In this interview, political scientist associate professor Nandini Patel discusses the kind of leadership Malawi needs as elections draws close.
A: What is the character of Malawi’s post-colonial leadership?
Post independence leadership—the nationalist movement and the immediate post-independence phase had a crop of great leaders such as Masauko Chipembere and Orton Chirwas who were unfortunately eliminated by Dr. Kamuzu Banda after he proclaimed himself as the life president of Malawi. Although the political change in 1993 brought in a number of competent and dedicated people into the system, there were also a large number of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) personnel in the United Democratic Front (UDF), Bakili Muluzi himself being one of them.
The authoritarian traits were visible although the UDF government made good strides towards installing democracy. The high-handedness of Muluzi demonstrated in hand-picking Bingu wa Mutharika as presidential candidate, an open and ardent admirer of Kamuzu Banda, reinforced the repressive tendency, and the current leader has been a part of the past two regimes and is not an exception from the norm of repressive leadership. So, we basically have recycled leaders who neither have the energy nor drive to lead the nation in the confines of democracy and human development. The observation that Malawi has had a transition without transformation is an apt description of the state of leadership in the country. Power has changed hands but within the same elite.
Q: What leadership quality do you think Malawi is yet to harness in the people we elect onto leadership?
Developmental leadership to me rests on four pillars, and a competent leader requires intelligence (not necessarily highly qualified), courage, conviction and determination to pursue them.
Efficiency: The leader need not necessarily be highly qualified as an expert in any field but should have the ability to identify and place the right people on the right jobs. I see that we tend to place great emphasis on a person’s qualification rather than on their performance, when it comes to identifying criteria for a job.
This principle of competence should apply starting from Cabinet ministers going down to civil servants and independent commissions. Further, these officials should be given the required space and opportunity to perform their responsibilities.
Accountability: The leadership has to allow for all channels of accountability mechanisms to operate. In Malawi, we see that bodies that are constituted to secure accountability are crippled and stunted and deliberately maintained as such by the holders of power.
Integrity: Character, by which I mean virtue, should be more if not as important as competence. Track record of people pursuing public offices should be thoroughly scrutinised and bad ones, no matter how competent, should not continue in the system. We often find persons of questionable past moving to a better or greater position. Corrupt politicians survive and protect their fellow corrupt colleagues, help those who exited to re-enter and this vicious circle continues. A development leader, therefore, needs courage and determination to clean up the system.
Vision: Last but not least, a leader is one who directs the way forward for the nation. Here comes the role of ideology and policy direction. Time has proven that we cannot hide behind the arguments that the age of ideology is over or that African problems are generic and parties need not have much ideological variance. The solutions to larger outstanding problems of economic sufficiency, equitable wealth distribution, fair internal and external trade are all issues which leaders have to first identify, analyse and concretise and then discuss at various levels.
Q: Is it possible to find a leader with all of the above qualities in Malawi?
Political culture, which is very much a product of a country’s history, plays a detrimental role in the shaping of national leadership. Using repression as a tool to survive in power which has pervaded in all regimes since 1964 explains for our political leaders not willing to accept criticism, no matter how constructive they maybe. Tendency to exercise authority and oftentimes stepping outside the norms of limited constitutional governments and sheer greed for wealth and power for which anything and everything can be sacrificed are basic impediments to good leadership.
Q: What, in your opinion, influences a Malawian voter?
Voters are influenced by factors most of which are not quite focusing on a candidate’s capability to serve the office they are contesting for. In other words, voters do not really have a choice. Political parties are continuing to face the challenges they have faced for two decades, continuing to fragment and disintegrate and are failing to offer a viable choice to the electorate. The inter elections period does not provide adequate regular space for discourse between think tanks, and policy NGOs and political parties to grow in terms of offering much to the people.
Q: Is democracy helping Malawi’s development agenda?
Democratic norms and institutions are not a choice but are necessary pillars for all development agendas and Malawians have learnt the hard way the consequences of letting someone pursue a development agenda at the cost of democratic values. The most precious tool that democracy offers is demanding accountability from duty-bearers in the pursuit of a national agenda. It is upon civil society, the media, political parties and all formal and informal institutions to constantly keep the pressure on government to perform and deliver.