Cut the Chaff: Mutharika’s power consolidation moves

President Peter Mutharika has now reached a critical stage of building and consolidating his power base.

With his marriage to Gertrude ticked off, the promised 20-member Cabinet is finally in place after weeks of drip-prod appointments of the governing team.

Having critically looked at the Cabinet that has emerged, I fail to understand why the President had to take so long given that most of these folks are well known to him and I doubt there was much vetting that took place despite efforts to spin it in that direction.

But I guess the President has the prerogative to take as much time as possible to identify folks he believes would help deliver the transformative agenda spelt out in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) manifesto and Mutharika’s first State of the Nation Address.

President Peter Mutharika

President Peter Mutharika

The inclusion of United Democratic Front (UDF) Atupele Muluzi was, however, an interesting one although I was not too surprised.

The young Muluzi appears to like the trappings of power and the limelight that comes with it whenever a new administration is in place.

Atupele accepted the Economic and Development Planning portfolio from outvoted former president Joyce Banda of the People’s Party (PP) only to run back to papa wiping his nose and eyes after Uladi ‘Chenjigolo Mussa’—who had thrown his little party under the bus to join the Amayi gravy train—bullied him mercilessly.

Today, Atupele claims he is in the DPP-led government to serve Malawians, especially because he has suddenly discovered a lot of synergies between DPP and UDF that he says will somehow see him implementing his ill-defined and ill-fated ‘Agenda for Change’ at the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining.

Atupele might not realise it, but he has just become the everyday politician he demonised on the campaign trail.

The UDF leader, like the typical politician he has become, may just have figured out—selfishly I must add—that being in the opposition for five years would be too long.

He will probably jump back into the UDF ship closer to the 2019 elections, leaving government with claims such as he saw too much corruption in the Peter administration and, therefore, did not want to be part of it—the same old story.

So, for now, Atupele is one of the pawns in Peter Mutharika’s chess moves as he consolidates power.

The President has also put in place leaders of government and party business in the National Assembly to drive his agenda, putting a firm grip on the Legislature, what with the tens of ‘independent’ members of Parliament (MP) now flocking to DPP!

The Mutharika purge has also seen Joyce Banda appointee Hawa Ndilowe, who was Chief Secretary to government, being sent to taste the scorching heat of Dodoma in Tanzania.

Her replacement is yet to be named, but a Mutharika loyalist is likely to pop up and lord over Capital Hill sooner than later.

The President’s power consolidation offensive has also, of course, gone further than the Executive and reached the country’s security apparatus.

Deputy Inspector General of Police (operations) Nelson Bophani was the first to go. This week, Army Commander General Henry Odillo packed out of the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) and was replaced by Atanasio Maulana while Deputy Army Commander John Msonthi was also axed to pave way for Brigadier Griffin Supuni, a well liked officer in the army with strong international military connections built during his time in the diplomatic service.

The new President is yet to put his personal stamp on the Judiciary, but it surely won’t be long before we have new faces at the High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal benches.

On the economic front, I personally would urge the President against shaking up the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) given how sensitive to abrupt changes the institution is.

Charles Chuka has done an excellent job as central bank governor so far—especially under the crisis situation he was appointed into—and his two deputies are both respected professionals.

Of course, I know that a crush in monetary policy positions could see Chuka’s job being untenable, but I do know that this governor would rather resign than have monetary policy run by Capital Hill or State House through ridiculous political manoeuvring. It is likely to be a blinking match.

Thus, the private sector, the financial system and investors are waiting with bated breath to see how the highly regarded and free-market oriented Chuka—whose ready smile and affable manner hide a razor sharp mind and one of the strongest personal wills I have ever encountered—will be handled by the new administration.

I also note that having resettled into married life and getting comfortable with his power smelling surroundings, President Mutharika has gone to work, with reforming the Civil Service a priority.

To that end, he has appointed a seven-member Civil Service and Public Service Reform Commission. What is surprising is that the majority of the commission’s members have never worked in the Civil Service.

I find it patronising to those folks currently working in government and those who retired from the service to have a bunch of elites coming to Capital Hill to tell them how to run their ministries, departments and agencies.

Do these commissioners understand the challenges—including political interference—that civil servants have to confront every day?

I have no doubt that almost all the members of the commission are respected leaders in their fields—business, law, human rights, procurement, religion, you name it—but they have no clue about the government machinery. This is why I believe both current and retired civil servants should have had at least a 50 percent representation on the commission.

One of the most important steps towards successful change management is securing primary stakeholder buy-in right from the beginning.

The composition of the commission does not even begin to do that. If anything, it looks ready to spark resentment among civil servants, which may lead to resistance to any changes this commission may propose.

  • This article appears in the Weekend Nation
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