeling of empathy for certain individuals who brutally shed the blood of their fellow human kind. When it has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that they indeed did the offence they are being accused of, empathy leaves even those who sometimes extol the virtues of not playing the “eye for eye” game.

But for Mpasu, it seems empathy would fail to convict only a few individuals – in all truth and faithfulness. Nevertheless, justice superseded mercy and became a symbol of tormenting the former Speaker of the National Assembly.

After having been incarcerated for two years during the Kamuzu era, he has just finished a three-year jail term at Chichiri Prison for his involvement in the Fieldyork notebook scandal. While at Chichiri Prison, Mpasu was almost completely forgotten on the political scene. Yet, this was the time when, some would argue, he needed moral support most.

He did not deserve to be forgotten because his name has to always stand out in the history of Malawi just as those of many other Malawians who fought relentlessly for the introduction of multi-party politics. And, many people sometimes fail to accept that Mpasu really deserved the kind of agony that he has just undergone.

If what D.D. Phiri wrote in October last year is anything to go by, Mpasu was never supposed to be where he is just coming out from. He might have indeed abused his position as the honorable magistrate who convicted him at first observed, but the circumstances in which that abuse was done should have been the overriding decider.

“In its 1994 manifesto, UDF pledged to introduce free primary education in Malawi. When he won the presidency, Bakili Muluzi appointed Sam Mpasu as Minister of Education…. The minister of education was more anxious than most people that exercise books and pencils be made available in time, otherwise the free primary schooling programme was going to fail,” wrote Phiri in The Nation of October 13, 2009.

Mpasu took that task of ordering the materials himself and was subjected to pressure salesmanship, such that finally the government was forced to pay for the writing materials from Fieldyork much more than it could have paid if a local supplier was involved. These are the circumstances which fourteen years later landed the former minister into the correctional facility.

Yet, according to reports on corruption which different independent organizations, both local and international, published, it became clear that many more individuals, had engaged in corrupt practices at one point in time in the Muluzi administration. But, so far, only a few have been brought to book.

“Let us face the truth here: there was a high level of corruption in the Muluzi era. it appears to be a mockery to justice to see that many high-profile politicians who were presented several times as corrupt still walk free while Mpasu who made that blunder while considering the situation in which the forthcoming free primary education would be, was fighting for his life day in, day out at Chichiri Prison,” said one commentator on an online publication, soon after Mpasu was set free a few days ago.

Mpasu did quite a lot for this country. Justice might have indeed taken its course, but perhaps we should also consider what he did to Mother Malawi with a few other individuals who brought for us the multiparty democracy that we are enjoying today. This is not to say that Mpasu was right in his actions, but to a greater extent, natural justice would have forgiven him.

“It really pains to see a brilliant individual like Mpasu going to rot in prison just because he hastened to do things, when he can do something great to this country,” a concerned citizen was quoted as saying in one of our daily papers soon after Mpasu’s sentencing in 2008.

The concerned citizen’s sentiments were echoed by Phiri two years later who wrote: “Mercy is often greater than justice. It is admitted that Mpasu’s handling of the exercise book programme was reckless and was an abuse of office. However, this bright man would be more useful to the country if he were pardoned for the big mistake he made.

“…Mpasu did not steal and did not accept bribes. He just failed to use normal channels of awarding contracts. Mpasu, the man of intellectual and literary gifts, deserves public forgiveness.”

But Mpasu was never pardoned; he finished his jail term which had initially been ‘pegged’ at six years, and got reduced to three years. During the time when he was in the correctional facility, prisoners were being pardoned, and finally walked to freedom, but be never did. His only hope was in life itself; life was going to be the most meaningful thing at the end of his painful journey.

Perhaps that is why Albert Einstein said that all of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field. Yet, oftentimes, we fail to sit back and appreciate the fact that reason and honest good have little influence in the political field.

Who knows, so we think, maybe the bits of our reason and honest good will finally produce a bunch that will exert some influence in the political field. But, for Mpasu many people fought, only that the targeted ear chose not to listen.

Until his second incarceration, Mpasu was known to many as a very influential politician who never minced words where he thought some truth that needed to be known was being trumped beneath some deceitful desires of some individuals. Perhaps, this was because he started politics way back during his days at Chancellor College where he once served as chairman of the students union.

The former president, father and founder of Malawi, the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda saw him to be a threat, and subsequently incarcerated him for two years from 1975 to 1977. He was a political prisoner, and at least for him, such painful memories remain fresh in Political Prisoner 3/37, his prison autobiography in which he recapitulates life behind the bars.

In the book, he condemns his detention without trial where he writes: “Imprisonment-without-trial, in my view, was something which was so manifestly unjust that even primitive tribes did not use it. At least, no anthropologist had told me that there was a primitive tribe anywhere in the world which had prisons or used them to lock innocent people.”

And after being sent to prison in 2008, he still felt he was a political prisoner, because of his fervent opposition to Bingu wa Mutharika’s policies which he deemed not good. The only difference, to him, was that now it was imprisonment after trial.

“In 1975 I was a victim of imprisonment without trial. I am not surprised this time also. Every oppressive government uses state institutions to victimise its opponents. I am not the first politician to go to jail,” he was quoted as saying.

One ironic thing with Mpasu is that as he was serving as the UDF’s spokesman, a position which he last held before being sent into the jaws of agony, he was the centre of public attention when he was the first to point out that Muluzi’s chances of winning in the last general elections were very slim. This was a time when the former head of state was craving for another go despite having already served this country as the first citizen for the constitutional maximum period of two consecutive terms.

Mpasu could not mince words – and that is what he has always been known for. He had no time to play bootlicking politics. To him, the very truth had to be articulated the moment it was needful, without caring much about whether it would cost him anything.

Such is the man who has languished behind the bars of Chichiri Maximum Prison for three years.

There is another odd thing about Mpasu’s Fieldyork conviction and subsequent sentencing: only a few people appeared to sympathize with him. Even the party which he had been its spokesperson before he was stripped of the position, seemed not to commiserate with his welfare, perhaps because he had somehow turned against it in his pursuit for truth, justice and genuine democracy in the party.

His former boss Muluzi did not publicly express any sorrow at Mpasu’s conviction. Obviously, this was because when he was the spokesperson of the UDF, Mpasu made it clear that Malawi’s constitution barred Muluzi from standing as a presidential candidate since he had already served two terms in office.

“The constitution, specifically in Section 83, Subsection three, says that a president or a vice president will serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. There is no dispute about that because he serves a maximum of two consecutive terms, but the legal minds seem to have different interpretations of that,” Mpasu was quoted as saying by Voice of America.

That was obviously some sort of peculiar confidence, because it was a time when almost every top member of the UDF could not get the guts to utter anything that would displease the former head of state, because the party was being taken as his personal estate.

But then afterwards, no one seemed to appreciate Mpasu’s courage, such that after his conviction, his name almost got completely thrust in the mist of history. But now, he is back home; he is back where he belongs.

And amidst all questions which rock us, one stands out as it cries for a perfect answer: Was Mpasu and a few other individuals who got convicted the only ones from the Muluzi administration who were eligible of being convicted? Maybe, this question may not matter anymore now; perhaps, the greatest fight Mpasu has fought is to get out of prison. Anything else might be meaningless now.

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