Malawi: A presidency of contradictions

If you are brave enough to call for a press conference then you should be tough enough to face the microphones without believing you would somehow be better at it by surrounding yourself with a bunch of Cabinet ministers and technocrats.

I am, of course, assuming that Tuesday’s reading of a needlessly long and badly crafted communiqué that was followed by presidential mumbles and a few minutes of questions from the press who President Peter Mutharika told to hurry with their questions because he was late for another engagement, never mind that it is him who showed up late in the first place, qualifies to be called a press conference.

But I digress.

Apart from the oxidized communiqué newscaster, Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa and the awestruck continuity announcer of the event, deputy press secretary Timpuza Mwansambo, it was only Mutharika who handled the questions. So, was it necessary to have a roomful of those other folks—some of whom were seen grinning stupidly or simply faking mirth at humourless presidential jokes? To what end? Was it to give the President moral support or to telepathically send him answers to tricky questions?

For me, President Mutharika may not be a born communicator and his disjointed and directionless opening remarks confirmed this, but his responses to questions were intellectually engaging and displayed a grasp of issues deserving of respect. He, therefore, did not need to take all those people from their offices to be there with him. After all, it goes counter to his reform measures.

Let me refresh some memories.

It was only a few weeks ago, on July 12 to be exact, when Mutharika, through the Civil Service and Public Service Reforms Commission issued a statement announcing a number of measures aimed at ensuring efficiency and effectiveness of the civil service.

Apart from plucking various services from the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) and putting them under relevant line ministries, the commission also issued a directive on the attendance of public events by government workers.

Specifically, according to the commission, President Mutharika ordered that:

—Chief executive officers of public institutions, principal secretaries and other senior public officers need to spend more time attending to their core functions. Consequently, these officials will not be allowed to attend public or presidential functions except where the functions or events pertain to their organisations. The announcement emphasised that these officials will be recognised through their performance and NOT [emphasis is the commission’s] by the number of public events which they will attend.

—Women civil servants will only be allowed to perform at public functions that directly relate to their profession or organisation or at an event to commemorate an anniversary or celebration of national or international significance. In such cases, controlling officers will be required to exercise strict discretion on the number of female civil servants to participate in such events.

I thought that these are very important executive orders and should go a long away in saving resources, freeing up time for the top technocrats to concentrate on their jobs and deliver better services to the public. So, why, I can’t help asking, was that press conference room full of bureaucrats and Cabinet ministers who had no role to play?

Furthermore, the directive on the attendance of presidential events should also be extended to ordinary people whose time and energy greatly contributes to the development of the country.

Thus, Mutharika can do well to see to it that no Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cadre or overzealous government worker should mobilise members of the general public to flock to the airport to welcome the Head of State from official business, particularly outside the country.

When I heard the mobilisation war cry on radios urging people to go to the airport in large numbers to welcome the President, I could not help, but wonder at the ridiculous irony of the situation.

Here is an administration that has issued a directive that only public officers whose jobs have some relevance to a presidential event should attend such, but the same DPP management thinks that an event such as the arrival of the President from the United States of America (USA) is relevant enough to the public to warrant their abandoning of their otherwise productive endeavours that would have contributed to national development in favour of a boisterous welcome to Professor Mutharika? I mean, the civil service is simply a facilitator of national development. The Malawian public is the main player in this process. Does it make sense to make the facilitator work more efficiently while letting the primary driver of development to waste away at an irrelevant welcoming party?

President Prof. Peter Mutharika
President Prof. Peter Mutharika

My take is that when you are dealing with a national problem that is engraved in the national psyche, it is important that the message is channelled throughout the nation.

In other words, if, for example, it is not productive for female civil servants to dance for the President, then it is not productive for all women in the country to do so just as the so-called youth morale can apply their energies in more helpful endeavours than painting themselves blue while carrying and waving around presidential portraits when campaign time is over and the next one is more than five years away. You simply cannot have your cake and keep it.

As an administration, the DPP regime cannot pick and choose when and where its policies should apply; that if it makes political sense then it is okay. It is not and it must stop.

If Mutharika is serious about ending the culture of glorifying the presidency; of people deluding themselves that the sun rises and sets with the Head of State, then he must go beyond just reminding civil servants that they don’t have to worship him to maintain their jobs; only high performance can guarantee that.

So, yes, civil servants must focus on their jobs not the political masters, but then, so should the general public.

The article first  appeared in the Weekend Nation newspaper on ‘Cut the Chuff’ column

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