Malawi: Growing a healthy democracy after Bingu wa Mutharika

Bingu wa Mutharika, resting in peace, was a man of contrasting personality. He oozed with passion and love for Malawi; his bemoaning of poverty amidst vast wealth of natural resources and the declaration that Malawi and Africa is not poor but her people, was a phenomenal paradigm shift that added impetus to the progressive agenda of African Renaissance, for which Thabo Mbeki remains a proponent.  Others, however, would cast the former Malawi ruler May 2004 to April 2012 as a level headed economist that lacked accommodative capacities for other people’s opinions.

To the many Malawians sitting on the fence, Bingu seemed to have stood firm on his beliefs even when these positioned him on a collision course with the greater part of his countrymen. Beyond this examination, others would look at such traits as what makes one his own man and not mere stubbornness; for Bingu the president, if there is much to separate him from the person, did not seem to  regret or be remorseful for some controversial remarks and decisions he made; examples are in abundance – the introduction of the quota system and murky remarks and insinuations thereof; the change of national flag; the implementation of the zero-deficit budget; the handling of public discontent leading to country-wide demonstrations in July, 2011 against deteriorating economy and governance; the non-apology of Peter Mukhito, the inspector general of police in the academic freedom impasse; the declaration of persona non-grata of Cochrane Dyet the British high commissioner against international advice all seemed to bewilder the nation professing democracy, good governance and the rule of law.

Late Bingu wa Mutharika

Granted a person must have beliefs and values; it was, however, the seemingly failure by Mutharika to use the skills of compromise, concession and consensus that seemed to portray Malawi as a delinquent democracy – and resulted in the country and her people paying a high price social economically and politically. It must be mentioned, however, that the process of putting a nation on a delinquent or pathological pedestal as was the case with Malawi in the Bingu administration, was/is not only dependent on the leader’s personality, but how this interacts with other crucial social and government organs and vice versa. A nation state can be likened with a living organism – complete with both self-destructive and self-preserving propensities; the more self-preserving propensities the nation has, the healthier; and the contrary, the delinquency.

The functionality (healthiness) and delinquency (unhealthiness) of the nation or is determined by the society’s prevailing culture; the leadership personality and the functioning of other state organs that impact on people’s ways of life – namely here: parliament, judiciary, security organs and indeed other like media and industry. As we usher in a People’s Party (PP) government, we would do well to reflect on the pitfalls of the previous DPP government for some lessons.

The prevailing culture

The total sum of individual behaviours of Malawians can help to offer a picture on the state of health of the country’s leadership and that of the nation thereof. Such descriptions like tolerant or ethnocentric, hardworking or laziness, God fearing or religious liberal, backbiter or not, all may shape the personality of the leader.  Leaders grown up in an environment that predisposes them to nuances of immaterial culture – be they prescriptions and proscriptions, prejudices and stereotypes – all of which, have influence on the leader’s personality. Dangerous among such subtle cultural aspects is the tendency to cloud reasoning and potentially position a leader on a path riddled with narrow minded interests. For example, a dangerous precedence rife in the conscious of Malawians is that of ethnic consciousness. It is so powerful, partly because Malawi’s former leaders – especially Kamuzu Banda and Mutharika entrenched it; so much so that circumventing it and wishing it away is suicidal. Events like Mulhako wa Alhomwe are no different from any particular grouping in Malawi professing consciousness by geography, cultural heritage and language. Ethnic consciousness has wrongly been maligned with ethnocentrism, although it can lead to it.

The dilemma is that ethnocentrism – the tendency to have repulsive attitudes against other ethnic groups and their way of life, while promoting one’s self as superior, is routinely dismissed on political podiums, and yet nursed privately. Peter wa Mutharika’s slur against Chimunthu Banda and Ken Kandodo in a 2011 gossip, which led to the firing of MIJ FM reporter Joseph Mwale for recording it, comes across as a classic example of leaders that preach righteousness to charm Malawians across the cultural spectrum and yet perpetrate intolerance themselves. Already because of this entrenched ethnic consciousness in the way political power is gained and lost in this country, and the resultant perception of how it is executed leaves a sour taste in Joyce Banda’s ascendancy to power; for like the previous presidents since 1994 and the ones to come, naturally they do not escape this ethnic microscope. Ways must be found therefore to either formalize this through a fundamental restructuring of our political system and or explore ways that will balance up diversity in a manner to achieve trust and allow mutual interaction. Some commentators have spoken about provincial or federal political system; others have talked about a parliamentary system et cetera. All in all, there is need of a type of political system that can capture and endeavour satisfying the needs of our ethnic-consciousness driven society – because for now, this is inescapable.

The personality of a Leader

The personality of the nation is dependent on the personality of the leader and other state organs that provide restraint elements. Chances are a serene leader will make a dignified nation; a combative leader will make cantankerous nation – only with the exception of other stronger bodies that provide restraints to such self-destructive traits. But even then, this can only be possible where the leader has capacity to experience certain attitudes and emotions in response to restraints emitted by these social control agents. Chief among the expected traits being: a positive mindset for interpreting restraints as opposed to paranoia and revenge; and the capacity to experience secondary emotions of remorse and regret respectively.

I think there are further capacities, to possess, for a president fired up to serve in a democracy – restraint and resilience; otherwise, one can wait for service in a dictatorship environment – which unfortunately is being shelved by societies, to the displeasure of those who thrive in ruling zombies. This fact is important; because, a leader in a democracy must graduate from containing personality propensities of a smaller social unit say a family or organization, to that of a nation. This calls for maturity and level headedness. Further, unlike in an organization where one is sometimes appointed to positions to achieve objective results; the fundamental difference in the presidency is that one volunteers oneself, and promises people (the electorate) to achieve their subjective needs.

Surely, as a duty bearer, this is a huge task – likened to a father with a bloated home either by choice of poor child spacing and or other factors. The responsibility of guardianship will be stressful, there will be strain; but those are the more reasons to show exceptional parenting skills to contain the needs of the family members; failure to carefully negotiate these pitfalls will result in confrontational and abusive reactions to often a mixture of mature, passive and immature demands of the dependents. This sets a stage for a delinquent family. This scenario fits the billing for nation states leaders and how they use their propensities in interacting with the larger populous for which  no one but themselves are to blame for declaring openly that they fit the requirements for the vacancy of president.

Other State Organs

As we move forward into the post-Muntharika era, another area to seriously consider in our democratic growth curve is the interaction between political leadership of the country and other organs of the state. There are opportunities and threats here also; where the executive respects the operation of the other arms of government namely: the judicial system, the parliament and the media, democratic vibrancy other than democratic delinquency may prevail. For leadership assertiveness can easily be made out from dictatorship where mutual respect and not interference exist. Unfortunately we have witnessed time and again where the executive would wish to or has actually curtailed the independence of such organs, thereby compromising or invalidating their powers and putting a nation into a delinquent path.

Within the legal system, I isolate executive interaction with the law enforcers and justice dispensing institutions. Constitutionally, the institution of police is designated a preserving function as is the army. However the police’s constitutional role has been perpetually compromised by successive regimes of Kamuzu Banda, Bakili Muluzi and Bingu wa Mutharika; it has tended to play a mixture of both preservation and mass destruction roles. While the police conscience may make them want to do a professional job, the interference into their work by the executive – seen in the arrest of reverend Levi Nyondo of CCAP Synod of Livingstonia; the persecution of opposition leaders; the death of 20 demonstrators in July, 2011; the death of a polytechnic student Robert Chasowa, all come across as examples of executive interference in police work. At other times the battle has been with the courts and yet another of the significant institution has been the parliament.

The folly of parliament in Malawi has always been MPs serving party bosses and not the electorate. You have brainy individuals who suddenly become headless and daft once voted into parliament and become blind enactors of unpopular laws. Parliament and judiciary respectively, serve restraint factors in society – where making of good laws result in a vibrant society, and bad laws in bad state of affairs. Similarly, just interpretation of the law plays a preservative function and faulty one a predisposition for social chaos and threat to democracy. Thus it will benefit Malawi for parties to allow MPs to agree to disagree once in a while with policies of their parties; this is what democracy is all about. Whether history will continue to repeat itself in Joyce Banda’s short regime, we must wait. However, she has won herself a lifetime opportunity to leave a lasting legacy by instituting fundamental constitutional and governance changes.

Another social control body is the media. The executive relationship with the media, world over, has usually been frosty – chiefly because of the investigative, sniffing demeanor of the media – for items that government would wish classified. Banda will have to open the airwaves and end the MBC monopoly and misinformation. A good lesson for Banda is in knowing that with DPP out of power, they will learn the modest warning of freeing air waves as they will need this tool more. They will thank their move to offer licenses to such groups as Mulhakho and such licenses as Galaxy. JB has an opportunity to strengthen transparency with such a gesture. This country is long overdue for other private radio and TV stations to unshackle Malawians once and for all from an automated status.

 The Language of Politics

One political institution that has remained the same since dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda is language, crude language. While in HKB’s era this was the exclusive domain of his lieutenants, the likes of late Charles Kamphulusa and late George Bundawunda Phiri; in Muluzi and Bingu’s governments, the masters did join the bandwagon of their lieutenants in the use of crude language on political podia – others have called this, verbiosis or suffering from a disease of crude language. Joining Muluzi and Bingu in this league of verbal onslaughts was Muluzi’s one time regional governor for the south, the late Davis Kapito; and in Bingu’s adminstration, we have Patricia Kaliati, partisan Bright Malopa the then director of MBC and others. What we might not know now is that because the political events of the presidents in the past have been uncountable, often broadcast and rebroadcast over and over again unedited and in their entirety, we have had 40 and 18years respectively on radios and TV, of unofficial extra-curricular lessons in Malawian political language – which guaranteed is intergenerational, as it is imprinted in us actively and or passively.

Despite the knowledge of language being powerful as to make or break societies, none of the past leaders had taken an active role to reprimand their associates or denounce their behaviour. Thus this has served a number of purposes: reinforcing not just the language, but also indoctrinating nursery politicians with destructive oratory in politics. Previous regimes have not done our children justice in this area – especially when we consider that these presidential diaries had become quite heavy. It would seem that the motive has always been competition to break the record for the crudest politician on a political podium. One would wish therefore that presidential diaries were X-rated or at least given some censorship board rating – say LVIP15 for – Language, Violence, Insults and Prejudice and fit for those fifteen years and above.

For how do Malawian children embrace the Ubunthu philosophy if what they hear are insults from political party stewards day in day out? How do parents ensure the safety of children when leaders that preach respect for each other, meant to be models in society undress respectable people in public? How do parents explain to children that the MBC is not a hatred perpetrating media house – when a whole cabinet minister churns insults using the worst words than those children are normally disciplined for? JB may need to cut the embryo of anger; hate and divisive language that come from political leaders by practicing this herself, curbing on presidential diaries and denouncing those in the executive podiums that tend to go unregulated or disciplined.

 In Conclusion

Bingu wa Mutharika – with all his faults, was visionary. He will have to be remembered for pioneered some vital infrastructural developments during his tenure in office. Immediate history will write unkindly about him for his attempts to hijack democracy and put Malawi on a destructive path. For this reason, the Joyce Banda regime has abundant goodwill, as she will be expected to repeal some of the bad laws; restore donor confidence and rule by law. She has to cab Sycophancy and intimidation that characterizes cheerleaders. While political revenge is not the objective, this must not be confused with calling previous politicians to account for their actions.

Demanding for accountability is not revenge; Malawians expect the culture of impunity to end. Societies have a tendency for f collective amnesia and or collective state of apology sometimes – the tendency to forget easily and turn a blind eye to what might even be considered a misdemeanor in the executive and the ruling party is what institutionalizes impunity. Thus Malawi must wish Joyce Banda well cautiously; while her personality may stabilize the nation, there is need to look beyond her personhood for lasting political solutions. The presidency is the office, it has trappings of power where one may use restraint and be admired after tenure while the system itself is rotten. For this reason, the president must instead be urged to bring fundamental changes, be they constitutional on the subject of power, current structures and challenges. The receptive the personal attributes the better.

*Ndumanene Devlin Silungwe, Mzuzu Based Psychologist

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