Dog-eat-dog: Nassah chews out his friend Tenthani over Mutharika’s oratory

When you have a family squabble, you don’t get out on the sidewalk. If you do, everybody calls you uncouth, unrefined, uncivilized, savage. If you don’t make it at home, you settle it at home; you get in the closet — argue it out behind closed doors. And then when you come out on the street, you pose a common front, a united front.—Malcolm X

Mucky-muck Raphael Tenthani does not need yours truly to fight his battles because if you can dish it out, you should take it. His friend Idriss Ali Nassah jumped all over him in a recent opinion piece ‘Unhealthy obsession with trivia’, pointing out that the columnist regarded by many as “a brave—sometimes reckless—voice of reason” scrapped “the barrel” when he decided “to sledgehammer the President over his manner of speaking” in ‘Talk to us, Mr. President’ under his Muckraking on Sunday.

“The spiteful column came in the week that the Office of the President and Cabinet was restructured with a raft of crucial policy and administrative directives…But all that was ignored” and Tenthani went on a “futile fishing expedition”.

Why?

Tenthani “just might be badly frightened that President Mutharika has started spectacularly well and he won’t have much fodder to feed on to please his adoring legion” of fans, says Nassah, adding that the May elections were not about “aesthetics and theatrics at delivering speeches” otherwise Joyce Banda would still be president.

Nassah (L) and Tenthani: Malawi scribes

Nassah (L) and Tenthani: Malawi scribes

“Because I know the author of that column I want to dismiss his rant as mere hysterics,” says Nassah who has a “nasty feeling” about Peter Mutharika not being treated fairly in the next four years.

“Of the most pressing 1 000 things about Malawi presently, the small matter of the President’s enunciations and navigation of his speeches is frankly inconsequential…no point in Malawi suffering collective high blood pressure because of that.”

Supporters lapped up Nassah’s performance. Malawi Voice, a pro-government online publication, wrote: ‘Malawi’s Top Editor Idriss Ali Nassah ‘lecturers’ Ralph Tenthani on APM: Unhealthy obsession with trivia’ to which Nassah quipped on Twitter “Accolades galore, I am now Malawi’s top editor”.

But Nassah was not embraced by all. Writer and media activist Levi Kabwato said on Twitter: “I get very scared when commentators are so quick to praise power”.

Felix Ngasama also weighed in: “Woeful head start by Nassah in his APM praise-singing akin to premature ejaculation.”

“I’m giving this 2 months, waiting to see if [Nasser] is rewarded with an ‘adviser’ role. If not, then I’ll know he’s sincere,” said journalist Thom Khanje who knows Nassah, the two having worked together for the same news organization and has, on Twitter, appealed to him to tone down his vociferous criticisms of Mutharika.

What caused the sudden change of heart? Was the criticism of Khanje and probably others so powerful that it knocked Nassah down a peg or two? In public, could concerned Nassah, who is not just Tenthani’s acquaintance but a “great friend”, not follow the proverbial principle of the three wise monkeys see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil?

Apparently he could not in this dog-eat-dog world and one thing that you notice in the critique of his friend is the omission of Tenthani’s name. As Nassah chews Tenthani out and “calls into question the judgment of some of the writers we so revere in Malawi”, he is referred to as “the author” and the “cynical author”.

In trying to piece together what happened, it is tempting to think that Nassah’s was a hit piece. And looking back, the acrimonious relationship that existed between the government and the press when Peter’s brother Bingu was in power could be used as a backdrop for this purpose. After decisively winning reelection in 2009, Bingu quickly developed an allergic reaction to media criticism which did not work well for him.

During this year’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations which cost millions of kwacha, Peter responded to a newspaper article which said it was not time to make merry given that millions of Malawians still live in abject poverty. The president said the standard of living had “increased remarkably” and to him the glass was not half empty but half full.

While the media pursues its role as public watchdog, some governments view the media as challengers to their authority and they use various means against critical journalists to intimidate them.

The new government faces enormous challenges. Nassah says Mutharika “is a thinker and doer [and] delivering speeches is evidently not his style”. In his estimation that should pose a problem since there are “swatches of newspaper real estate dedicated to criticising not the essential content” of what Mutharika says but how he says it.

But should that really derail what appears to be a solid government agenda like Mutharika’s? As a leader you certainly won’t fail because somebody said you failed to communicate. You certainly will fail if you fail to articulate a clear message of what it is that you are trying to do. And if you choose to follow an agenda that does not meet people’s expectations, whipping Tenthani and all his ilk into line will not work. That kind of move has the potential to alienate further those who already have misgivings about the leadership. Team Mutharika should learn to pick its battles.

*The author is former founding editor of Maravi Post who is now a columnist on Nyasa Times.

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