17 MAY 2012. NORWAY’S CONSTITUTION DAY
Honourable Minister of Education, Mrs. Eunice Kazembe,
It is a great honour – on behalf of our Embassy staff and myself – to welcome you once again to celebrate the Norwegian Constitution Day. On 17 May 1814 our forefathers, in what was at the time an impoverished place at the outskirts of Europe, dared to challenge the decision of the victors of the Napoleonic war, that Norway, under Denmark for the past 400 years, be given away to Sweden as booty of war. The 112 men gathered at Eidsvoll declared Norway an independent country and adopted what was the most liberal constitution in Europe at the time. With inspiration from the American and French Revolutions, the constitution did not only do away with all nobility and guaranteed the right to think, write and print what one wished, it also gave every man who owned a piece of land the right to vote.
So we owe our constitution to the Americans and the French. But I must add here that we owe our history to the Icelandic. If the Icelandic intellectuals of their time had not written down our history, we may not even have known that we were a nation. But to show you that we no longer hold any grudge against Sweden and Denmark for trading us like a commodity, I would like to pay tribute to the foresight of two remarkable royal personalities, without whom the Norwegian constitution may not have come about, and would certainly not have survived.
The young Danish Crown Prince Christian Fredrik not only relinquished his right to the Danish crown and accepted to be the first king of an independent Norway since the middle ages, he also encouraged and supported a constitution that limited his own powers and gave sovereignty to the people. It could not last long, though, against overwhelming Swedish military force and the will of the great powers. Prince Christian Fredrik realised when his time was up, and laid down arms. He returned to Denmark, where, in one of the ironies of history, he was to become one of the most conservatives Danish rulers ever.
Another crown prince, Karl Johan, a former French general in Napoleon’s army, who for all but in name ruled Sweden, could have chosen an all-out war with Norway, crushing our new political institutions. But he did not want to rule an unwilling people. Instead he offered Norwegians – after some hard negotiations it must be admitted – to keep the constitution, the parliament, and the currency. He later became a popular king in Norway, in fact the main street of Oslo is named after him.
This background may illustrate Norwegian national pride, which we sometimes are so annoyingly unashamed of. As the Swedish chief negotiator in 1814, Count Wetterstedt exclaimed: “This is a people who knows nothing of what is going on in Europe, they are not used to give laws, they have no political insight, yet they have a pride which is as great as their modesty ought to have been.” – I was reminded of this the other day, when a good colleague commented on the size of our flag waving above Blantyre Street outside this house.
But these glimpses of our history also illustrate how closely inter-vowen our fate is with that of the outside world, and how small countries, like Norway, and Malawi, depend on our neighbours. Here I would like to add that one of the great pleasures of being the Norwegian head of mission in Malawi is to also be responsible for services to our fellow Scandinavians.
In the year since we last gathered here, we have seen unprecedented tragedies in our two countries. On 20th and 21st July last year twenty Malawians lost their lives to police bullets after popular demonstrations in the major cities. It was a turn of events that shocked Malawian society. Not since the colonial forces crushed the protests against the Federation of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland – and some of you may still remember Nkhata Bay in 1959 – had Malawians seen violence on this scale. The tragedy made its mark on the actors in the Malawian political developments and dialogue in the months to follow.
Then, on the following day, Friday 22nd July, a young Norwegian blew up a huge homemade bomb outside the main government offices in Oslo, killing eight people, and followed up by his attack on a youth summer camp, where he alone shot to death 69 campers, most of them teenagers, at the Utøya island outside Oslo.
Our first reaction was disbelief, horror, and a compassion with parents and families filled with desperation. But the response of the Norwegian public to this unthinkable act of murder was not one of hatred and revenge. Several hundred thousand people gathered in the streets of Oslo in an expression of togetherness never seen in our country since the end of the Second World War, covering the centre of Oslo with flowers.
During these days the messages of sympathy from all over the world were of great comfort. I will thank you all for sharing our sorrow, and for the condolences and sympathy we received from the government and so many people in Malawi, including our colleagues in the diplomatic community and outside.
These were two very different tragedies. In Malawi the acts – in spite of the impression left by international media – were not intended. It was a situation that got out of control due to misguided policies, poor training and lack of resources. In Norway, on the other hand, the horrendous acts had been planned for years. But one thing the events had in common. Neither of us can blame anyone outside of our own countries.
In October last year I went with some colleagues to the village of Chawira, about an hour’s drive north of Salima. We were met in the traditional way, with song and dance in our honour. And from where we were seated, in deep and comfortable chairs under the shadow of a big tree, we could see the farmers as they had started to do their ploughing on the hills up towards the escarpment.
The chief was a slim woman above middle-age. We paid her our respects, but she was not the one who spoke. Those who spoke were women with children on their backs or at their breasts, and it was men of all ages. Each of them had a story to tell. About the agricultural extension officer who had overcharged for fertilizer, but who had to pay back and find another job after the radio club had complained. About the health clinic that was not equipped to examine pregnant women and mothers until the women in the village raised the issue and the minister of health finally intervened. About disabled children who now attended school. About teachers’ houses that had been built. Of husbands who came home with money in their pockets. All this had been achieved, not due to money received from any development agency, but because they were part of a UN-supported programme with the aim of making people aware of their rights in society and thereby strengthening democracy.
Before it was all over, the UN Coordinator asked a final question: What has the greatest change in this local community been after a number of years with the democracy programme? The spontaneous reply stuck in my mind: We have done away with fear! People in this community had rid themselves of the fear of authorities, the fear that has been so present in the daily life of common women and men in many African countries since colonial times and before, and under authoritarian and often despotic rulers in more recent time. The fear of police and soldiers, but also of other representatives of the state, even teachers and sometimes nurses. In independent Malawi the life president Kamuzu Banda ruled with an iron fist, and with a security apparatus that reached down to every family. When I arrived in this country in 1999, a number of years after democracy had won the day, I could still notice this habit of many Malawians to look over both shoulders before answering a sensitive question.
Not so any longer. Maybe this has been the most significant change in Malawian society over the last ten years. We see it everywhere. People speak out in a way that was unheard of just a few years back. Even in the face of disguised or open threats journalists have not been intimidated, church voices have not been silenced, human rights defenders have gone on with their work.
This country experienced some sudden events over Easter. I would like to convey my condolences to the family and colleagues of the late president of Malawi, H E Prof Bingu wa Mutharika, who passed away only six weeks ago. President Mutharika will be remembered for turning this country into a growth economy and for ending the hunger of probably a majority of Malawians during the lean season every year.
We were relieved that the constitution of the country was respected and the succession was orderly. With hindsight it is evident to me that it had to be that way, although it did not seem so at the time. The democratic institutions in Malawi, the media, and not least public opinion, were too strong for any other outcome to be accepted. The praise for this development should go to the many Malawians inside and outside of government, who have painstakingly worked for and defended democratic governance and freedom.
Now the country and its leaders are facing a situation which offers a lot of promise, but which is economically daunting. Sacrifices will be demanded from so many Malawians, but it is also a situation that requires action from those of us who are this country’s development partners.
I will not speak much of what Norway is doing in Malawi. I am sure you know that most of our funding goes into agriculture, adaptation to climate change and health. But as Malawi’s third largest bilateral donor, I would like to emphasize that Norway is here to work in partnership with the people and the government, in an open and transparent manner. After democracy prevailed in Malawi, Norway was invited to contribute to democratic as well as social and economic development. This is what we have done, during good as well as bad years under the Muluzi administration, and during good and more difficult years under the late president Mutharika. We, together with a number of our donor colleagues, did not withdraw in the face of difficulties, misuse of power and corruption. We redirected our aid to make sure that it reached those it was intended for, and we strengthened our support of those who stood in the forefront of the fight for the universal values of human rights, respect and tolerance.
The struggle for improving the lot of the people, including their human rights, is not over. It is only that now, more than before, we expect to be working closely with the authorities of the country, and we can cast our eyes on issues and people that have been neglected. Two sisters, Margaret and Eviness, in their fifties and sixties, are now lingering in Maula prison after they were accused and jailed for five years in 2010 for teaching witchcraft to children. Their files are missing at the High Court, preventing an obvious wrong sentence to be rectified. Hundreds of women and old men in this country have been chased away from their homes, had their houses burnt or reportedly even been killed, after similar accusations. This is an issue which the government acknowledges. Very soon a report from the first comprehensive mapping of the extent of such practice in certain areas of Malawi will be published.
17 May is not only Norway’s national day; it is also the international day against homophobia. Homophobia carries with it many evils; one is that it is a main obstacle to HIV prevention. Norway urges all governments to take steps to eliminate stigma and discrimination faced by people at risk, and to protect people who are different from the majority from prosecution as well as persecution.
Malawi is not at all doing badly when it comes to women in politics, compared to other countries. But despite Government efforts to prevent it, and in spite of the law of the land, the problem with violence against women and girls is still widespread. More than one in four women above 15 years of age has experienced physical violence, and one in four has experienced sexual violence.
Norway will continue to support the efforts of the government and non-governmental organisations to secure better access to justice for women who are victims of violence. I say this with the confidence that this and other issues for the unprivileged will be highest on the agenda for the new President of the country and her team.
And with these remarks it is a great honour and pleasure for me to propose a toast for the Head of State of Malawi and the first woman president in Southern Africa, Her Excellency Mrs. Joyce Banda.