There was a time, especially between 2010 and 2102, when opinion leaders in the country almost got everybody believe that Bingu wa Mutharika was the country’s stumbling block to progress. To appear relevant, you had to bash Bingu.
For instance, after that merciless chop from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2010, Joyce Banda formed People’s Party (PP) and launched a stinging campaign of demonising Bingu as a tyrant who, after locking Malawi’s development doors, threw the keys in the great deep.
She was not alone.
Atupele Muluzi, then just an MP, launched an ‘Agenda for Change’ which, if you study the speech he gave during the launch at Mount Soche in Blantyre in 2012, was a direct response to Bingu’s poor governance record; as such, part of the Bingu-bashing jazz.
It was not just politicians. Leaders of civil society organisations, donors and the media joined the fray. Eventually, we almost came to believe that for Malawi to resume its progress, Bingu had to step aside. Are we surprised that the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) gave Bingu 60 days to either come up with solutions or resign?
Before the lapse of those 60 days, Bingu, regrettably, resigned from life. But are we better off today? Absolutely no! In fact, Joyce Banda—she, who led the Bingu-bashing jazz—has, today, become the stumbling block that need political elimination if Malawi is to progress.
Just observe opposition parties on the campaign trail. They are all united on a common message: Joyce Banda has messed up and to save Malawi we need to get her out of power. To appear politically relevant, you must bash Joyce Banda.
That is why politicians such as Peter Mutharika who, just two years ago, were leading a failed state, have become political angels who can stand on an anthill and call Malawi a failed state.
But was the DPP leader being honest? Somehow, I am beginning to understand why Joyce Banda is struggling. She got into office with the wrong diagnosis of Malawi’s fundamental development problems. She thought Bingu was the fundamental problem; as a result, her prescription stopped at reversing Bingu’s perceived wrongs.
But as she got into the intricacies of governance, she realised, a little too late and unprepared, that Malawi’s development challenges are more than Bingu’s failures. Should we be surprised with Joyce Banda’s soaring levels of cluelessness on a number of governance issues?
Here is my point: as a nation, we have always enjoyed the bliss of narrowing Malawi’s development challenges to immediate mistakes of incumbents. Yes, we need to debate their failures. But there is something deeper and fundamental that we miss to explore and debate—something that explains why our presidents share a common leadership graph of starting well and ending badly.
Our fixation with debating immediate mistakes of incumbents prevents us from probing and diagnosing some of the deeper and fundamental problems that have kept Malawi poor for the past 50 years of self-rule.
Take Cashgate, for instance. Almost every finest word from opposition parties, CSOs, donors, the clergy and the media has been used to condemn Banda’s government. In fact, some political parties have, just like it was during Bingu’s days, found a fertile campaign tool in the Cashgate so much so that without it they will be useless on the campaign trail.
Of course, it is not bad to condemn a malpractice. But after condemning, what next? Do these waves of condemnations give us hope that if we oust Banda, we will not experience another Cashgate?
Cashgate, no matter its scale, should not be viewed as a maiden evil in Malawi. No matter how much the Mutharika’s DPP wants to make Cashgate a special case, it is not. Cashgate is corruption—the same evil we have been struggling with since independence.
In fact, it is because we have always struggled with this evil that our laws provide for specific institutions to fight the problem.
We have the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), Accountant General, Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM), Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Attorney General (AG), controlling officers, Auditor General, Office of Director of Public Procurement (ODPP) and Police, among other institutions.
Beyond condemning, the debate we need to raise is: what is it about our watchdog and prosecutorial institutions that makes them ineffective to achieve the intended objective? I do not believe that these institutions have ineffective leaders.
However, I believe that the institutions are led by effective people whose brilliance is eclipsed by weak security of tenure. Being appointees, their job is at the mercy of the appointing officer: the president.
Do we really expect the ACB director to effectively arrest and prosecute a person who has the blessing of the president? Do we really expect controlling officers to reject dubious cheques that have the blessing of the president? Do we really expect RBM, responding to market forces, to devalue the currency against the president’s wish? Have we forgotten how Bingu fired former DPP Ishmael Wadi on the political podium after carrying out professional duties which did not please him?
I disagree with Atupele who wants presidential powers to be limited. It is not that presidents have too much power. Rather, they appear to have too much power because our institutions of good governance lack independence from appointing officers.
Is it not time, as professor Chijere Chirwa argued, we did to the heads of these institutions what we did to our High and Supreme Court judges?
The surprising thing is that most political parties enjoy condemning corruption, but if not for MCP, none has come out clear on rethinking the security of tenure for heads of these critical institutions.
If these institutions remain unchanged, I would not be surprised if, two years from now, we experience another bashing of the incumbent. I am saying I won’t be surprised if, perhaps just a year after elections, we start giving 60 days to the incumbent.