“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin in “Origin of Species.”
There is a joke about a simple, dense villager who goes to watch a western cowboy film. As they are sitting in the cinema, another movie-goer bets him that the main actor will fall-off his horse. The villager, wanting to appear savvy, takes the bet and loses as the cowboy does, indeed, get unhitched. Afterward, his friend admits that he has seen the movie before to which the villager replies, “I have also seen the show before, but I didn’t think that he would fall off again this time!”
Well, Malawians are being treated to a re-run of sorts as we witness similar conditions and events that obtained under Bingu wa Mutharika – aid withdrawal, strikes, demos, financial scandals – (some involving spouses), a state wedding! – and watch Peter Mutharika’s indecisiveness, reminiscent of his time as a minister under his brother’s regime. He displayed a total lack of leadership during the “Academic Freedom” saga that lasted nine months when he was Minister of Education, flip-flopped as Foreign Affairs Minister after British envoy Cochraine-Dyet was unceremoniously expelled from Malawi as persona non gratia and oversaw the passing of ridiculous laws as Minister of Justice.That was then, when he was a mere minister.
Now, with an avalanche of strikes in all arms of government, a number of financial misjudgements bordering on impropriety and morally reprehensible salary increments for himself and others of the political elite – albeit now reversed after a public outcry – we find an embattled President Arthur Peter Mutharika displaying the same characteristics of someone out of his depth. Most interesting is that the recently installed Chancellor of the University of Malawi, now President, again faces a stand-off with members of academia and support staff of the university who have gone on strike. Last time this happened, Peter Mutharika literally fell off his horse and proved incompetent to deal with issues; will he fall-off again this time around?
In all fairness, Peter Mutharika gives the impression of a leader that has the ideas to actually transform Malawi. He is a cool-headed technocrat with an impeccable academic background and displays a refreshing level of disdain for grandiose political theatrics and melodrama that Malawians have gotten so tired of; it is a huge blessing not to be bombarded with the unceasing blare of presidential convoy sirens day-in, day-out with attendant “party colours” everywhere and nauseating radio and TV regurgitations and re-broadcasts about a president’s each and every vacuous event and vitriol against political opponents at every given opportunity.
We now have a leader who is putting in the time and making the right noises pertaining to investment and growth, and who can deliver given the chance. It’s just that he carries the unenviable baggage of being a brother to someone who almost brought Malawi to its knees and an inherited legacy of, and suspected participation in, alleged abuse of state power and resources for self-enrichment which makes everything that he does suspect.
In addition, his laid-back personality and leadership style, coupled with observable inexperience with African jungle politics and an eerie palpable fear of publicity and controversy for a politician, may make him the president that never was. With rising discontent, on-going strikes and threats of demonstrations by civil society, Peter Mutharika needs to start thinking short-term continued existence if he is to realize his grand ambitions of transforming the country before his term comes to a pre-mature end. One can only hope that, should the heat becomes unbearable, the survival instinct does not turn him into a despicable despot like his brother. Fingers crossed.
There is every possibility that the momentum to demonstrate frustration with President Mutharika’s administration will gather pace and evolve into a political cat-and-dog fight given that the ill-advised salary increments have somewhat back-fired. Opposition leader, Lazarus Chakwera has been caught with his pants down and quickly needs to redeem himself. His moral compass and credentials as a leader are under a microscope and prospects of the party that he leads, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), as an alternative government-in-waiting are being seriously questioned. As part of damage control, the embarrassed MCP leader may opt to go on an aggressive offensive against the DPP administration in an effort to restore his soiled image.
Meanwhile, the fact that President Peter Mutharika’s DPP government is in serious trouble is not lost on the still-bitter former ruling party, Peoples’ Party (PP), who have re-grouped and restructured in an apparent bid to re-establish themselves as a formidable political movement. However, the absence of their leader, Joyce Banda, who has gone into what can only, unofficially, technically and constructively be declared as self-imposed exile, is a crucial disconnect.
One gets the impression that she is cherishing the moment when things will get so bad that she can take advantage of the popular discontent to miraculously resurrect as a messiah. The level of visibility and attention given to her by western institutions, and Peter Mutharika’s unwarranted obsession with Joyce Banda, speaks volumes and may be a precursor to the Chakufwa Chihana scenario where Dr. Kamuzu Banda was powerless to effectively muzzle and incarcerate him given the high international profile that he had built as a vocal opponent of his dictatorship. Both the MCP and PP, still hurting from an election loss that they clearly believe to have been manipulated, are likely to face the temptation to destabilize the DDP administration to their own ends using the current strikes and upcoming demonstrations.
Malawi is witnessing the re-making of a horror movie, combining scenes from the Bingu wa Mutharika era with additional scripts from the ever-shifting political quick-sand of the Malawi landscape. At that time, Bingu was the protagonist with his younger brother as the de facto “stand-in.”
This time, the sibling, Peter Mutharika, has assumed the leading role. Before this, in past films of “Scary Movie Malawi,” he consistently showed a high level of ineptitude and fell-off his horse time after time, thereby losing credibility. Will the script and his actions change in the re-make, “Scary Movie Malawi – The Re-run?”
The MWK 92 billion question is: Will Peter Mutharika stay on his horse this time around?
As an ardent movie-goer and patriotic fan of anything Malawi or Malawian, I am on the edge of my seat.
And I am not taking any bets!
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- Chikavu Nyirenda is a Senior Lecturer in Banking and Finance at The Catholic University of Malawi and contributes, in his personal capacity, a weekly column, ‘Views from the Sunset,’ which is published in ‘The Daily Times’ every Monday.