Ntata’s Uncommon Sense: The curse of the ‘Big Man Wamkulu’ syndrome in Malawi

After over fifty years of Independence, no one can possibly argue that this country has an effective system of checks and balances that holds officials accountable for policy failures and mismanagement of public affairs.

Vladimir Lenin, the late Russian statesman coined the phrase the Cult of the Individual.

If the absence of political accountability didn’t trigger Malawi’s steady descent into economic oblivion, allow corruption and bungledpolitical governance, and plunge the country into turmoil, it has certainly prolonged it. Most of the consequences of disconnected leadership speak eloquently enough for themselves.

For those still unaware, no amount of populist rhetoric or statistical manipulation makes the last couple of decades for Malawi look like anything other than a free-fall. Recently, the United Nations has agreed that the condition of the poor in Malawi has gone from bad to worse- so do let the president and his loud-mouthed cadets cheat you.

Unfortunately, the scourge of bad governance seems to have been thoroughly absorbed into our political culture and it is unlikely to change organically.

An unaccountable political culture is nothing new; it has been around in almost every shape and size for the most part of human history. Vladimir Lenin of Russia gave this particular culture a name: The Cult of the Individual. In this cult, the individual is separate from the group, a singular and selfish economic unit. Selfish isn’t uncommon in modern society, co-workers not sharing doughnuts, for instance, but the cult is different because it also gives the individual an enhanced right, ability and motivation to fulfil their selfish goals.

The symptoms of our condition surround us everywhere. Syntactically, when a minister or MP takes a break from property accumulation and factionalism to build a bridge in his constituency or hand out seeds or fertiliser – the political bandage onto the festering, broken leg, they are not remembered as our minister or our representative, they are the minister, the official, separate and often at times unknown until handout day.

Always “them”, and never “us”. In this cult they are a revered self, separated above us. And once separated above, it is next to impossible to be spoken to from below.

The cult of the individual and the emergence of the “Big Man” is a trait of societies, not just of our own, but also of all organised groups. We enshrine power and influence in individuals because it is fantastically convenient.

It is a vitamin A to the ego to be seen as the big man. The benefactor of the poor and unfortunate masses. I know a lawyer friend who used to enjoy going to the curios galore next to the FDH building in Blantyre so that he can have those curios sellers shower him with praise as the “Big Man Wamkulu” while he dished out various amounts of cash to them. When he became a senior government official, a similar kind of ego massaging was an important aspect of his existence and he surrounded himself only with officers who could worship him and none that could criticise him or offer any contrary advice to what he considered the right path.

How we remember history is another shining example of how we worship individuals. The Great Man theory states that history is made and directed by “great men” whose personal ability, charisma and, in some cases, divine mandate are solely responsible for the pattern of history.

Our memory of an entire society can be condensed into individuals. The history of Malawi’s struggle against colonialism is remembered as Kamuzu Banda’s struggle, although without the complimentary efforts of the likes of Orton Chirwa, KanyamaChiume, MasaukoChipembere, the Chisiza brothers and even the like of Aleke Banda, Kamuzu would not really have accomplished much. The struggle involved dozens of freedom fighters and hundreds of thousands of Malawians and yet it is reduced to one single individual. It cannot be denied that Kamuzu was the head of the spear. But without the events that preceded him, the climate he was brought into and the fortuitous moments that he had no control over, it is unlikely anyone would have ever known he existed. More often than not, events far out of the control of individuals have all the influence on history.

Nevertheless, the individual is firmly planted in our minds. Take former South African president Nelson Mandela, for instance: despite his own insisting that his success would have been impossible without the contribution of his allies in the ANC, we remember Mandela as the man who steered South Africa away from a bloody civil war. We remember Winston Churchill as the man whose political and inspirational cunning won the battle of Britain; we remember Kwame Nkrumah as the father of African independence, and we remember Mikhail Gorbachev as the man who tore down the wall.

We remember them because it is easier to condense thousands of years of long and complicated history into the easy package of the individual rather than consider the labyrinthine complexity of the build-up to the event, and the factors that attributed to the event, and the reactions to the reactions, and so on and so on!

Malawian politics is just as guilty of creating demigods and superheroes out of individuals.

When we find the leaders, it is to them that we give the responsibility to inspire change, create a movement and speak on our behalf; we are only responsible to hope for that change, follow that movement and like what they say on Facebook. In truth it is lazy and, more than that, it is irresponsible. So long as we continue to serve the cult we must accept that a cause will die with an extended retreat and that sooner or later, the glorified grand leaders will cease to be concerned with what we care about.

The move towards responsible government has to start by tearing down the “Big Man” image we hold of titles and leaders. This is what the concept of “doing politics differently” should really mean.

Government is not a supreme body of all-powerful men; electoral victory is not an all-expenses-paid trip to the army general’s uniform store; it is not the bragging rights of a grand title; and officials are not influential bureaucrats, whose names and acquaintanceships we can whisper to police officers to get out of roadblocks or escape paying customs duty.

Those aspiring today to lead government in 2019 must take care not to fall into the trap of “Big Man Wamkulu” syndrome and surround themselves with only their relatives, college buddies, and individuals that can never have the courage to tell them the hard truths of political leadership. To be a great political leader, one must lift government up so that it is recognised for what it is: the civil service, a body in complete service of the people.

The president and his ministers are nothing more than administrative civil servants. If we call them “big man wamkulu” or fear them in any way, we ourselves forge the very chains with which they hold us in the bondage of poverty and subjection.

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3 years ago

An excellent article with point well made. President Mutharika certainly fits the bill as ‘Big Man Wamkulu’. He loves the red carpet treatment when he leaves or arrives back in the country with senior politicians, army general, head of police, etc to see him off or welcome him back. Why else is he off the UN when there are so many huge problems awaiting solutions here at home? Most countries simply send a delegate to the UNGA, not the head of state. He is to make the second address to the assembly because they want all the small fry out… Read more »

master xu
master xu
3 years ago

the first thing should be having some good consultantors around president, those people now around president never do what president really want and what malawians need, they just want money before do anything, they want the investor giving a cake for to eat full then start do work, but from investors, we need the officals and gov to making a big cake together, and MITC has no any power to help investors, so … we a planing to go other contries now, its a times for africa to build the econioc dams, econic is like water, africa is low now,… Read more »

3 years ago


3 years ago
Reply to  MA D7 MA D6

Chilima, Chakwera and Bushiri are equally corrupt and dishonest idiots. Bushiri and Chakwera have enriched themselves by fooling people with miracles and getting ndalama za m’bale. Chilima is a thief who received cashgate money and is receiving a salary without working. None of them can change our country.

wanzeru wa ku south
wanzeru wa ku south
3 years ago

Thank you a Mtata for pointing out…Let me come out in the open as well that I’m not ‘just one of the trolls’ commenting, but i do have the best interest of my country Malawi at heart, not that I need any benefit from it, I am just about surviving in a ‘foreign land’ that at least rewards me for my hard work…that said…Ma bigi mani aonjeza ku Malawi…it’s not a disease we have only in politicians…i am at a loss how this is engraved in our ‘system’…Ukangoyelekeza kukhala ‘Bushiri’ you expect everyone azigwada, be a CEO ukufuna kugwadilidwa, Ansembe,… Read more »

3 years ago

Don’t you think, you also suffer from the same syndrome? You seem to be someone who believes you should always have a position in government after your precious tenure ended with the death of Bingu.

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