Not all Malawians impressed by new flag

A new national flag symbolising that Malawians have "woken up" since independence from Britain 46 years ago was unveiled by the country's President Bingu wa Mutharika during a summit of southern African leaders in Namibia this week.

"Apparently the people in Malawi were living in darkness and the British brought us light," Mutharika jested.

At independence in 1964, the country previously known as Nyasaland, was still in semi-darkness, so Malawi settled on a national flag that showed a rising sun "indicating that we were still half asleep," he told delegates.

Now, after nearly a half-century of independence, it was time to show the world that around 14 million Malawians were fully awake.

"The sun is shining," Mutharika declared proudly as he showed off the new flag to rousing applause.

Like the old flag, the new flag is composed of three horizontal stripes in black, red, green.

Where it differs is that the half sun in the top black band has been replaced with a full sun in the centre of the flag and the colour of the sun has has changed to white.

While Mutharika was basking in the approval of fellow African leaders, his government was being roasted by Malawi's opposition and churches, who complained the change was rammed through without sufficient consultation.

Opposition legislators walked out of parliament in Lilongwe on Friday, as MPs, mostly from Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, were voting on the Protected Flags, Emblems and Names Amendment Bill.

The bill was passed by a vote of 117-27 with two abstentions. A further 42 MPs were listed as absent.

Both the opposition and many ordinary Malawians vigorously opposed the change, saying they saw no justification for it.

"I think it is very clear that we are playing with serious matters of the state and the constitution put up by our forefathers," the leader of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party, John Tembo, accused.

After neglecting to ask citizens whether they even wanted a new flag the government added insult to injury by failing to launch a public consultation process on the proposed changes.

Only traditional leaders were consulted in any number on the new model, putting plenty of other noses out of joint, including in the country's main churches.

"I don't know what type of methodologies they were using," the secretary-general of the (Catholic) Episcopal Conference of Malawi, Father George Buleya, said. "We were only hearing on the radios that they were consulting the chiefs."

The secretary-general of the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM), Imran Sharif Mohammed, said his group was also not consulted on the changes.

"We really don't as a community see why the flag should be modified," he added.

Information minister Leckford Thotho, who led around two months of consultations in June and July, insisted that government had consulted with all the relevant stakeholders.

Mutharika, for his part, labelled the naysayers as change- resistant.

Around the country, as government institutions lower the old flag and hoist the new, Malawians were still divided.

Catherine Phiri, a mother of two in Balaka, a town in southern Malawi, urged her neighbours to support the flag and "move with the times."

But Steven Ellard, a 42-year-old security guard, was still archly sceptical.

"They are saying that we are now developed, hence the full sun on the flag. But where is the money, where is the development? As a country we still have a long way to go." - Sapa-dpa

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