Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Flag Question in Malawi

There's been quite a bit of flag controversy recently in Malawi, the small and cartographically skinny country tucked up northwest of Mozambique and on the eastern edge of Zambia. You may recognize the current flag, which has been in use since the country became independent of the British Empire in 1964:

Last month, the government began using a new banner, like so:

Why the change? And why, as it turns out, are a lot of people in Malawi not delighted with this change? I did some skimming of the Nyasa Times online to dredge up the basics.

Malawi appears to be one of many African countries that have come a long way toward political stability in the last 20 years. The current President, Bingu wa Mutharika, has been accused of election fraud by the opposition, but he seems to have participated in something more or less resembling a free election twice. The Mutharika government decided a new flag was in order to represent the improved civic climate, as well as an apparent rise in the country's overall standard of living. From the Times:
Government spokesman, Reckford Thotho said authorities proposed to change the national flag replacing the rising sun with a full sun and change some colours “symbolising the development that has taken place.”

Said the Information Minister: “The essence of changing the national flag is that times have changed since 1964 when Malawi adopted the flag on attaining its independence.

“The symbol of the rising sun that time made a lot of sense because it was dawn for freedom and hope. But there has been a lot of development that has taken place since and we cannot still be at dawn.”
Opposition figures are not pleased. They question whether the country has really made such meaningful progress, and claim that a change to the national flag is destructive to the country's unity and identity. Although the new flag was officially put into use earlier this month, there is a case pending at the Supreme Court on whether the change was legal under the Malawian Constitution. (Comments on the Nyasa Times website seem generally irritable and anti-change, but I'm going to assume that comments on African newspaper websites are like comments on American newspaper websites -- that is, disproportionately made by the grouchiest one percent of the population, and not really reflective of what the average person might be thinking.)

In this political climate, Mutharika's language at the ceremony that officially unveiled the flag was kind of interesting. Instead of emphasizing the change to the flag, he stressed the continuity in the two designs:
“We are not necessarily changing the flag as it has been reported by other quarters but we were modifying it to reflect the modern Malawi,” he said.
Is he making an attempt at reconciliation? Is he floating a strategy for the Supreme Court case? Kind of hard to tell from this distance, of course.

Now of course, this whole debate is nobody's business but the Malawians'. But -- as a complete outsider (presumably), what do you think? Do you like the new design better, or would you stick with the old?

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