I was naïve and somewhat insensitive to the culture of not differing with a head of State, such that I was often cautioned by some politicians and public officers who strongly believed that a president is always right. I saw him as a person with a huge responsibility, while others thought he was just a rank below God. He was not. He got so many lies from people against other people but never acted without thorough investigations and warning those he found to have erred. He often urged such people to remain focused if they want to reach their destiny.
“As William Jennings Bryan once said: ‘Great men are often trained in the folly of others that might have been great. For it is only then, that the dawn of destiny is honed into purpose and destiny’,” he would say.
As time went, I noted he had a soft spot for the poor and anything to do with the marginalised. As such, I carefully skewed my business model to include social-oriented programming, reflecting on things that related to ordinary people and when we introduced Reach Out and Touch, Our People Our Pride and The Best of Friends, we got his attention and support. It soon became part of the turnaround strategy which saw MBC increasing market share from 43 percent to 72 percent, and income by 46 percent.
As a father, he often told me the importance of being a God-fearing person. We would pray for God’s wisdom after that and he gave me fatherly advice on many aspects of life. He allowed me not to work on Sabbath, owing to my Adventist belief and inculcated the love of farming in me. He introduced me to sorghum farming, his favourite staple although I had difficulties to acknowledge it as a good meal to which he would laugh and say: “You spoilt brats”.
We both loved classic music and although I had a bias in James Last, Elton John and Sarah Brightman, and he Vadunican and Frank Sinatra, in particular I Did It My Way, we had common ground in Hendel Messiah and Verdi and when I did a classical piece Holy City on late Ethel’s funeral and Panis Angelicus on his wedding, he on both occasions sent me a text: “Only my son can play Placido Domingo.” Whenever he asked me to travel with him for some assignments I would often carry on behalf of the State, in particular brokering overseas live coverage and interviews with major media houses I would to see him handing me over $300, sometimes $400, notes for a job well done. It was not necessary for him to do so, although come to think of it, I needed the money!
As his son, I had a chat with him in September of 2010 during which he asked for my ideas on how best he could pitch a book he was writing The African Dream, a representation of a seminal point of introspective reflection, which mirrors Africa’s new reality of hope while catalysing and reframing Africa’s socio-economic and political dialogue. I was particularly attracted to a quote in the book suggesting thus: “The struggle of small nation-states for their mere survival has become more complex. Political reforms, multiparty democracy and good governance, essentially motivated from the outside, have now been firmly imposed by donors as the main prerequisites for assistance.”
I immediately suggested that he launches the book in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as he took over the chairmanship of the African Union (AU), because I was convinced that all of the conclusions drawn and the prescriptions offered in the book sprung from two points of strength: first, as an observer of the process during his previous engagements as an international civil servant, and secondly, as a participant in the process in his position as President of Malawi and chair of AU.
I then arranged for international press coverage which saw Mutharika launch his book live in four languages namely English, French, Arabic and [Amharic] on a foreign State TV to the rest of the continent and beyond. He was very excited, but became worried about the cost, to which I replied: “Oh, thanks to your son’s network”.
He, pulled back, looked me straight into the eyes and in front of State House aides, he said: “Bright, my father’s name was Brightson and so I am your son.” It was an emotional moment. Later on, the former chief of staff would call me only to say Bright, your son is gone.
Errors of judgement
As a friend, for some reason, Mutharika was considered frightening, dictatorial, heartless and all sorts of things people could ever imagine about people they consider serious and stubborn. Like any person, he made errors of judgement, but not out of evil. By nature, he was a quiet man who loved reading, writing and fishing. He was often taxed with the art of talking and wanted to get out of it the quickest. His intellect and idealism made him look argumentative and indeed, there were times he was unnecessarily argumentative and in such times, if the debate was not going his way, he would just empty his chest and say the unpalatable. Yet, behind this pantomime figure was a man with an incredible sense of humour.
He could be so funny such that one could wonder whether he was the same person telling Parliament: “If you continue with those chicken debates, I will close that thing!” I remember in September 2010 while in New York, MBC together with BBC arranged for a global debate on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and one of the sponsors wanted to meet Mutharika, but for some unknown reasons, were referred to me. He was appalled by this decision.
However, he got in touch, but wanted to impress on me that he was not a mere man, so he invited me for a drink at New York’s posh club called Club 21 on 52nd Street opposite trump towers. At this white-dominated club, membership is by invitation and for one to be a member, you must be worth a minimum of $1 billion. As you can imagine, I was definitely there by default. While there, I met two Nigerians. The two Nigerians became interested in me owing to their own idea and demeanour of presidential aides. Apparently, being close to the president is a big thing in Nigeria.
The first gentleman introduced himself as Zeltin Jide, managing a $20 billion hedge fund on Wall Street. He was being visited by Bayo from London. I engaged the London-based gentleman since we had a few things in common. We both had homes in north London, but when he said he lives in Hampstead-Bishops Avenue, he raised my attention to which I asked: “What do you do?” For those in the dark, Bishops Avenue is the most expensive street in the whole of UK. His response was rather interesting.
“I have just come out of a stressful bid as such, I am here to relax” he said.
“What stressed you that much to the point of flying over to New York?” I asked. “Well, I have just bought Gatwick Airport and I want to transform it into a modern airport like what I have done with London City Airport.” He then turned to me and asked: “So what do you do?” I was like mama mia. “Well, I work for Malawi Broadcasting Corporation as CEO.”
“You work?” He asked rather shockingly as if it were wrong to work.
When I went back to president Mutharika and told him of what had become of the meeting and my interaction with Bayo from London and the question he asked me thereafter, he laughed uncontrollably.
When bored or stressed and, perhaps, wanted some light moments, Mutharika would call me and say: “Hello, is that Mr Malopa”.
Obviously, I would take note of his voice and respond: “Yes, Your Excellency”, then he would continue thus: “I am His Excellency Bingu wa Mutharika, President of the Republic of Malawi. So what do you do?” And then he would burst into laughter.
Application of the full notion of democracy may be a challenge in Malawi.
Probably what others have said of Africa and the leadership it deserves might be true in the sense that in Malawi and Africa in general, progress can only be achieved by way of a heavy hand. Mutharika might not have been the kind of leader that everyone wanted or wished for, but he showed Malawi and Africa what needs to be done to make headway.
With the degree of commitment I saw towards the edicts of his faith and respect for other people’s beliefs, I am also quite certain that on that wonderful resurrection morning, Jesus Christ will shout his name from a distant horizon and say: “Bingu wa Mutharika, I am Jesus Christ Lord and Saviour, conqueror of death. What on earth are you doing six feet down there!”