Choosing a president: Intellect, character and Malawi’s leadership

I have lived in the city of Lilongwe for close to three years now, and I have no idea who the MP of my area is. I do not even know the name of my constituency. Whoever is the MP here has never been to this area to talk to us the constituents in the three years I have lived here. If they have, I never heard about it. Now in addition to voting for an MP and a state president on 20th May, I will also have to vote for a councillor. I have no idea what the name of my ward is. Worse still, I do not know a single candidate who is running for councillor in this ward.

This afternoon I passed by poster on a tree just outside the main entrance to the African Bible College campus. The poster had a name of a candidate asking to be voted for as councillor. The poster named the candidate’s party, and that was all. I have never heard of this person before, and the poster did not saying else. I do not even know if the place where I saw the poster is in my ward or not; it is some two kilometres away from my house.

I probably have myself to blame for having no knowledge of the names of my ward and my constituency, and who is running for councillor and MP. But it is also the case that the candidates running in my ward and constituency are doing little to inform voters like me. There are two or three names with vibrant campaigns for councillor in Lilongwe city wards, but with no knowledge of how wards and constituencies are drawn in the city, I have no idea if these people will be on my ballot paper or not.

In contrast, I know a lot more about candidates running in other parts of the country. Some of them I know because they are running in my ancestral home, others because they have a very vibrant, creativecampaign strategy on social media, on radio and in the newspapers. Some are even my friends. In this campaign season, my eyes and ears are trained on which party and which candidate, at all the three voting levels, demonstrates the most comprehensive understanding of what lies at the roots of the problems this country is facing.

Some weeks ago Frederick Ndala, editor of the The Malawi News, showed the candidates what it means to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of Malawi’s problems. In an opinion piece titled “Who will get my vote?” (Sunday Times, 16th February 2014), Ndala called upon candidates to “address real national issues with practical solutions.” Ndala’s exhortation hinged on why it was not enough for candidates to repeat what everyone knows already; insecurity, food crises, bad economy, unemployment, poor education. Rather, candidates need to suggest practical solutions to these problems, argued Ndala.

In this campaign season, I am going a step deeper. I am looking for an outstanding analysis of what exactly has caused the problems, why they have become entrenched, and what strategies have not been tried before. Anything short of this is not going to be good enough.

There is something about politics that turns perfectly good, well-meaning, honest, reasonable, intelligent people into “unfathomable fools,” to quote a candidly spoken and oft-repeated description from Professor Thandika Mkandawire a few years ago. And this happens not in Malawian politics only, it happens everywhere. Too many wonderful people have been transformed into paragons of mediocrity it has become clear there is something fatally wrong with the system. A candidate who fails to grasp this fundamental aspect and to articulate how to change it has no business running.

In their pastoral letter read out in all their churches a few Sundays ago, the CCAP’s Nkhoma Synod expressed grave concern “with the secrecy in the way matters of national interest are dealt with.” For me this is of paramount significance. Thanks to unsung whistle-blowers, we have been made aware of top secret, underhand deals that go on in the confines of State House meant to profit the president and their inner circle, at great detriment to the national cause.

Shrewd business people and agents, both local and international, know this too well. They expend unmentionable amounts of largesse to curry favour with the president. This is the reason why declaring one’s assets has become as unthinkable as drawing water from a rock. A presidential candidate who wishes this country well will need to demonstrate a critical understanding of this problem and have a clear plan for how address it.

We cannot afford to continue having presidents who are bought by the highest bidder. We have barons in this country whose sole aim is to continue multiplying their wealth and tightening their economic stranglehold on the country. I am looking for a candidate who can deal with this vice in a decisive manner. This country needs more whistle-blowers, with full legal protection.

The crux of this problem, wrapped in presidential power and privilege is impunity, singled out in the Nkhoma Synod pastoral letter as well as in the Catholic Bishops’ earlier pastoral letter in December 2013. In his Sunday Times column of 23rd March Levi Kabwato says it this impunity that propelled cashgate. He writes, and this is worth reproducing in full: “The rogues who unashamedly participated in robbing our national vault did so with the full knowledge that they would not get caught. In the unlikely event of being caught, they had the confidence that nothing would happen to them because, somehow, they are untouchable.”

Disregard for ‘inconvenient’ laws starts with the presidency and becomes the norm for everyone else. Rule of law has become a tool to be unleashed on opposition parties and on powerless citizens while the ruling party and powerful elites are exempt from it. While there is no single solution that can heal Malawi and chart a new path to a new and better future, restoring rule of law and ending impunity has to be top of the agenda of any candidate who wants my vote.

Without a sophisticated understanding of the depths of impunity and lawlessness the country has sunk into, it does not matter which party or which candidate wins the 20th May election. There will be a zero chance of giving Malawians new hope for a better country. I am looking for a candidate that can analyse the root causes of this problem, why it became entrenched, and what solutions have not been tried before.

Reforming the civil service was a huge topic in the first running-mates debate in Lilongwe. The running-mates demonstrated varying degrees of understanding of what ails the civil service and how to reform it. But without knowledge of what reforms have been tried before, and why they failed, we are doomed to more experiments that will not lead to any meaningful reform.

Performance appraisals have been on the agenda for as long as the civil service has existed, but they have never been implemented. I will vote for candidate who will go beyond the rhetoric and demonstrate a profound commitment to reforming the civil service in ways that have not been attempted before.

There have been numerous studies on how to restructure salary scales in the civil service, and they have all ended up on shelves, baking in the infamous Lilongwe dust. The results have been there for all to see; severe demoralisation whose worst effects have manifested themselves in what has become a “cashgate mindset” in the entire public and even private sector. The education system has been made to bear the most visible of these effects.

And it is in education where the effort to rebuild Malawi must begin. Education has featured very little in the political discourse thus far. In this campaign season I am looking for a party that can astutely analyse causes of the current problems facing the education system. The candidates and their teams need to lay out long-term, well thought-out, feasible and practical plans to revive Malawi’s education system as the bedrock for future development.

We have now had a generation of disgruntled, disempowered and disappointed teachers who have so much bottled-up anger. A country whose teachers feel hopeless and helpless cannot inspire the young generation. That country will be doomed to perpetual mediocrity.

In the final analysis, no one president or running-mate can turn Malawi around single-handedly. What I am looking for in this campaign season is a candidate who has thought long and hard about Malawi’s complex problems, and has a plan for how to inspire Malawians to become active citizens in understanding our conditions and offering solutions.

This will be a candidate able to provide what Edge Kanyongolo, in his Nation on Sunday column (30th March, 2014) calls “straight answers to straight questions on specific issues.” Kanyongolo poses six questions to which he wants “clear, unambiguous answers.” These range from cost of living versus minimum wage, the Labour Tenants Bill, homosexuality and abortion, the National Land Policy, accounting for past human rights abuses, to implementing Section 65.

But over and above the in-depth understanding of Malawi’s problems that I am looking for and the “straight answers” Edge Kanyongolo is asking for, Ephraim Nyondo makes a compelling case to scrutinise the “character” of the people who are asking for our votes (Nation on Sunday, 30th March).

Nyondo argues that “the country’s direction is not being driven by how conversant and articulate our leaders are on issues affecting Malawians, but rather, on the character of the person holding the presidency.” He suggests that it is character that is more important, defined through “integrity, temperament, patriotism, dedication and values . . .”

While agreeing with Nyondo, I suggest that we need a leader who has both an in-depth understanding of the issues, as well as character capable of bringing about the kind of change previous leaders have failed to bring. I am looking for a candidate able to inspire Malawians towards self-empowerment initiatives and taking responsibility for our destiny. That calls for both intellect and character.

  •  Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in The Malawi News of Saturday, 22nd March, 2014, under a different title. It has been updated and revised to reflect on-going discussions on what to look for in a president.

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