Malawi President Peter Mutharika thought he was being clever. Malawians, he reckoned, were desperate for a 20-member Cabinet and so, he decided, they would get their wish.
That he did, in drips and drops, but by the end of the day, there it was—the magical number, 20.
He received praises from all the major players, including the media, economic and political commentators as well as civil society leaders.
Everyone was excited that at long last, we may have a President who gets it; a leader who is ready to walk the talk; a Head of State who can sacrifice personal friendship and a show of gratitude to those who supported him during the campaign for the sake of the larger good.
Nation on Sunday even went further and computed that if President Mutharika maintains a 20-member Cabinet throughout his five-year term as promised, he will be saving taxpayers over K1.2 billion in pay packages alone.
That would be saving K20.2 million monthly with 20 ministers compared with former president Joyce Banda’s last Cabinet of 32.
Was this the end of cronyism; of punishing foes and rewarding friends? Would this be the President who would stand up to party loyalists and tell them to jump into Lake Malawi for all he cared?
Fat chance as it has turned out.
Mutharika buckled under relentless pressure from party operatives and financiers for him to give jobs or opportunities to those Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) folks who spent their time and resources to ensure that he was elected into office.
His resolve melted.
The President mellowed in the excuse that since he had appointed the lean Cabinet that everyone wanted, he could get away with as many advisers as possible.
In fact, I am reliably informed that most of these advisers were appointed sometime back, but State House delayed their announcement because, rightly as it turned out, it would wipe out the good press they had been getting with the small Cabinet and reform measures.
Thus, the announcement of the advisers too was rationed like fuel during DPP’s disastrous 2009-2012 reign.
What Mutharika and his team of so-called strategists did not realise was that Malawians were counting the numbers—and the costs.
In the end, President Mutharika was caught with his pants down trying to cheat Malawians that he had a lean Cabinet while those who could have been deputy ministers were essentially ushered into advisory positions.
Like most presidents, especially Peter’s brother Bingu wa Mutharika, he underestimated Malawians and insulted their intelligence.
The result was disastrous.
Leading opinion leaders pounced and called out the President; that he was being disingenuous and employing double standards.
And what was the reaction from State House through the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Civic Education?
We got a long statement that gave out some information that left out inconvenient details and generally attacked everyone who told the President to stick to his commitments not to make appeasement appointments.
“Government wishes to dismiss this impression as erroneous and an irresponsible mockery of the truth,” reads the statement in part.
It concluded with the following lecture: “It is also imperative to appeal to all those with the urge for making public pronouncements to only do so when they have accessed correct information. There is no responsibility in exercising the right to free expression by churning out falsehoods, distortions and fabrications.”
This whole statement missed the point, which was that it does not make austerity sense to put people on the government payroll when their services are not needed.
For example, does it make sense to have a whole State House press secretary with a legion of press officers on one hand and a whole Ministry of Information on the other and still have someone with the obnoxious title of chief adviser on communication and strategy? Which communication? Which strategy?
And then you also have a political adviser? You don’t end there. You pick up some character from political oblivion to unify all of us as if there is evidence that we are somehow divided?
As if that is not enough, someone is also there to advise the President on capacity building when we have the whole Department of Human Resource Management and Development, which has real experts with training and orientation in the same area?
The point is that most of these characters will have nothing to do except follow the President around where they will be burning millions in fuel and allowances, not forgetting getting in the way of technical people in the main civil service who want to get the job done.
All these are costs we can do without, especially when government is neck-deep in the treacherous waters of debt and budget deficits that the administration has no clue about how to swim out of them.
It is also important that the President understands that Malawians respect leaders who keep their words not those who believe they can explain away their policy reversals.
Remember, this is the President who said he will not be a tit-for-tat leader, but proceeded to fire most of the Joyce Banda appointees without giving any reasons. What else will the President change his professorial mind on?
Granted, I get it that the President has the prerogative to hire and fire anyone, but I also want to believe that he must be accountable to us who bear the cost of his decisions.
It is that simple, really.
- The article first appeared in the Weekend Nation column on ‘Cut the Chaff’