Of late, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe seems to have developed a habit of stumbling and falling. In February last year, the nonagenarian stumbled and fell at a Harare airport, to much mirth and pity in equal measure for the nonagenarian.
If that fall was dismissed as a blip, such doubts were cast aside a few months later—in October—when he stumbled again in New Dheli, but he had Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to thank for breaking his fall.
A combination of old age and almost 15 years of incessantly fighting opposition both at home and abroad can wear down any man. He can, you might even say, be forgiven for the occasional fall.
Malawian presidents, on the other hand, seem to have perfected the art of falling in public dating from the latter days of Kamuzu Banda to the present day rule of President Peter Mutharika. In fact, the stumble and fall of sitting Malawian presidents—at least three of them—reads like a poignant metaphor of the state of their nation and, as it has happened in the past two occasions, it has turned to be a harbinger of their own political fall.
For instance, as power was slipping from his grasp in the early 1990s, Kamuzu Banda famously stumbled and fell in Harare where he had gone for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Malawi’s economy at the time was a shambles, his political foes were closing on him. It was as if the fall presaged his own political downfall a few years later; first, when the citadel of his power—one party system of government—was demolished during the June 93 referendum and, when he fell at the polls in May 1994, never to rise again.
Bakili Muluzi and Bingu wa Mutharika largely stayed on their feet, but the same cannot be said of the national economies or the political systems they presided over. They stumbled with such regularity they may as well have just stayed on the floor.
Joyce Banda’s obituary as a president was sealed when she had her own kiss with the ground—was it in Mzuzu?—after she also stumbled. It was a cruel metaphor of how she governed the country during two uneventful, but wasted years. She stumbled in her speeches (claiming rather naively, among other gaffes, that she saw nothing wrong with receiving stolen property), messed up the economy, lorded over the looting of public funds, seemed to be unsure of her own position (remember how she used to say donors have told me this and that) and how mightily she fell at the polls. That fall crystalised all her failures.
Now President Peter Mutharika has fallen as well. It is no laughing matter. The economy has fallen, the kwacha has fallen, the real value of the salaries has fallen, our morality has fallen (we are killing or threatening to kill each other for fun). And, oh, the water levels in Lake Malawi have fallen.
Look, anyone can fall, but in Malawi, that relationship with the ground seems to carry a double jeopardy. It is, perhaps, a warning for our leaders to do something about everything that has fallen, but they seldom pay attention to it. To their peril.
Mutharika fell, but he was swiftly helped to his feet by his attentive bodyguard. If only Mutharika’s fall and his being helped to his feet were the metaphor for Malawi’s fortunes, we would be the better for it.