Unhealthy obsession with trivia in Malawi

I was first alerted to this piece when a friend sent me an e-mail link on Monday morning. It came out in one of the Sunday papers and it was titled “Talk to us, Mr President”.

The cynical author made much of the fact that President Peter Mutharika isn’t much of an orator. I’m not going to rehash all what he said here because it’s rather irrelevant, anyway.

To be fair to the author, he has made his name over the years as a fearless critic of presidents so he might just be doing all he can to keep up with this reputation. I know many people admire the writer and regard him as a brave—sometimes reckless—voice of reason and accountability.

President Mutharika

President Mutharika

But then again, he 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 Sunday fans.  Successful columnists write for their market and that’s precisely what is happening here.

But this was as futile a fishing expedition as any can be.

I have enormous respect for all newspaper columnists who have to write something sensible every other week. But to sledgehammer the President over his manner of speaking is really scraping the barrel.

If what Malawi needed were aesthetics and theatrics at delivering speeches, then Joyce Banda would still be president. Or Lazarus Chakwera. Or, even, Atupele Muluzi. But Joyce Banda was voted out and Peter Mutharika voted in and it had nothing to do with delivery of speeches—it was just down to pure ineptitude on the job on her part and perceived competence on his part.

Because I know the author of that column I want to dismiss his rant last week as mere hysterics, and I hope I am right. But I have a nasty feeling that what we saw last week is the future: no matter what, Peter Mutharika will do no good in the eyes of some. Nothing that happens in the next four years is ever going to please avowed critics of the Mutharika brand.

That swathes of prime newspaper real estate are dedicated to criticising not the essential content, but rather the enunciation, of a President’s speech calls into question the judgement of some of the writers we so revere in Malawi.

What astounds me about this type of journalism is that it conveniently tiptoes around the crucial matters of State and seize, instead, on trivia. 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. The directives might be a game-changer in dealing with an often lazy and uncommitted civil service. But all that was ignored.

What I need from President Mutharika is not beautiful diction. I want him to deal decisively with Cashgate of the DPP and PP eras; act to seal the loopholes so he doesn’t end up amassing a staggering fortune, like his brother did. I want President Mutharika to declare his assets and allow for that to be verified. I want him to provide economic direction, especially with the spectre of donors withholding their money. Sadly, such essential matters of the State do not seem to bother some, who rather we had a President to dazzle us with speechifying. But Peter Mutharika didn’t campaign for his presidency on the platform of oratory.

We should never have any illusions about this wonderful country and the numerous challenges it faces. 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. So there is no point in Malawi suffering collective high blood pressure because of that. Peter Mutharika is a thinker and a doer, delivering rousing speeches is evidently not his style.

It might be hard for some to admit but so far President Mutharika has done well and is looking like the man to give us the leadership we want. We have a lean Cabinet, for once, and the announcement last week unbundling OPC made it quite clear that slackers won’t be tolerated, which was never quite the case under Joyce Banda.

Should he ever forget this promise, then there are plenty of us to remind him about it.Whatever views you may hold concerning the presidency of Peter Mutharika or how he came into it, it would be difficult to deny that he has so far not done much wrong in putting this stuttering country back to work.

In this scheme of things the only surprise is some people’s obsession with trivia.

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