Reconditioning the national psyche for a better Malawi

Weekend Nation newspaper of June 21st 2014, a day President Peter Mutharika and the first lady, Gertrude Maseko tied a knot, led with a news story on the first couple’s wedding, titled: “Meet the Bride.” The story had vox pop kind interviews with relatives of the bride and people from her home area in Balaka. Of the many comments the interviewees made, this one caught my attention, and it is a subject of this discussion: “the President marrying their own means one thing: Development to the area.”

For most Malawians these expectations are normal. These were “common sense” views by excited relatives of the bride who has a state president for a husband. Yet, this particular comment points to one of the deeply rooted problems of democratic Malawi. It suggests that the people of this area in Balaka would have expected less or nothing from President Mutharika had he not married one of their own.

We need to realise that as a state president, Mutharika has a duty to all Malawians whom the president swore to serve and protect, not selected few based on kinship, political affiliation or any other association. Mutharika got only 36% of the national vote but this does not mean he should only serve those that voted for him – the president himself rightly made this observation in his 50th independence speech.

First Couple: Peter and Gertrude Mutharika
First Couple: Peter and Gertrude Mutharika

The mentality that presidents have to look after their own started during Bakili Muluzi’s reign. It has since been entrenched into Malawi psyche. Today most Malawians do not see anything wrong with it. It has become “common sense.”

After Muluzi fell-out with the then state Vice President, Justin Malewezi, Muluzi went around telling Malawians how Malewezi had failed to develop his home district, Ntchisi, for the 10 years he was a state Vice President. Yet, as a Vice President, Malewezi had an obligation for the whole nation.

Of course Muluzi was well aware of these fact, his sentiments was purely political. He was busy at the time campaigning for his handpicked successor, Bingu wa Mutharika to Malawians and trying to justify why he picked Mutharika over his deputy, Malewezi and other senior UDF party members. Nonetheless, this skewed ideology has been normalised and it is now part and parcel of the national psyche.

It is this mentality that makes Malawians sit and watch state resources being looted with impunity, because we believe state resources are at the mercy of those in power. Cashgate comes to mind. The Nation newspaper of Monday 23rd June 2014 reported on UDF leader, Atupele Muluzi attributing cashgate to bad leadership. Atupele’s point has some grain of truth. Yet, his statement is based on the same political blame game he is playing.

Limiting the scope of cashgate to mainstream political players and analysis only cannot explain lack of collective public anger and action towards it. Cashgate symbolised not only political greed and corrupt successive governments. It also symbolised a rotten national culture, which makes us think it is alright for our leaders to amass as much unexplained wealth as possible while in power. Atupele’s father, Bakili is as responsible as any leader after him who has benefited from this culture.

For the first time in the history of Malawi democracy, there were political “debates” in run up to the 20th May tripartite elections. Curiously missing in these debates was the issue of political party funding. Yet one of the most conspicuous images of that said electoral campaign was parading of SUV Hammers that may even be too expensive to move on Malawi’s port-holed roads.

To most Malawians, a sight of such expensive cars is something to admire. Those that dare to question it are dismissed as jealous. These cars were only on the electoral parade because our politicians are aware that majority of the electorate have already been condition into accepting this as the way things work. They will not question.

Malawians must learn to be questioning without any fear of being seen as jealous of those in leadership positions. Everyone has the power within them to help shape a better Malawi.

The culture we have developed in Malawi only pity poor people against each other while the privileged political class rule with impunity. We see as “normal” when a cassava thief is stoned, hacked or burned to death. Yet, we admire executive thieves, who stole from the cassava thief, driving expensive cars paid for by stolen taxpayers’ money. Executive thieves have become role models in Malawi.

Perhaps Malawi has not fully recovered from the effects of 71 years of colonialism and 30 years of ruthless dictatorship where leaders were demi-gods to be feared and revered. But these are different times, tables have turned, leaders are now our servants; we must check on them, demand accountability and effective service delivery for all Malawians. The oath our leaders take to serve and protect Malawi and all Malawians must serve its purpose.

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