On August 1 1915, Patrick Pearse, commander general of the Irish Republic brotherhood and member of the revolutionary society, addressed people of his country at the funeral of O’Donovan Rosa, a youthful man and revolutionary pantheon who inspired his generation to pick up the baton in the cause of freedom against British dominance in Ireland.
“Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations,” he said.
Following Bingu wa Mutharika’s death, it seems a new nation has been born. A nation that stands against everything Bingu stood for on one hand and a nation that stands for everything Mutharika stood for on the other. A nation which, only 11 months ago, was the breadbasket of Africa with surplus maize to a nation that is now importing maize. I agree with Patrick Pearse: “Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations”.
I am writing, therefore, not in mourning or grieving, but in exaltation of this unrepentant progressive socialist of the pan-African faith and my experience with him springing from four points of strength: As my president, my father, my son and, finally, my friend.
So much has been said and written about Mutharika. It has brought grief to some people and relief to others with narrow interests. To family and friends, they will always testify to his charm, generosity and affability as well as to his accurate judgment.
Those outside the firmly drawn circle saw a diminutive figure with a hooded expression and a conspiratorial manner coupled with a remarkable degree of self-control when under pressure.
I think of his death and the mourning thereafter and reflections of what became of his close associates and critics. I also think, though, of the wonderful response of humankind to this terrible loss of a rare political thinker who honed his people and the continent at large, into vivid and intelligently articulated construct and/or manifesto so they could realise a future in which many an African can finally begin to dream in bright colours without any mental constraint to perceive unlimited abundance.
In Myth, Literature and the African World, Wole Soyinka attempts to express a spiritual phenomenon based on rational human understanding of death and mourning when he observes thus: “Mourning is hateful and irksome to poor human nature”. From suffering and sadness, our spirits instinctively shrink. By nature, we seek society of the cheerful and joyous.
Echoing the same is Phumla Matjila who, writing in the SA-Times commented thus: “It is not so much what we say about the dead, but what happens after they die that reveals the true character of a man.”
Events after Mutharika’s death make it hard for me to disprove Matjila’s theory. Indeed, it is not what we speak with our mouths that tells us about the person who has died but what happens after one has departed that paints the true picture of the life lost.
Politics being the most divisive discipline ever invented by humans, his work may have been forgotten or deliberately ignored by the political elite. Former loyalists and opportunity bunters now line themselves up for what seems to be a window of opportunity, but surely somewhere in Thyolo, earth is hiding the mortal body of a valiant man whose selfless contributions to his country and continent made a huge difference. Mutharika was not an ordinary person. Hopefully, time will come when history will conserve all that is great and best in our national heritage and Mutharika rightly belongs there.
I had heard about Mutharika from my professor while studying in England and how great a man he was and later on read more about his views on Africa through a book I got from my friend Steve Sharra, One Africa, One Destiny authored by Mutharika, but did not meet him till November 2005 in Scotland. A few months earlier, I had received a message from his aide de camp [ADC] Mr. John Chaika that the president was returning to Malawi from New York via London and that he wanted to see me. I was a bit disturbed because I had just published a criticism of his administration then.
Unknown to me was that what I had written somewhat landed on his desk and to my surprise, he loved the manner in which arguments in the write-up flowed. Before I knew it, he was on the phone and introduced himself. I had never talked to a head of State before. I must admit, I did not know whether to bow down or break-dance or any of those formalities, but we ended up having a friendly talk in which he asked me to come up with a comprehensive assessment of his administration, and proposals on how to address challenges of the time.
Owing to my marketing background, he was convinced of the role marketing can play in political strategising, but he would also delve into lecturing me about the theory of monetarism, free market and just like a conversation I had with the late Chakufwa Chihana in 2004, talked about how a marketer by the name Norman Strauss resigned his marketing post from Lever Brothers [UK] in the 1970s and drafted an ideological concept with his friend Keith Joseph, which led to the modern conservative party and later on became what is known as Thatcherism.
A year later, I got a call from State House that it had pleased Mutharika to appoint me as deputy director general of Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). It was quite a tall order in that everything was quite the opposite of what I had been exposed to. Much to the chagrin of my wife and children, I decided to accept the offer and made my way to Malawi in pursuit of what would become an exciting, frustrating and memorable journey of public life. Life at MBC was funny. I had left the London life of glitz and glamour where what you see is what you get, to a life where broadcasting celebrities were held captive by gossip and politics.
Before the day was over, several characters would had trooped in and out of my office, leaving, in their wake, heap upon heap of gossip and self-praise. Picture this: Day One, a seasoned broadcaster comes and introduces himself to me as a man of vast experience in broadcasting, saying he joined MBC in 1969, years before I was born. Barely a few minutes into our discussion, the man starts sleeping and, before I know it, he is snoring, right in front of me!
Then, a few minutes later, a junior officer comes in to warn me that one of the officers there was a known witch with a habit of putting spells on new administrators. Now, like most Malawians, I had grown up hearing stories of witchcraft at workplaces, but this was the first time I was being told I was, actually, on location.
I was known to be brave and sharp, but this little gossip somewhat knocked the truncheons of my brevity into numbness. To wade this off, I decided to take a pre-emptive strike by warning him in advance that I had heard of his applied sciences in the domain of witchcraft and that I had come prepared and immuned by the Mongolian monk, adding that should he dare to make one attempt to turn himself into a weird creature with protruding nose and ears, he would be gone at once.
I had expected him to deny the allegations and refer to it as works of his detractors. To my surprise, he looked straight in my eyes and said: “Don’t worry sir, it is good that you have cleared the air. We will work together. Welcome to MBC.”
I regretted my approach because at this point, I was now double frightened particularly so due to the words “we will work together”. We parted ways and immediately after leaving my office, a cockroach crawled from one end to the other albeit innocently “Herrrrrrrrrrrr! I screamed. My personal assistant came running: “What is it boss?” To which I responded: “Nothing”.
I went home early that day a frightened soul, locked all the doors, pushing mats and blankets at one go in case the cockroach decided to follow me.
In the end, it dawned on me that Ken Bates might have been right when he said: “Some people express their opinions with self-satisfied assurance born of complete ignorance.”
As my president, I had a tough time to adjust to the formalities and decorum not least the aura surrounding his office. From the onset, he made it absolutely clear that he liked the way I think and conduct myself. He liked to be challenged and proved wrong. He also liked new ways of doing things. Our relationship was informal, but many a time, the line could be crossed often by me when at times I could challenge him in a meeting much to the surprise of many. It sounded normal to me, but strange to most.
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.