As the country still grapples with the findings of the Bingu wa Mutharika’s death inquiry, EPHRAIM NYONDO talked with political thinker Michael Jana to isolate governance lessons from it.
Q: What was your immediate reaction to the report on Bingu wa Mutharika’s death inquiry?
A: It was as if I had just read a drama of a bomb that was defused before it exploded, courtesy of the Malawi Defence Force and some voices of reason from the Judiciary and the civil society. I could not help but agree with that old adage that real politics is dirty. But the question lingered on that how do we effectively control this game that can be this dirty, but necessary? I smiled when I particularly read that Peter Mutharika and company were afraid of public reaction if they denied Joyce Banda to take over, taking lessons from the July 20 2011 demonstrations. I think Malawians’ activism is working. Politicians are now beginning to fear the public and not the other way round.
Q: The inquiry reveals that those in government were eager to get then vice-president Joyce Banda out of the way. What could have been motivating them?
A: I think there were two motivating factors: one precondition and the other a trigger factor. The precondition was created by president Bingu wa Mutharika himself. By ostracising Joyce Banda from the Executive, a move that was effectively against the Constitution, he created a political power vacuum that became so glaring when he passed on. Such power gaps are known to attract political power battles including military coups; no wonder Peter Mutharika is reported to have flirted with the unconstitutional idea of becoming acting president or instigating a military coup d’état.
The trigger factor was power politics in the context that the ascendancy to power of Joyce Banda would mean that DPP would be squeezed out of State power; hence out of reach of State resources, especially for its top cadres. The report paints a picture of a country infested with power-hungry politicians who seem not to have the welfare of Malawians at heart, but all they are interested in is to be in power even if it means putting this country in turmoil through court proceedings about succession and instigating a military coup when the law on succession is very clear.
Q: The commission recommends the need to address the relationship between a president and a vice-president in the course of their term of office as the souring of their relationship has repercussions on the affairs of the State. Why, if you look into history, has these offices always been at loggerheads?
A: I think the presidents and political parties we have had lack leadership qualities; how do they vie for presidency and choose a running mate who becomes a vice-president without having a clear idea on the succession plan? It is clear that the vice-presidents we have had since 1994 have been having legitimate expectation of taking over leadership once the incumbent retires. However, this has often not worked out because it seems somewhere in the middle of their terms, Malawi presidents decide to groom someone else other than the vice-president to succeed them, often for selfish reasons. The presidents have even gone to the extent of campaigning against the vice-presidents, thereby creating uneven playing ground and tension within their own parties. We have seen this happening between Bakili Muluzi and Justin Malewezi, Bingu wa Mutharika and Cassim Chilumpha, and between Mutharika and Joyce Banda. This selfish and undemocratic leader behaviour and poor party succession policy has been the main source of rifts between the president and his deputy in Malawi. I think the vice- presidents, just like any member in a political party, should be given a fair chance to campaign and stand for a leadership position without selfish interference from presidents.
Q: In terms of how politicians relate with public servants, what governance lesson has Bingu’s death bequeathed to posterity?
A: Public servants are custodians of continuity in the governance of democratic societies where governments operate in periodic cycles. For this reason, they are supposed to be apolitical, professional and bound by the law. One reason most development efforts in Malawi are ad hoc and unsuccessful is that once a government is voted out of power, it disappears together with its development plans and projects; the top public servants who are supposed to offer the necessary continuity are political appointees who are either forced into different departments, forced to resign or are fired when a new government takes over. Reading the commission of inquiry report, one could sense that at the moment, many top public servants are in fact “politicians’ servants”. I think we need more of merit system and less of political influence in the hiring and firing of top public servants so that they feel secure and confident enough to act professionally without worrying much about the whims of politicians.
Q: Now that the inquiry is public for all to see, what do you expect from those in government to do?
A: I think those implicated in the report but are still in government must resign honourably until their names are cleared. I also expect authorities to take due legal process to try those implicated; if they are innocent, the legal process will clear them, but the precedence will have been clearly set that tampering with the Constitution is not an option.
Q: Any other words?
A: It is very commendable that President Joyce Banda instituted this Commission of Inquiry. All Malawians have the right to information for them to make informed opinion and act accordingly. Now that we Malawians have a glimpse of some dirty politics behind the scenes that can affect us negatively, I can only hope that we will be more vigilant in scrutinising and limiting as much as possible the actions of politicians and holding them to account all the time.