Katherine Tyler Scott, a scholar at Indiana University, defines dialogue in her article titled Leading Change: Setting the Criteria for Effective Dialogue, as a pillar for national development in democracy.
Unfortunately, in Malawi, most dialogues on national issues do not succeed except in creating more differences between interested parties.
For instance, on April 21 2016 a historical meeting between Public Affairs Committee (PAC) and President Peter Mutharika at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe only invigorated reminiscences that dialogue rarely works in Malawi.
This was a meeting where PAC was to share with Mutharika recommendations and actionable resolutions made at PAC’s All-Inclusive Stakeholders Conference held in February this year.
PAC spokesperson Father Peter Mulomole told Political Index that the meeting did not achieve its goal and they are not happy with the way it was handled.
The President too exposed his mind when he told PAC delegation that he could not say whether his administration would implement PAC’s resolutions drawn from recommendations or not.
The scenario rekindles memories of dialogues that have failed, but there is something to celebrate about: by opening his doors to meet PAC, Mutharika scored a mark.
“A skill that every leader, especially those leading significant change, must have is the ability to engage others in dialogue,” writes Scott, adding: “The leader who can create safe space in which open, honest communication is practised, ultimately creates a cohesive community of increased trust, understanding, and shared meaning.”
But Scott says this alone is not enough.
“Obtaining the level of commitment necessary to reach a desired goal entails managing an array of human emotions which can, collectively, heighten the confusion, anxiety and ambivalence that comes with change.
“A leader’s capacity to manage conflicting states of human response equips individuals and groups with the confidence to tackle difficult issues and to deal constructively with change in the future,” she adds in the article.
Mutharika seems to have known that the PAC meeting missed some of these attributes.
Reading through his decisions, Mutharika knows the importance of dialogue and the need to incorporate ideas from stakeholders in his governing system. Thus, he selected a team comprising Hetherwick Ntaba, Peter Kumpalume, Mavuto Bamusi, Collins Magalasi and Samuel Tembenu to continue dialogue with PAC.
Timothy Mtambo, executive director of Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), says the decision is welcome, but feels Mutharika could have scored more marks by participating in the dialogue meetings himself.
“The President has a constitutional mandate to provide answers to this country. We needed him in this team. The challenges this country has are serious and he has to be part and parcel of such processes,” says Mtambo.
All eyes are now on what this initiative will yield.
Adds Mtambo: “If the team appointed will have decision-making powers and operates as professionals, we commend the President. But if the past behaviour of some members of the so-called technical team is anything to go by, we have reasons to worry that this may not take us anywhere.
“Some members appointed in this technical team have behaved so unprofessionally. They have worked as propagandists.”
While the development demonstrates that the door between PAC and the government is not completely closed, Boniface Dulani, University of Malawi’s (Unima) Chancellor College political analyst, says there is need to set clear deadlines so that such forums do not end up taking forever without making any concrete decisions.
“If the main protagonists have failed to compromise, I doubt the value of setting up a delegation to spearhead the process. Dialogue and compromise should start with the main actors, not subcontracted to a completely new group,” he says.
Previously, failure to dialogue properly bred commotion.
The academic freedom saga at University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, where authorities resorted to firing lecturers deemed as perpetrators of the action, led to the suspension of classes in public universities.
Threats to seal the courts after the Judiciary support staff went on strike, instead of initiating dialogue with them, led to several people being denied justice as the courts could not operate.
And failure to initiate tangible dialogue to address social ills the civil society identified in July 2011 led to the death of 21 people after the demonstrations which civil society organisations (CSOs) initiated turned violent.
But why do most of the dialogues fail?
Experts have argued times without number that the country’s main problem is lack of tolerance among leaders and there is a culture of competition between the ruling party on one hand and the opposition political parties and CSOs on the other.
In the end, this, they say, creates enmity between the two sides, thereby preventing them from complementing each other.
Political analysts have also blamed it on how elections in the country are handled, saying losers usually feel robbed of an opportunity to govern. Thus, they hardly accept that someone is in power.
The analysts also say that most CSOs oppose just for the sake of it.
Dulani feels there is a serious lack of compromise for dialogue.
He says: “Dialogue requires give and take. Unfortunately, most of our actors want to take and not give. Under such circumstances, dialogue cannot succeed. You could see this from the stance of the government side during the recent audience between the President and officials from PAC.
“Of course, arriving at a common ground becomes difficult within a context of zero sum game politics whereby when one gives up, the other side is seen to have gained. In short, failure of dialogue represents a failure to compromise.”
Michael Jana, another Chancellor College political analyst, said in an earlier interview that the other problem hampering dialogue was power politics and the winner-takes-all mentality, in which it seems logical to expect the ruling party to use every opportunity to score political points at the expense of the opposition.
Minister of Information, Communications Technology and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati colloborates the fact that there is lack of acceptance among watchdogs that there is government in power and should be given time and relevant support.
She says this creates a competition mood and fighting instead of complementing each other, adding that if such a culture is tamed, dialogue will be effective because government is “very willing to engage the opposition and CSOs.”
“If dialogue is to work, we should respect each other and avoid creating false attacks in the media. Let us respect dialogue first,” says Kaliati.
In a recent press statement reacting to what Father Mulomole told Political Index, government says it has no wish to disrespect the spirit of democratic engagement and dialogue.
Kaliati says that spirit is shown in the continued efforts by government to dialogue with PAC, but all eyes are on the product of the meeting.
Dulani corroborates: “When people enter into dialogue, they should do so with an open mind and demonstrate a spirit of compromise, with the full knowledge that they cannot get everything they want.
“Oftentimes, dialogue fails because the two sides are angry at each other which clouds out any areas of common interest. There is need to respect each other’s viewpoint with a sober mind.” n