Empty political promises and the fallacy of podium policies in Malawi

“Every politician has a promising career. Unfortunately, most of them do not keep those promises.” ~ Jarod Kintz

Malawians have developed a culture of falling for empty political promises and political leaders are making the most of it. One would think that after 20 years of democracy the country should be at a point where some of the mistakes must not be repeated. Why do we continue to fall for empty political promises our leaders make on political podium, press conferences and meetings with interest groups?

Since 1994 Malawi leaders have been full of promises that are never met, mostly because these promiseswere never genuine in the first place. President Peter Mutharika has been in power for less than 100 days and it is unfair to judge him alongside his three “democratic” predecessors – Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika and Joyce Banda.

President Mutharika
President Mutharika

Peter Mutharika has so far shown some signs that he may do some things differently – again, it is too early to judge. But last week he showed that he is happy to continue with what I call “podium policies”. These are promises that are made on a political podium in order to excite the listening crowds; statements that are made in press conferences in order to gate away with tricky questions or to manipulate positive headlines, there are statements that are made in meetings with interest groups in order to satisfy people’s ego and expectations. Podium policies are rarely, if at all, fulfilled.

On his recent Africa/ US summit in Washington, USA, President Mutharika promised a group of Malawians in diaspora that he would look into their request on allowing dual citizenship in Malawi. The issue of dual citizenship has been around for sometime but Mutharika made this promise in response to a request from the said group of Malawians. As such, it is important to underline the fact that this was not a policy commitment by any means; it was a response to a question the President needed to answer.

President Mutharika may yet be in favour of dual citizenship, after all he has lived in diaspora himself for the majority of his adult life but I would be happy to know why this was not among his campaign pledges, which I must say had some progressive promises.

I am sceptical of this because the last 20 years of democracy in Malawi has given me enough reasons to. The country is full of sad stories of unfulfilled promises our leaders have made, and they get away with it. Part of the reason is that the local media tend to report stories unchallenged and without proper context – what is known as “he said, she said,” reporting. Let us make it clear that president’s promises are not a national policy, yet that can be carried forward even with a change in leadership.

Malawi has had 3 presidents between 2012 and 2014. In a democracy sometimesleadership change can be this swift and chaotic. You cannot follow up personal promises such as this one. If folks want policy changes, it is important to follow proper channels, or institute some if there is not any. As much as the president wields a lot of power in this country, we must realise that a president is not boma, as political zealots make us believe. Presidents come and go; government must carry forward a state policy, regardless who is in power.

Podium policies have never worked in Malawi. Two stories that provide some context and perspective on this were reported in the local press last month. Sunday Times of July 13th 2014 reported a story on the late Michael Sauka’s family. Mr Sauka is a composer of the Malawi Nation Anthem. The headline read:  “[Michael] Sauka not fully honoured”.

The headline is not entirely accurate because history tells us that Mr Sauka won a national anthem composing competition and he was duly paid for his wonderful work. Anything that goes his way is a token of appreciation, not obligation. But you cannot blame Sauka’s for thinking otherwise. For some reason, the former president, Bakili Muluzi went to the family and made promises. To the family, this was a government promise. Bakili ndi boma,after all.

The late Sauka’s grandson, Wisdom Sauka, told the newspaper that the family was concerned a government’s promise to build them a family house has not been honoured. “We tried to pursue the matter through other channels but were pushed from one corner to the other. What else we could have done?”Sunday Times quoted Sauka. The grandson added:

“I do recall that our family was once called to meet the former president Bakili Muluzi at his private residence in 2004. He then started paying our house rentals in Ndirande but that did not last long due to change of government.”

Nation on Sunday of July 27th 2014 reported a similar story. This one was on families of July 20, 2011 demonstrations shooting victims those in the north. “Families want APM to end July 20 lies” was the headline. The “lies” President Mutharika is supposed to end were promises made by the former President Joyce Banda – never a state policy.

According to the paper, in 2012 Mrs Banda ordered the Ministry of Tourism and Culture to construct tombstones for the victims. Now that Mrs Banda is no longer a State President her promises are unlikely to be honoured, it was her own project, not a government policy. “The unmarked graves mirror lies and broken promises that have paved their [families of the victims] futile wait”, the newspaper aptly concluded.

Here we have it: Malawi politicians thrive on people’s misery, desperations and helplessness. As a country, we must learn and depart from this skewed way of think. We must use proper lobbing channels and ways to influence policies instead of dealing with presidents as individuals. A state president is not bom aand government policies are not made on a podium. What is said on podiums is for political ends.

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