Chanco impasse: A case of peculiar priorities

‘Leadership is not a formula or a program; it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others’ – Lance Secretan

Malawi’s economy is stumbling; this is something the world knows now. Government is relying on its own citizens to bail itself out of this crisis, and untold burdens are pressing down on our lives. Innumerable voices of reason warned president Bingu wa Mutharika that the economic path he had taken wasn’t Malawi’s favourite, but the technocrat – who boasts an honorary professorial title – used all sorts of undiplomatic terms in very infamous counterattacks.

Practicing economists offered detailed options, but Mutharika chose to be the all-knowing man who shouldn’t take suggestions from “lesser humans”. Now, the Reserve Bank devalued our currency by 10 percent, and according to one Perks Ligoya, this should not cause us to panic. We should rest on our laurels as prices of the most basic commodities are going up, taxes have been hiked and more economic tragedies seem inevitably imminent.

In the midst of Malawi’s economic downturn, it is beyond reasonable doubt that we should expect a government that has a world class economist at the helm, to minimize spending, and practice high-level economic prudence.

But Mutharika continues defying this basic prediction. It is as though he is stubbornly crutching his half-revered principle of not moved by predictability. He is ‘Mr. Unpredictable’, and that has been debated times without number.

Take this instance: while the whole country was mourning the death of 19 people killed on July 20 in his country, Mutharika was splashing beer parties to vendors and those who chose to drink. He is also on record to have given the vendors money to aid their businesses, something which was construed to be a way of buying their support so that they should side with him.

And those that lost their lives on July 20 must be restless in their graves in the wake of the president’s lack of a humane heart and a job poorly done in paying respect to the departed. It needs not be stressed that it is only an unfeeling leader who can describe the dead as having died in vain.

Chanco female students say they are getting pregnancies for being idol

Yet, it is not only in the areas of condolence and sympathy lessons where Mutharika seems to be poorly performing; in his own field of expertise, the president has exhibited a real spirit of carelessness. A practical economist is explicitly mean with spending. He cannot allow money to go down the drain where nothing tangible is happening.

Mutharika knows classes have not yet resumed at Chancellor College, University of Malawi’s biggest institution. He also knows that millions of our devalued currency continue being spent in protracted legal battles between Chanco Academic Staff Union (Ccasu) and the University Council, in salaries paid to all Chanco employees, and more principally, to Sunbird Catering who run the college cafeteria.

And what is the president doing? Nothing! Or maybe he is just monitoring the situation with keen interest. That millions of kwacha are being spent on this period of non-productivity perhaps doesn’t ring a bell in the president’s head. And whether seeing more than 2000 university students wandering about in Zomba without looking forward to their graduation day, doesn’t call for a humanitarian action from the president, is the question Malawians have been asking.

It is difficult to understand why Mutharika has chosen to honour very peculiar priorities in the Chanco impasse. At the expense of Malawi, the president is proudly watching Council stick to their guns that Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, Franz Amin, Garton Kamchedzera and Blessings Chinsinga should remain fired.

At the expense of more than 2000 students – who perfectly engineered and calculated their way into this institution of higher learning – Mutharika is waiting upon the courts’ decision on the ‘fate’ of the four lecturers. Yet, he pretty sure knows that court cases in Malawi have the tendency of taking forever before they are concluded.

At the expense of his own integrity as an academic doctor, the president is silently watching a university college hibernate into a slumber where students’ research projects, which are intended to beef up activities in the corporate world, have stalled for more than half a year now. Whatever, Mutharika’s priorities in this impasse are, they must be very peculiar priorities.

There are many popular paradoxes and ironies that have sprouted in the saga. Council and the president are waiting upon the courts to decide on whether Kapasula and company should indeed be fired or not. This categorically implies that these parties have absolute trust that the courts will make a binding decision which should be honoured. Why then can’t they also respect the injunction which was granted by the same courts that the four remain Unima employees?

Council argues that the four were fired because they were not reporting for work. It appears there can be no more explicit legal interpretation of this apart from the ordinary understanding that it implies it was the four alone who were not reporting for work while the rest were.

Mutharika said in his 5 June speech that there would be no casualties in the whole saga and that all court cases should be withdrawn so that some semblance of normalcy could return at Chanco. In a peculiar twist of events, Council appealed against the injunction which was granted against its decision to fire the four. Was the president simply fooling Malawians when he said all court cases should be dropped? Was he just trying to score political points when he announced that there would be no casualties in the saga?

It is difficult to surmise Mutharika’s priorities in this impasse as much as it is to construe his intentions. It is in moments like this where human wisdom should indeed be analysed. Why is it that president Mutharika wants Kapasula and company fired? Should his desire continue holding the whole horde of Chanco students at ransom?

There are those who wonder why the president should be blamed in the impasse when it is Council that is clinging to its decision that the four remain fired. Matter-of-factly, Council are just pawns who are being used to propagate the high-level presidential agenda. Otherwise, if the president ordered that Chanco and the Malawi Polytechnic should reopen on 4 July, what can stop him from ordering Council to drop all the court cases and let Chanco lecturers return to class?

If the president holds the top most position in the university hierarchy, what can stop him from overseeing decisions made by his subjects and come up with a solution where others have failed?

One may say with the courage of their convictions that the president holds the ultimate key to the resumption of classes at Chanco. There is no dispute that the impasse is a dent in Mutharika’s administration, but the question remains: why has the president chosen to respect very peculiar priorities? What type of leadership and administrative skills is he employing in the saga?

There is a question people have been asking all this while: if Council knew that there were some outstanding issues between themselves and Ccasu, why did they go on to reopen the college? It was speculated that they had initially put Chanco reopening on hold until the president threatened to fire all Council members, hence the abrupt reopening – which was announced the same day the students were told to report back to college.

Perhaps, they should use their own reason more than the president’s directives. It should be clear that these academicians understand the situation at Chanco beyond politics. They are making decisions against their consciences simply to save their purses. They pretty well know that if they were making their decisions independent of any political influence, Chanco wouldn’t even have been closed in the first place. The impasse would have been cleared long ago and the lecturers would have returned to class.

But the danger with politicians running the university is that they employ their stubbornness and pride in matters that would be cleared without much ado simply to show that they have power to do so. They always strive to consolidate their authority even in areas where such acts cannot be adored.

And now politics is being played by Council itself. They are assimilating with the authority higher than them who tells them what to do and they have no courage to ask why they have to do it. It is clear that they thought that after reopening the college irrespective of the fact that there were still some outstanding issues, they would mobilize the students to turn against their lecturers.

Take this instance: a long, winding, redundant Press Release which Council released in the mainstream media was distributed to Chanco students so that they should “scrutinize it”. Realities on the ground had been twisted to such an extent that the students discovered it and chose to reject the content of the Press Release.

And later, the principal of Chanco who also happens to be a member of the University Council by virtue of his position, urged the students to ‘revolt’ against their teachers when he told them that kufa saferana (Everyman for himself and God for us all). The students rightly construed their principal’s intention and snubbed him. They didn’t go against their lecturers; they just didn’t see any reason to.

Council is desperate for ideas. It seems they have exhausted all the options they had to continue towing the presidential line. But, if they are to remain in their positions, they have to continue doing what they hate – towing the presidential line. But Malawians are eagerly hoping for the day these academicians will rise above the occasion and defy the presidential order and tell the Chanco four to go back to class. Yet, such types of people are hard to find in a society that is ruled by people who answer to a politician.

And in another exhibition of desperation, Council asked to meet Chanco students’ representatives so that they should discuss a number of issues, perhaps, even those raised in the petition which the students presented to the University Office last Monday. In the petition, the students who had been holding a vigil at the University Office since last Monday only to be blocked three days later, said they would continue doing so until the day they would fully return to class.

The students snubbed Council on the proposed meeting. Perhaps, they were just very right; why would Council choose to involve the students in the discussion without the lecturers who are the principal parties in the whole impasse? It is obvious that, like they had attempted before, Council wanted to bulldoze the students into turning against their lecturers. Otherwise, it is hard to guess what would come out of Council’s meeting with the students which would lead to the resumption of classes at the college.

Heroism is a notion most politicians seldom want to be accorded to others other than themselves. If truth be told, Mutharika doesn’t want Kapasula and company to remain at Chanco because after everything is said and done, they will be construed as the ultimate heroes. This was evident in his 4 June speech where he used phrases like “false pursuit of heroism”. Yet, while trying to unmake heroes out of the four Chanco lecturers, Mutharika is becoming more infamous. Again, this is where it becomes hard to define his priorities. In any case, they must be very peculiar priorities.

We all know that even if the president is to make a directive that learning should resume at Chanco, he can use the same Council he is using to make sure learning stalls. In this regard, he shouldn’t be afraid of losing morale after having finally “given in”. It will be a bold decision that will finally settle the dust that continues rising at the Zomba-based college.

Otherwise, the kind of political leadership he is employing in the impasse isn’t the best. He can only speak a few words and things will return to normalcy and millions of kwacha will be saved from going down the drain. He must understand that leadership, as Lance Secretan said, is not a formula or a program but rather a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others.

He should consider the plight of the students who are at the receiving end of the impasse; he should prioritise those poor parents in the remote areas who are spending the last penny they had on their sons and daughters who have not been to class fully since February. He should take into account numerous voices of reason that have pleaded with him to normalize things at Chanco.

Mutharika should do some soul searching and understand that the greatest of all leaders is he who is willing to follow his people. He holds the key to the resumption of normal teaching and learning at Chanco, and if he himself doesn’t do anything, all other parties involved might just be struggling in vain.

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