- This speech was delivered on Sunday, 30 September when Washington University conferred upon President Peter Mutharika the Doctor of Humane Letters in St. Louis, United States
Since I received the Charles Nagel Professorship, ten years ago, I have received a Doctor of Humane Letters from the Addis Ababa University – the oldest university in modern Africa.
A few weeks ago, I received yet another Professorship from the University of International Business and Economics – a well leading Chinese university of our times.
This conferral today has however touched me most personally, and humbled me the most. When I arrived at this University in 1972, I never thought this moment would come. Washington University and the community of St. Louis have inspired the passion that drives me to lead my country today.
Today, I want to share with you a story of my political journey.
I came here to the United States in search of political refuge. My political journey began with my fight against colonialism. The colonial government arrested me at the age of 19. But we conquered British colonialism and got our Independence.
But in no time, we entered a dark tunnel of death and darkness. Malawi became a dictatorship within one year after Independence. I disagreed with the President at the time, and the government hunted my life.
I fled my country together with my brother. But I paid a painful price. One day, Government agents came and killed my father by beating him to death because he couldn’t tell them where we had gone. So, I was escaping from political persecution when I came to work in this University.
This University and the St. Louis community gave me a home for forty years while I was in exile in this country. I will always be grateful to this University and the community of St. Louis.
This is the place that fortified my spirit. This is the place that shaped my political thought. This is the place that consolidated my vision and inspired my activism for forty years of my life. This is the place where I raised my children.
For forty years, I thought of my country as a Promised Land. For forty years, I remembered a long walk in the desert, where Moses began the journey of a nation from suffering to prosperity. For forty years, I remembered a Great Voice that said:
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
And I am driven by that stubborn belief that, one day, my country will become a great nation.
This is the place where I met great ideas and heard great voices that inspired my determination to do something for my country. I shared a secret dream.
While political persecution and misery rose in my country, I shared that faith, that we will one day cut “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” as Martin Luther King believed.
It was here that I found inspiration in Martin Luther King’s peaceful activism. I found resonance in his political thought – a passion against imperialism, poverty, violence and economic inequality; and a passion for nationalism and social justice.
I learnt never to ask what my country can do for me, but to ask what I can do for my country.
While I happily lived with neighbours in Ames Place in the University City and in Creve Coeur, sitting on school boards and engaging in other community activities, I never stopped fighting for democracy in my country.
As an educationist in comparative legal systems, my career gave me an opportunity to compare different systems of governance across the world. For forty years, I asked myself what can work best for my country.
The first opportunity to apply my experience in comparing legal systems and foundations of Governance only came in 1993. The dictatorship fell with the end of the Cold War when the repressive regime also lost protection from some global powers.
At this point, I returned to my country and participated in drafting the first Constitution for our democracy.
I went back with many ideas inspired at this University. My career gave me the privilege to appreciate how the founding fathers of America laid the cornerstones of success for individuals who dream big and work hard.
I got inspired by the idea of political freedom and the right of citizens to exercise free will within the law as Patrick Henry thought. I now believe that citizens only prosper when given freedom but within the law.
I found inspiration in the universal principles emphasized by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in The Declaration of American Independence. Up to this day, I believe every government exists for the benefit of the people.
That is why I often say power is not status but responsibility. I believe leadership is not prestige but responsibility.
Day and night, I am always mindful that my job as a leader is looking after millions of lives – including those who do not wish me well. And every life matters to me because every life is precious. This is what I call servant leadership.
Over the years I taught in this University, I thought of the possibility of leading my country one day. But I struggled with one question: what would be the best approach to take Malawi from poverty to prosperity?
I noted that the overarching challenge with African countries is the problem of state capability. I was concerned with the lack of capacity of African states to act independently and determine their economic autonomy. I saw my country in the same situation.
I thought this incapability was conditioned by two major factors. First was colonialism, which used education to destroy Africans’ belief in themselves. It created a collective inferiority complex, a negative self-concept by making Africans to believe that there was nothing good about them. As I speak, the biggest challenge in my country is the problem of mindset. We think too negatively.
The second problem is that we have been caught up in a global economic system that is tilted against our favour. The system is organized to marginalise Africa from the global decision-making processes. The decision to pump aid into Africa as opposed to bringing investments and industries has never been in favour of Africa. In fact, it has only destroyed Africa.
Again, my university job in international economic law made me understand different economic systems and their foundations. I also learnt to appreciate challenges nations face and how they resolve them.
I concluded that Malawi needs five things:
1) We need to move from aid to trade. But we can only trade if we produce goods. Therefore, we need to industrialise.
2) We need foreign direct investors who must inject in capital, create industries and create jobs.
3) We however needed to be democratic to create an environment for foreign direct investment.
4) We need to create a skilled labour society in order to empower the Youth to be productive agents of the industrialisation process.
5) We need infrastructure such as roads and energy to support the investment and industrialization process.
Since I came to power in 2014, we have focused on:
a) Moving from aid to trade using direct investment.
b) Mobilizing foreign direct investment. And Malawi is rising on the Global Index of Doing Business. Malawi has become the investment haven of Southern Africa.
c) Ensuring that the foreign investors together with our rural communities begin serious industrialization. At the same time, we are improving agriculture to provide raw materials.
d) Establishing community technical colleges to turn the Youth into a skilled productive force. I have seen community technical colleges support economic growth, including here in the US. In fact, here in the US it is community colleges that have moved minority communities upwards.
e) Building new infrastructure by constructing new roads, taking electricity to rural communities and investing in power generation.
This is what I set out to do when I left Washington University to go back to my country.
But it has not been easy.
• One day, on 5th April, my brother died. I suddenly found myself in the Opposition. I was arrested and charged with treason. But we fought and got into Government.
• In 2014, I inherited a country that was collapsing in an economic crisis.
• There was no money because the previous Government had engaged in massive looting of government resources.
• We inherited a deficit that was almost equal to our annual national budget. The country was going bankrupt.
• In the first year of my Government, we had a national-wide disaster. There were floods that were followed by drought. Crops failed and there was famine.
• In the second year of my Government, there was drought and crops failed again. There was famine again.
• Meanwhile, there was no donor budget support to support the economy due to the looting that took in the previous administration. We had to run the country with our resources, and we did!
In that tight and hard situation, we managed to turn around the economy:
• We have reduced inflation from 24 per cent to a single digit.
• We have reduced interest rates from 25 per cent to 16 per cent.
• We have taken our import cover from the lowest point to the highest point in our economic history. Our import cover has risen from below 2 months to 6 months.
• We have made local currency stable and predictable.
• We have raised economic growth above the Sub-Saharan and IMF global average growth. I found GDP Growth Rate at 2.4 per cent when I started leading Malawi four years ago. Now we expect growth at 4 per cent in our 2018/2019 financial year. And we expect this growth to rise to 6 percent in 2019.
Mr. Chancellor, I believe we have begun to take Malawi from poverty to prosperity. But much of the tribute to all this progress goes to the people of Malawi. The people of Malawi have contributed to my career far much more than I can say.
One of the most important things I did when I left Washington University was to represent my community in Parliament. I have also worked with different communities and local leader across the country. I have learnt one important political lesson from the people. I have learnt to be accountable to the people.
As a Law Professor I had always thought the essence of democracy is the Rule of Law, as most scholars do. But my people changed my political philosophy.
I have learnt that the essence of democracy is accountability. The essence of democracy is that everybody must be accountable to someone else or somewhere – and let God be accountable to nobody. The Law exists to enforce accountability.
Mr. Chancellor, I always believe the best professors must be the best learners who are willing to learn even from those they teach.
I have learnt many lessons from my time of being a professor in this place. And I have also learnt great lessons from the people of Malawi – lessons that define my leadership.
And I have learnt to lead my country with a passionate determination to take it out of poverty. The time is now or never. It must be by us or nobody else.
I know we can do it! And we ill do it!
I thank you for your attention!
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