For such a small country, Malawi likes its things big. Big cabinet, big number of civil servants, five big presidential residences, a big Parliament and big cars on the big presidential convoy.
But it is mostly for political reasons that the government wants everything to be big. In the attendant confusion, politically-connected people stand to benefit because we know that the bigger the government, the greater the opportunities for big (and some small) corruption. So instead of reducing public expenditure by cutting down on its bloated bureaucracy, successive governments have maintained a constantly ballooning civil service.
It is true that there is significant unemployment and underemployment in this country and people are looking for jobs, any kind of job, even the ones they didn’t go to school for. But the Malawi government cannot be the place to accommodate people who cannot be employed elsewhere.
That the government has almost twice the number of drivers on its payroll than the number of vehicles it has, for example, is scandalous. What are the rest of the slackers doing at Capital Hill, without vehicles to drive?
President Peter Mutharika knows this and his irritation with a bloated civil service is evident. He told those who felt government salaries were too low to go and look for jobs elsewhere. Of course, upsetting civil servants is a political minefield in this country, but that’s to be expected.
I would say he goes right ahead and let vice president Saulos Chilima move with speed on reforming the civil service. It is a poisoned chalice, we know, and reforms will be met with strong resistance, we know that, too. Even Chilima’s most ardent supporters have quite often commented how utterly futile and cosmetic his efforts appear to be so far. Nevertheless, it is a job that has to be done. John Magufuli, president of Tanzania, is leading the way by cutting the size and reforming his own service. He is showing us all that it can be done.
Saulosi knows better than most that we need to be globally competitive. No—one will come to open a business in Malawi just because they heard that we have a beautiful lake and a warm, friendly people. If we are not organised, cheaper or efficient and better than our competitors then our potential customers and investors will go elsewhere. It is as simple as that. We cannot be a nation of slackers and still expect to be rewarded for that. Our leaders need to give us tough love—the Magufuli way—in doing the difficult, but necessary things if we are going to succeed as a country.
If Chilima can demonstrate that he can usher meaningful reforms starting with the civil service, he can use that momentum—and the gains from that—to position himself as Malawi’s next leader.
Malawi’s next leader could have been Atupele Muluzi, but his supporters and admirers must feel betrayed that the young man is today eating and sleeping with the enemy while they are out in the cold and not even getting the crumbs.
Lazarus Chakwera could have been another, but the MCP has no clear alternative policies, its president has no political identity and the party has a damaged brand name and reputation to manage.
And in Jessie Kabwila, its spokesperson, the MCP has a big problem.
Far too often, Kabwila has said one thing and the party has had to come and clean up after her.
The next election will be fought on real issues, so the big job could be Chilima’s to lose. If he plays his cards right, he just might turn the world’s most useless job into the next big thing. For him and for Malawi. n