Without any scandal or big headlines, President Lazarus Chakwera on Thursday addressed the United Nations General Assembly (Unga) meeting this week, virtually.
The President held his own on the world stage; articulated important issues such as the vaccine inequality, climate change and imbalance in UN Security Council, calling the three triple crises for the world body.
He spoke with vigour and with characteristic clarity and eloquence.
The importance of the subject withstanding, if there are any lessons that we can take away from the address, is that it’s possible for leaders to prioritise national wellbeing and do away with reckless spendthrift that often comes with foreign trips for such summits.
So, kudos to the President for allowing reason to prevail against perhaps his own instincts and appetite for travel. For the record, the President’s own record on international travels in his short time in power must rank as one of the highest of any presidents we have had, perhaps just short of Joyce Banda’s globetrotting exploits.
But not all travel is bad, truth be told, but in this country, sometimes there is a thin line between trips taken for the sake of travelling and those that are beneficial to the country. And even when we have all important trips for our leaders, we ensure the trips are abused and become a needlessly colossal expense for the taxpayer.
Think, for one, the famous trip in 2010 when the departed president, Bingu wa Mutharika, took a whole village to New York. Bingu, who would characteristically proceed on extended holiday after the annual UN event, on this trip took along a delegation of 42 people. And after the technocrats you can picture the other hitchhikers on his plane: chiefs, party cadets, family members and others who had no government business to transact in the city that never sleeps.
A whopping K700 million was spent taking care of the village.
For a country where children still learn under trees and hospitals perennially have drugs shortages; one out of 16 children dies before their fifth birthday; thousands of women die while giving birth every year at a rate 20 times than that of wealthy countries; 96 percent of rural Malawians don’t have electricity in their homes, such expenditure must rank as extravagance.
But we allow our leaders to get away with such murder, for want of a better term.
We’re indoctrinated to accept that a few in top public offices can live large at our expense. We accept long presidential motorcades, huge State house budgets, expensive fuel guzzlers for ministerial vehicles and others as if they are kings when in democracy they are our employees.
When we question the size of Cabinet ministers, presidents who during campaign pledged to hire a lean Cabinet turn around to ask rhetorically: “what is a lean Cabinet?”
All I am saying here, folks, is that we can live with less expenditure by those in power. We can live with fewer trips and definitely have a lean Cabinet. By sheer matter of circumstances, namely the death of two Cabinet ministers, and Chakwera’s dillydallying to appoint their replacement, we have learnt that we can live without some of the ministers or Cabinet posts.
We need the President to keep the Cabinet leaner. Above all, he must only keep in office ministers who have performed. And the same level of scrutiny should also go to technocrats. We don’t need too many senior government officials who do nothing. The incompetent ones, too, must go.
That way, we can start in earnest the job of rebuilding the country with competent people in charge and spendthrift curtailed. Coupled with a serious fight against corruption (so far right people have been appointed to right jobs), greater transparency in administration of government particularly procurement, strengthening of accountability institutions and continued active citizenship, we can finally make Malawi a country we all have yearned for.
Chakwera has always said right things; hence, earned the vote in 2020. He has also at times done a few things, but the President has to avoid the avoidable mishaps that eat into the public’s goodwill such as nepotistic appointments he has made since assuming office, like the Cabinet of appeasement, siblings and couples, or appointing own daughter to a foreign mission.
Otherwise, on the overall, truth be told, we are in much better in the hands of the Tonse Alliance government than the mighty kleptocracy that it replaced.