What the future may hold for Malawi beyond May 20th

The person who wins this week’s election will need to thank Malawians for one thing: our capacity to forgive and give people a second chance. But if the Afrobarometer poll is anything to go by, it will be the weakest mandate a Malawian president has ever had. The Afrobarometer survey showed Peter Mutharika winning by just 27 percent of the vote.

If that turns out to be accurate, it will mean that whoever wins, whether it will be Professor Mutharika as predicted, or Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, or Dr Joyce Banda, or indeed Atupele Muluzi, will have been rejected by more than 70 percent of Malawians. That will be phenomenally unimpressive. It may in fact nullify the idea of Malawians’ capacity to forgive and give a political party a second chance because it will be such a small percentage of voters putting someone into office based on arcane interests.

What is evident is that there are very particular reasons that are driving attraction to particular candidates. Most of us are pinning our hopes and aspirations for the country on a candidate and a party we believe is best able to deliver. What I aim to address in this discussion are those hopes and aspirations, and the Faustian bargain people have to make in choosing a candidate. Many of us will need to draw upon our capacity to forgive or to ignore major blemishes.

Four front runners- Malawi 2014 presidential candidates: Joyce Banda, Lazarus Chakwera, Atupele Muluzi and Peter Mutharika
Four front runners- Malawi 2014 presidential candidates: Joyce Banda, Lazarus Chakwera, Atupele Muluzi and Peter Mutharika

I have restricted myself to the national scenario, but my conviction lies in a Pan-Africanist outlook that draws from and contributes to the global social justice agenda. The domestic interpretation of that outlook is a social justice agenda that would reduce the run-away inequality between the majority poor and the wealthy elites. As we mark 50 years of nationhood this year, everyone’s thoughts must on what we would like the next fifty years to look like.

Many of the reasons for choosing a candidate and their party go beyond the ethnicity factor which has played a decisive role in some elections, and has been insignificant in others. The key factors range from the desire to achieve genuine structural reform, to hope for what has been termed transformational leadership going into the next fifty years. There are five overriding themes that I think form the core of the agenda.

Foremost is the immediate anger over the cashgate scandal. Then there is the urgency over public sector reform. Third is the significance of the youth demographic that has made parties rethink their choices for presidential candidate and running mate. Fourth on the list is failure to transform agriculture into a formidable economic engine for the country has left Malawians exposed to extreme poverty. And last but not least is the squandered opportunity to harness natural resources and minerals that has revealed the extent to which foreign conglomerates collude with our ruling elites to plunder the country.

Cashgate and the rule of law:

Malawians are extremely angry and want the culprits brought to book. They are even angrier with the pace of progress in prosecuting the cases. But cashgate as a mindset is a multi-generational scandal going back to the 1990s and affecting all the governments that have ruled since the onset of multiparty politics in 1994. Cashgate happened as the culmination of a loss of ethical responsibility and adherence to rule of law.

There is an interesting schizophrenia about wanting cashgate dealt with, and deciding which political party and presidential candidate can best deal with it. There is a good chance the party that wins the election will itself be deeply implicated in an aspect of cashgate or other forms of past fraud and corruption.

The urgency of public sector reform:

All the parties and their candidates have demonstrated their knowledge of what has happened to morale in the civil service and performance in the public sector. They have all promised to restructure the civil service, but no party has made clear what practical steps their government will take to prevent previous failures.

Education and the youth demographic:

Three of the major parties, the United Democratic Front, the People’s Party and the Democratic Progressive Party have gone out of their way to court the youth vote by putting up a young person as either a presidential candidate or a running mate. There are hundreds of young people running for parliament and for councillor.

The debate has been how to energise the youth and offer them meaningful life chances through a good education and employment. Out of all the ills troubling our education system, the topmost priorities right now should be to increase the numbers of schools at the primary, secondary, teacher training, technical and university levels. Along with that we must attend to the academic and professional quality of teacher education and their remuneration.

It is disheartening that whereas we have over 4 million students in primary school, we have less than 300,000 in secondary school. This means that 3.8 million young people fail to proceed to secondary school every four-year cycle, creating a huge unemployment bottleneck annually.

Agriculture and the economy:

Agriculture is a perennial problem. Just a few years ago we were touted as a global example of an African country that had succeeded in registering a food surplus and ending hunger. Today we are back to where we were with more than 1.6 million Malawians facing severe food shortages in 2013, according to the UN. The political will to find lasting solutions has always competed with unsustainable and expensive solutions aimed at winning popular votes rather than solving the problem once and for all.

Natural resources:

There is a lot anxiety over the country’s natural resources. The country has been exporting uranium for a few years now but there is nothing in the economy to show for it. There is mounting interest in other minerals and on oil exploration in Lake Malawi, and people are anxious to see how these can benefit the country rather than the foreign companies that are given the contracts in collusion with the ruling elites.

These are but a few of the myriad issues the next government will need to pay serious attention to. But there is one thing I have learned from this campaign season over and above everything else. Everyone running for president and their political parties have in-depth knowledge of what issues the country needs to grapple with. Many of them have brilliant, if not radical ideas that could truly transform the country’s fortunes.

But having the knowledge and brilliant ideas have proved over the years to be insufficient, as was argued by Ephraim Nyondo in his Nation on Sunday column in March. It matters less what the issues are, argued Nyondo. It is the character of the leader we elect that matters more. Malawi needs a leader with integrity, a good temperament, patriotism, dedication and values. I could not agree more. For me the issue of character is best captured in the intellectual capacity of the leader Malawi needs.

Dr Henry Chingaipe observed on Facebook recently that the best leader Malawians want needs to have the combined characteristics of all the candidates put together. The twelve candidates running for president demonstrated knowledge, experience, ideas, eloquence, discipline, transparency, tenacity, boldness, ambition, compassion and even humour.

But no one candidate seems to have all the desirable qualities. Even the candidates themselves observed this during the debates. The one overriding quality the next president will need will be a type of charisma that can inspire Malawians to rise up and be part of the change they want to see. Many of us are stuck in a state of incapacitation. We know what the problems are but the best we can do is complain or ignore, thinking that it is someone else’s responsibility.

Each of the parties with a meaningful chance of winning the election has major character flaws, as was observed by Victor Kaonga on Facebook. Voters will have to do a juggling act to decide which qualities to prioritise and which flaws to compromise over. And that is where the propensity to forgive the past or to ignore inconvenient truths will come in, outside ethnic and patronage considerations.

Voters will have to choose between forgiving cashgate and ignoring the absence of a grand vision, or prioritising compassion and charity for the poor. They may have to choose between forgiving arrogance, nepotism, threats of violence and revenge, or prioritising boldness of grand development ideas and past glory.

They may have to choose between forgiving grand corruption and ignoring plunder and the erosion of ethical behaviour, or prioritising youth appeal, charisma and a disciplined campaign. Voters may have to choose between forgiving past political murders and ignoring decades of dictatorship, or prioritising trust in theological pedigree, clarity of purpose, and the most distance from last atrocities.

But over and above the dilemma of compromises will be the question of how power changes an individual. Whoever becomes our next president ought to go into State House with a plan for how to handle the overwhelming corrupting influence that comes with political power.

We have seen the best and brightest minds go into politics full of promise and good will, only to become inebriated with power and hubristic arrogance. How the next president handles this frightening, all-consuming black hole will be pivotal. He or she will need to inspire the creativities energies of Malawians to rise up to this challenge and take the country’s destiny into our hands. That way, Malawians can look forward to the next fifty years with hope, pride and determination.

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