Far from exculpating himself from complicity in gluttonous increments to remuneration packages for political elites, Chakwera’s press statement exposes him as a sheep in a flock rather than a herdsman and someone far less than a paragon of moral probity.
Chakwera’s press statement has pretensions to being a poorly written pastoral letter. The flattery implied in this comparison only goes as far as his statement purports to catalogue some of the political gaffes of the DPP government. But all of the charges he throws at Mutharika and his government, except one, are not new. The media, civil society, activists and the general population have for weeks been barking their lungs out, pointing out these fundamental errors of judgement and flaws in political leadership.
All this time, Chakwera, who leads the opposition in a hung Parliament that gives him wide scope to lead the political debates of the country and to hold the government accountable, stood by the wayside as a disinterested observer. His understanding of his position as leader of the opposition seems to be limited to merely attending petty, resource-sapping, state functions where his presence is not even recognized.
The real reason that provoked this uncharacteristic and passionate riposte from Chakwera is that the salary increments seriously impugned his character. Yet, from the time news broke about these increments, Chakwera did not respond immediately. He bought more than 48 hours by announcing that he would hold a press conference two days later, without giving a hint about his own position there and then. By the time he revealed his position, he had had the benefit of public opinion on the matter, which he should have known would be roundly negative.
The material parts of the press statement dealing with the issue of salary increments is wrapped up in a litany of contradictions and unanswered questions. Although it is dressed in rhetorical garb, it comes across as thinly veiled dishonest and convoluted hogwash.
Chakwera’s refutation is remarkable more for what it does not say than for what it says. It does not say that he and his party opposed any proposed increments, that they have rejected them now, or that they will reject them in future. Neither does it say, better still, whether he or his party proposed or will propose more modest increments. So we do not know whether he is against any increments at all, or whether he supports some form of increments.
Despite his apparent protestations, Chakwera points to three periods in this episode – August, September and December, which prove by his own account that he was very much aware of talk of increments. At all those prior points, Chakwera chose to be a bystander, in keeping with his character thus far, abdicating his responsibility as the leader of opposition. Could it be that this was because he stood to benefit from these unjustified increments?
Indeed, even as he impliedly suggests that the increments are immoral, he does so only by reference to Mutharika’s own judgement and not by his own estimation and reasoning. More disturbing is the fact that the gist of his complaint about the increments lies in what he believes to be Mutharika’s self-portrayal as a politician who is less greedy than Chakwera and other politicians. Nowhere in the statement does Chakwera deny that he is greedy. He only rejects the narrative that he is worse in that department than Mutharika.
More concerning perhaps is the fact that Chakwera dismisses the increments as a mere distraction. It is difficult to understand how an ill-advised decision like this could ever be seen as being just a distraction. It is in and of itself an unjustified and senseless decision lock, stock and barrel, whether it is ill-timed or not!
Chakwera’s press statement stands at odds with an earlier statement attributed to the party’s spokesperson and Secretary General Jesse Kabwira, which appeared to justify the increments and made no claims about lack of knowledge about the increments within opposition ranks and the procedural impropriety that attended their approval.
This is a second time that Chakwera has directly and publicly, inappropriately, contradicted his Secretary General on a major national issue. The first related to the party’s position on federalism. Kabwira had on many occasions spoken of the party’s association with federalists and federal sentiments. On that major political issue too, the MCP was merely following the bandwagon and not leading the debate. It was only after some critical articles were published that Chakwera intervened to claim that his party had not yet taken a position, choosing again to remain in a position of comfort to follow than lead.
These two incidents hint at the fundamental inadequacies of Chakwera as a political leader. To some of us, he appears to be a person who lacks independent judgment and political gravitas, and is unprincipled and afraid to commit to any idea. This is not a man who can lay down his life for the sake of his convictions.
Chakwera simply wants the presidency on a silver plater. He believes that all he has to do is wait for the DPP to self-destruct and due to lack of alternatives, the electorate will have to vote for him. In some important ways, such thinking strikes a chord with religious thinking about the inevitability of events and the mechanistic workings of divine providence.
In Chakwera we will have a pre-ordained messiah to take us to the promised land. He will not be a product of our choices, but god-given. Such talk conduces to a fundamental overthrow of our constitutional thinking about state power, which is supposed to be constituted by the collective choices of rational human beings and exercised in a responsive and accountable manner to the people themselves.
Malawi at this stage of political inertia needs leaders who are more resolute, who can identify, define and articulate major political issues at a high level of abstraction and practicality in a transparent manner and using secular reasoning, and who can walk the talk. The country has never needed bastions of moral integrity and states-men and women more than now.
Thus far, Chakwera’s performance as opposition leader has been probably the worst since 1994. The DPP and UDF combined have a small number of MPs and yet our Parliament still remains at the margins of political debates, due in large measure to the lack of mobilization skills and lack of intellectual nous in matters of politics of Chakwera. We are yet to know the core issues that the opposition will rally around and press Parliament to adopt and on which it will hold the government to account.
At the party level, the exact political vision of the MCP remains mysterious. Chakwera has done nothing to rebuild and rebrand the MCP as a new party. On the contrary, he seems comfortable to bask in the shadow of Kamuzu Banda whom he impersonates rather poorly and from time to time senselessly apotheosizes without any regard to the harm this man caused to some Malawians, most of whom are still alive.
Significantly, Chakwera still needs to provide the nation with a plausible explanation for why, having led the nation to believe that he had won the presidential election and hence crystallizing a prolonged electoral crisis, chose to abandon legal action to prove his claims. By failing to challenge the electoral result in court, Chakwera created the impression that his party’s position was false, for which he is yet to apologize and pledge not to repeat.
If his party’s claims were correct, then he acted very irresponsibility in abandoning the legal claim because the country has been denied the opportunity to know the truth about what happened, and to carry out the necessary legal reforms that would ensure that the country is not placed in a similar position again. It is also surprising that his party seems not interested in advocating for major electoral reforms in Parliament.
All in all, the crisis of political leadership in our country has never been worse. We have a government that is completely inept. We also have an opposition leader who is happy to follow rather than lead and who also appears to be as morally suspect as the rest of the political leaders that have come before him. Somehow we have to compel both the government and the opposition to do their respective jobs, for which they are paid, diligently and in the national interest. Both are falling short of fulfilling the minimum threshold of what is expected of them, but it’s not too late for both to rectify their failings.
- Danwood Chirwa is a Malawian professor of law and one of the legal commentators relied up by Nyasa Times and Malawi mainstream media.