MALAWI: Politician arrested over quotas

A top politician has been arrested after criticising Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika for allegedly promoting tribalism by championing a controversial university quota system.

Harry Mkandawire, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party director of political affairs and governor of Northern province, wrote a critical open letter to a newspaper in October questioning the President's endorsement of the system in which students were selected for university on the basis of district or region rather than merit.

Mkandawire also raised concerns about undermining the rule of law as a result of Wa Mutharika's backing of the system, despite a Malawi High Court order outlawing it.

Last week, Mkandawire was arrested for alleged sedition. But critics claim he is being punished for criticising the system of university quotas which will affect academically deserving students from his province. Mkandawire also blamed the arrest on his quota stance and accused the president of intolerance.

The quota system was introduced by the late despotic ruler Hastings Kamuzu Banda in 1988, on the grounds that students from northern provinces were entering institutions of higher learning in greater numbers than their compatriots from southern provinces. But the system was abolished in 1993 following a court challenge.

There was an attempt to re-introduce quotas last year but it was again rejected by the High Court. Despite the court rulings, there are plans to start quotas next year - a move supported by the President.

"In my view, the quota system only serves to take away reward from well-deserving students. The system in the long-run will promote laziness because people will get the idea that they do not have to work hard because the government is going to take care of them," Mkandawire said in his open letter addressed to the President. "Malawi as a country needs to address the root cause of the problem of disproportionate participation in higher education by people from different regions."

Mkandawire added that instead of concerning himself with the quota system wa Mutharika should instead rectify a situation that has resulted in access to higher education in Malawi being the lowest in the Southern Africa Development Community region, with 54 per every 100,000 inhabitants. He reminded Wa Mutharika of the court injunction against implementing the quota system, saying that ignoring it would erode the rule of law.

The university quota system has proved divisive in Malawi, with politicians, students, lecturers and even the church expressing different opinions. Recently, a University of Malawi (Unima) lecturer Tetelite Lipenga wrote an opinion article in the media in support of quotas. Lipenga said that since the quota system had been abolished, "frightening inequalities" had emerged in university admissions between students from northern regions and those from the south.

"Following the death of the quota system, the North has again emerged to dominate, this time even unprecedentedly suffocating the other regions. These events in the last 10 years raise serious equality concerns," Lipenga wrote. "So in my informed view, government and Unima are justified to consider strategic redress to reverse long-term impacts of the biased selection system.

"The other year, I was part of the team that administered Unima entrance exams in Mzuzu. If you had the spirit of the living God in you, you could not control a tear of sympathy from your eyes when you saw the gulf between candidates from rich versus poor families, rural versus urban areas and private versus public schools. These and other concerns about the poor in rural areas are the reason why we need a quota system as an equalisation policy that benefits the rural poor and not a region or tribe."