Malawi: Our country, our president

Life in a dynamic news organisation is often breathtaking.

An unhappy Goodall Gondwe walked into my former editor Vynn Phiri’s office one day to complain about a story one of our reporters had done on him. He wanted to meet the offending reporter, but when told that the reporter worked in the Lilongwe office he said: “Well, tell him I said he is a fool.”

Interactions with other ministers were not always as combative. Ken Lipenga was gentle. Lipenga is the one who introduced me to former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika with a quip and a laugh: “Sir, this is the young man who gave you five out of 10″.

The paper I worked for had just published its ratings on the Cabinet and the president had only managed a score of five. I had written the leader on that project.

President Peter Mutharika

President Peter Mutharika

Lipenga was still the quintessential journalist: his ear was always glued to the ground and he worked to cultivate the sort of familiarity with reporters and journalists that ensured we all recognised that there was no THEM vs US. He would say we are all on one side—the side that wishes the country well, that would not betray the country for anything. The side that, each in our own small way, was trying to do the best to build the nation to greatness.

When they moved him to Finance, I suspect Lipenga became a reluctant civil servant.

Peter Mutharika, when he first appeared on the scene, was another who gave the impression he was a reluctant civil servant. I never liked Peter the minister because he did not seem to care. He was, as we all know only too well, his brother’s protégé.

So, Peter’s lacklustre tenure at the ministries he ran under his brother did little to convince me and many others that he was a man capable of leading this country to prosperity. When the going got tough and reporters confronted him, he did not seem able to give any straight answer to any simple question and when the going got tougher still—like it did during the academic freedom saga—he just buried his head in the sand.

For good reason, the idea of another Mutharika presidency probably terrifies some people. I feel sorry for them. But I would suggest that they follow my example and work out how best to live with Peter because he is now the President of the country.

And he might just surprise many of us and turn out to be a good president. It should count for something that he picked an excellent man from the corporate community to be his deputy. Peter knows the pitfalls of the excesses and arrogance of his brother so he should be more open to building relationships. I have made peace with the fact that he is what the people preferred over Lazarus Chakwera, Joyce Banda and Atupele Muluzi.

I wish President Mutharika a long life, good health and trust that he will be a better custodian of our freedoms and our country than his brother was.

And I also hope that he treats Joyce Banda better than Bingu treated Bakili Muluzi. From what we saw the last time Banda was out in public on that ill-fated attempt to cancel the election: the poor woman was lost, frightened, exhausted and isolated. Some are saying she has to harvest from what she sowed during her short, ill-fated, presidency but any decent human being would have felt some compassion for a woman obviously battling to come to terms with her resounding rejection. Banda will find life outside State House very tough. The friends she thought she had will desert her and the endless supply of money that she has had these past two years will suddenly evaporate.

Above all else, I hope the new President will do well for the country. Of course, the many promises he made during his State of the Nation Address must have sent shivers down the spine of anyone who knows how to use a calculator. Subsidising fertiliser, cement and iron sheets will cost money.

Then there is universal health insurance, the construction of airports in Mangochi, Mzuzu, Karonga, the construction of five major dams, the completion of Nsanje Inland Port, and the treadle pumps to give to farmers. To do just half of that, he will either have to borrow heavily or print money.

Either way, it just might lead this country into tough financial circumstances.

But still, there is hope President Mutharika will manage just fine.

—The author is Malawian journalist based in Ethiopia. His articles first appeared in NPL

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