Political immorality and strategic myopia in Malawi

Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason.”

According to W Somerset Maugham, “You can’t learn too soon that the most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency”. Until I observed with keen interest Malawian political developments following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika, I had never come to terms with this rather cynical observation.  I would still like to believe that principles are only principles if they will not allow themselves to be compromised on the altar of expediency. It seems, however, that Malawian politics very much supports Mr. Maugham’s sentiments.

There was a time not too long ago when the current President, Her Excellency Mrs. Joyce Mtila Banda was public enemy number one to any member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Yes, that includes the many that are now her closest supporters and advisors and senior members of her cabinet. It seemed at that time that all one had to do if one desired to suffer great political misfortune or retribution was to simply show some support or sympathy, perceived or actual, for the then Vice President.

DPP to PP

The honorable politician from Zomba was a political pariah and that status was certified and underlined with a razor blade when, after she was accused, tried and convicted in a DPP tribunal, she formed the People’s Party. It was a matter of principle, so I heard them say, that no one should support this woman. She was greedy and power-hungry and there was nothing politically worthwhile that she could offer Malawians. As a matter of principle, they maintained, every self-respecting Malawian should shun the woman and everything she represents. They were convincingly vocal as they came out of the woodwork and onto the airwaves and in the tabloids, invoking principle and morality and calling upon Malawians to at least have a sense of political decency.

Fast forward to 7th April or thereabouts and, suddenly, the very same individuals are desperately seeking Mrs. Joyce Banda’s favor. And what is the reason for this astounding transformation of principle? Expediency.

Before I am accused of being politically juvenile, I must state that I do acknowledge the long heard opinion that there are no permanent enemies in politics. I hold the view, however, that be that as it may, there is a line of principle and ideals that we cross only if callous enough and ready to descend into that political latrine of immorality and unscrupulousness.

The manner of the defections of former sworn DPP and Mutharika loyalists was as despicable as it was politically amoral and ludicrous. It was yet another demonstration of the fact that the Malawian politician is not so much a servant of the people, or an adherent to any firmly held set of political ideals or beliefs as he is simply a slave to financial expediency.  This is the tragic status of Malawian politics- a condition that has existed since Kamuzu Banda’s cabinet crisis in 1964 and will continue to subsist until a new generation of thinkers with moral integrity enters the Malawian political scene.

Unless political thinking moves from being under the control of the pocket and the hungry stomach to being a matter of ideals and social responsibility, we shall continue to recycle politicians who will swear on the Bible that their blood is yellow when the yellow party is in power, blue when the blue party takes over, and suddenly orange when the orange party becomes the only convenient way they can remain in that ministerial house. Perhaps I should be more surprised that people are calling for the resignation of a cabinet minister who, as a member of a DPP cabinet, spoke on top his lungs that he supported the zero-deficit budget and that devaluation was not good for Malawi- and insisted in Parliament that he was in control of things and everything was fine and dandy; only to speak out on top of his lungs that he did not support the devaluation and that he was wary of the zero-deficit budget now that he is a member of the PP cabinet. Surely he was simply misunderstood!

The cause of our political predicament and indeed the reason the nation is drifting is the lack of political ideals and ideologies. The Blue party believes that devaluation of the kwacha is a bad idea, and that homosexuality should be legally regulated. The Orange party believes that the way forward is to heavily devalue the Kwacha and repeal all legislation to do with prohibition of homosexual acts. The “principled” Malawian politician will happily belong to both of these parties, switching like a crazy pendulum from one to the other depending on which of the two is in government. I do not even want to belabor the obvious point that the people that these politicians claim to represent are obviously quickly forgotten, and that the only thing that is remembered is the hunger in their own stomachs.

But as stated above, the lack of morals veils a more important flaw- a lack of understanding of politics itself.

Here is the rub, dear reader: a political party with a strong majority in parliament finds itself not in government because of a twist of fate and some very blatant constitutional defects. A politician whom according to the party’s own analysis is not presidential material (evidenced by their decision not to tout this particular politician as presidential candidate) takes over government. The next elections are less than two years away. One would think that this unfortunate occurrence would present no real problems to the party. The party will simply bide its time, knowing full well that if their analysis is right, the new incumbent is bound to make major mistakes which they will make sure are capitalized upon in parliament and in the media and in their bid to reclaim government in the next elections. Why is there a reason here for any member of the formerly incumbent party to panic and defect to the new party or be involved in its government? After all, in so doing, will not such individuals be stating with their actions that they are simply opportunists and should not be trusted- not by their old party, and certainly and more importantly, not by the new party? If anything, such characters are dangerous and ought to be feared! Run, Joyce run!

Unbelievably though, this is somehow not discerned by anyone. Those in the rejected and dejected party feel betrayed and cannot regroup quickly enough to begin to make serious political strides in the new dispensation. Those in the unexpectedly favored party are too excited that they cannot see the easy opportunism and lack of morals now in clear display. There is political myopia on both sides, and, with eyes fixed firmly on personal gain; nobody considers what this means for national politics or the political future of the nation.

I dare say that it would not have been a mistake for those defectors to remain in the DPP. After a month in the hot seat, it is already clear that the presidential boots may be too big for the highly ambitious honorable politician from Zomba and that she may have bitten more than she can chew here. Already, the disturbing label of Malawi as a “donor fearing nation” is rapidly becoming her legacy. Now though, those defectors will be trying so hard to defend the indefensible. Remaining in the DPP would have been an opportunity to salvage the last crumbs of self-respect and repair their desperately shredded integrity.

It would probably have also been a more prudent long-term political strategy. This state of affairs was a golden, if impromptu, opportunity to take stock, play a part as an effective opposition and plan carefully for 2014 elections without the pressures of being in government. It would have been the time to demonstrate how to be a mature opposition and observe with quiet, if not loud, satisfaction as their administration and leadership were vindicated by developments. Alas! Nobody saw such a golden opportunity. All that was quickly recognized was the imminent loss of the government Mercedes.

It might be a difficult challenge in the face of such poverty as is prevailing in our country to demand our politicians to live up to a high ethical and ideological standard and behave with a sense of integrity expected of a fiduciary. I submit, however, that unless we acknowledge that crown of ethical standards and morality placed above our heads and we aspire to grow tall enough to wear it, our political future, and with it our aspirations for growth, development and economic prosperity are doomed.

The political immorality and strategic myopia plaguing our politics will not be unraveled by armchair analysts. A call to arms goes out to all those young and fresh thinkers analyzing Malawian politics on social media, on the Internet and in the local print media. Affirmative action needs to be done and done in a hurry to stop the political rot in our beloved country.  Will the principled thinkers please stand up!?

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