On Tuesday, May 3 2016, as I was about to enter Shoprite supermarket, a man was coming out. He greeted me gently, saying: “I am glad to have met you. I thought you are the one to tell me exactly what the Cabinet crisis was about. Why don’t you write about it?”
I spoke a few words, but advised him to read my History of Malawi Volume II. Therein, the Cabinet, is given a full chapter and as I feel, without biases.
When I asked who the gentleman was, it turned out that he was my namesake.
At first I saw no point to write about an episode I already gave attention to in a voluminous history book. But later, I realised that there was a case for writing about lessons we can learn from the crisis.
In the 52 years that Malawi has been an independent country, perhaps, no political row is as regrettable and demeaning as the Cabinet crisis of 1964. Men, who only five years earlier had worked together behind a leader they were telling us do no wrong, were now united in condemning him as running the affairs of Malawi as if the country was his private estate.
Due to the crisis, some men and women had to spend 30 years in exile away from their families. Others spent many years in prison while others experienced untimely deaths.
Those years, 1964 to 1994 were uncongenial and cannot be gainsaid. Everyone lived with fear and suspicion. It was a period when friends framed up a friend, wives who suspected their husbands to be unfaithful, got them in trouble by accusing them of disloyalty to the president.
In August and September 1964, all ministers except one sat down and drew a list of grievances against the Prime Minister. The list was reminiscent of the Magna Carta in English history.
Prime Minister Hastings Kamuzu Banda at first was conciliatory, but the list, which he dubbed A Bill of Indictments, was couched in toplofty language, ‘You must do this, you must do that’. This appears many times in the document.
No one occupying a top position wants to be seen by his subordinates as weak. The Prime Minister dismissed most of the ministers. Those he had not dismissed except two resigned with their colleagues.
The Rubicon had been crossed. Neither side was prepared to back down. As King Solomon said, a soft answer turned wrath so does a tactful criticism. The minister overlooked the relevance of the status in that situation. Banda was expecting that as their Prime Minister, old enough to be their father, the minister would talk to him with due respect.
History teaches us that some leaders have turned from democrats to dictators in situations where chaos was looming, where some individuals or interest groups were trying to usurp power or authority.
Mussolini and Hitler assumed dictatorial powers where there were all sorts of groups trying to run the show, thereby making the country ungovernable. This was the case of Mobutu Seseseko of what used to be called Zaire which is once more known as Democratic Republic of Congo.
Recently, some people have experienced an alarm when President Peter Mutharika informed the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) that his government does not work according to deadlines. I think what Mutharika means was that he did not work according to deadlines imposed on him by others because if you ignore deadlines work obeys Parkinson’s Law.
Whenever people want a president to listen to their petitions or complaints, they must not forget that most presidents make decisions or like to feel that they do so. They do not take decisions or orders. A president may speak like King Frederick the great of Prussia that he is the first servant of the State without meaning that he is an employee of the people, but a first citizen.
Freedom of speech or expressions must not be mistaken for licence to abuse or denigrate a monarch or any ruler. Human nature must be understood with the help of psychology such as that conveyed by Carnegies book How to make Friends and Influence people.
The Cabinet crisis of 1964 reminds us that holier than thou criticisms succeed only by making someone self-defensive or unwilling to capitulate. n