Of values, the Commonweal​th and Malawi’s Mutharika

Mr Kamalesh Sharma , the Commonwealth Secretary General, in an article posted on Nyasa Times, reiterated that:

“[R]ule of law, respect for human rights, non-discrimination, respect and understanding, a culture of democracy, good governance, [and] promotion of sustainable and equitable development . . . are the principles to which our [Commonwealth] leaders have repeatedly committed themselves.”

Our Commonwealth leaders, in the above context, include our own President Bingu wa Mutharika. He too has repeatedly and loudly proclaimed to be committed to these principles. But disappointingly, he has yet to walk the talk. And more worrisome is the fact that he is gone beyond redemption.

President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi (left) speak during a reception in honour of Commonwealth Secretary-General, Kamalesh Sharma (seated right) at the New State House in Lilongwe on 23 January 2012. This followed a visit by the Secretary-General to the country from 21 to 24 January 2012.

There are many reasons for his failure to translate his talk into tangible action. The main one being that the values that President Mutharika, like his peers in the Commonwealth, professes to uphold are to say the truth, contradictory to the works of his hands, more so as Malawians have witnessed in his second and final term of office.

One concept that can help us to understand this conflict is the Cognitive Dissonance Theory (developed by Leon Festinger -1957), which is concerned with the relationships among cognitions. Put in plain language, cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions.

Holding on to conflicting values, ideas or beliefs simultaneously results in state of mental discomfort – a state of mind that Mutharika wants to circumvent at all times and at any cost. As a result, he has become so consistent in propounding and preaching values that he does not in fact hold so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make sense of or reconcile his speeches.

Again, this has led him to fail, miserably, as he tries to implement policies that support the values he purportedly holds, but which are not consistent with the reality. Whenever President Mutharika is confronted with facts that are inconsistent with what he has made himself believe to be true, the conflict (in his mind) switches off all rational thought resulting in either contradictory speeches or actions – which makes the situation worse.

Today he will blame IMF, tomorrow Satan, the next day the MCP and the UDF will feature highly in the blame equation. Just when his parrots are getting the hang of his latest outburst and are busy convincing everyone that what he said is the gospel truth, he turns around and says that he has been misunderstood or quoted out of context. All these are typical symptoms of someone suffering from cognitive dissonance.

Again, he is too inflexible to change what he believes which often results in his refusal to accept reality. Take for instance, the fuel and forex crises. When did people of goodwill start demanding action from his government? And how long (and how many ministers have come and gone) before his government admitted the obvious problems?

How does one even begin to reconcile the fact that many Malawians are struggling to survive on a diet of nsima and thelele while he clings to a delusion of food security?How does one reconcile the fact that long queues on service stations are the order of the day when the president is adamant that Malawi is an economic miracle and his ministers have the nerve to say that people spending nights on a filling station is a sign of “success”?

Indeed how can an economic miracle fail to import essential commodities like drugs so as to have donors air-lifting emergency drugs to a country that has never been to war nor hit by Tsunami?

The answers to these questions are easy. As far as President Mutharika is concerned, the so called economic miracle is for real. Hunger, forex and fuel crises are fabrications churned by unscrupulous political enemies and an irresponsible media. For him it is easier to engage in blame-game than to reassess his beliefs or values or change behaviour and policies.

What many leaders, failures like him, often do in his situation is to redefine their responsibilities. They will say ‘I don’t need to walk the walk. It’s my job to talk the talk. It’s up to you Malawians to walk the walk. I set the goals. It’s up you to achieve them. I can’t do everything for you.’

Their sycophants amplify this message and repeat this lie until it acquires a ring of the truth to it and the shallow minded start believing that, indeed, nothing is the matter with leadership. What such leaders forget is that in a functioning democracy there should be cross-party and often divergent views on national development.

And that true statesmanship is the art of bringing together and channelling the divergent views into a developmental force. This art, in Mutharika, is missing.

This is why critics have a valid point when they challenge his claim to ‘economic engineership’. Of course, some have even gone to the extent of saying that Mutharika can hardly claim the title: ‘economics mechanic’, or even ‘economics spanner-boy’.

When a leader has not delivered what he promised, it means he has failed. However, to be fair on President

Mutharika let us perhaps judge him by what he has achieved in terms of the values he holds, rather than the values he expresses.

 If he has become a very rich and powerful man of property (which he cannot explain) with hopes of establishing a dynasty, might these not be the goals he set out with, which reflect the values that he holds? This makes sense and explains the lie that he is living in.

To maintain a positive self-evaluation, he is now prioritizing personal and family accomplishments and playing down failure at the national level. The more the national crisis deepens, the more he is withdrawing from national issues and concentrating on the personal issues that give him comfort, confirm his self-image and massage his ego.

 The fate of Malawians matters to him less and less. He is avoiding, at any cost, messengers carrying information that might generate cognitive dissonance. Hence his reliance on the likes of Dr. Ntaba, Ken Zikhale and Dausi – the machinery that filters the harsh reality, converting it into the lies that Mutharika finds more palatable.

 No doubt that during Mr Sharma’s visit, our government will once again recommit itself to the principles quoted in the leading paragraph and, no doubt, when the distinguished visitor has left, we will be nowhere closer to embodying the commonwealth principles.

One can safely conclude that Mr Sharma’s visit has been wasted on a Malawi led by President Mutharika since to him, the visit was merely another opportunity to once again, play to the global gallery.

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