In this interview EPHRAIM NYONDO engages with University of Malawi’s Chancellor College political scientist Michael Jana on what he makes of recent political developments in the country.
We have had a week of worsening economy, intensified maize shortages, arrests of MCP officials, Speaker adjourning Parliament citing security of MPs and fierce discussion in Parliament. What kind of political settlement can we draw from these events?
I think the events of last week or so symbolise a weak democracy in a socio-economic crisis—not good news at all. Amid all these socio-economic problems, one cannot imagine that the government would have the audacity to waste public resources and energies by arresting opposition leaders on charges that the government, at least currently, is even failing to define.
You know, in weak democracies, underperforming governments often have a sense of insecurity and resort to intimidation and sometimes outright violence with the hope that the people will be silenced and not use the government failures against the ruling party either now or in next elections. I think the Malawi government behaviour recently displayed these attributes. The only ray of hope was the Public Affairs Committee [PAC] stakeholders’ meeting that tried to provide a forum for potential solutions. That is what deliberative democracy should entail. I can only hope that the final recommendations will be constructive and that government will take them on board as we try to find solutions to a myriad of our problems.
President Mutharika’s government is increasingly facing economic pressure and how do you assess his leadership capacity to deal with these times?
To put Malawi’s economic situation in a proper context, most countries in Africa, including Nigeria and South Africa, are struggling economically. Statistics indicate that low commodity prices and economic slowdown in Africa’s trade partners such as China are some of the causes. Malawi’s problems are of course compounded by the dry spell and floods experienced in the past year or two, and of course poor policies and corruption that have left Malawians poorer since the introduction of democratic dispensation—if I am to talk of this period alone.
Basing on Mutharika’s one and half years in office, I think he came with a promise of potentially effective reforms. Programmes like the public service reforms, the Green Belt Initiative, the community colleges and so on—I think such programmes hold the promise of solving some of our problems if implemented well. They, however, need time and resources to be implemented and show results. Unfortunately, upon assuming the presidency, Mutharika was faced with a crisis that I think put him off guard and threatened the realisation of some of his planned programmes. Here I am talking about the sudden resource gap created by the withdrawal of donor support to government budget, and the food shortage. In a crisis situation, I think Mutharika has not shown convincing capacity to design a bailout package. Yes, it is not an easy task; it needs a lot of brains to come together and a lot of support; but that is one instance where leadership matters most.
Some delegates at the PAC meeting want the President to resign, citing his failure to manage the economy and maize shortage. Government says that is wishful thinking. How do you assess these calls and government response?
I think PAC stakeholders’ meeting offered a rare opportunity where people from key sectors of Malawi—the private sector, academia, government, opposition, NGO sector—came together to brainstorm solutions to Malawi’s problems. As such, I think it is counter-productive to start calling for the resignation of the President before assessing whether he has engaged honestly and objectively with the official recommendations of the meeting. I hope that government will engage with and use the PAC recommendations when they are officially communicated.
How much is the President to blame for the economic mess we are in?
President Harry Truman of the United States of America used to put a sign on his desk that read: “the buck stops here”. I think as long as Mutharika accepted to be the captain of this ship called Malawi, the buck stops on his desk—he must take responsibility. If this country sinks or successfully sails through this crisis, Mutharika takes the responsibility as the captain. When he took over government in May 2014, for instance, crop estimates already showed a looming huge deficit. Now this is 2016 and we are still talking about trying to find a solution. I think the President and his government must take responsibility for failing to find a solution to date.
How have you assessed the public reaction to Mutharika’s leadership?
My assessment of the Malawi public is that, just like many societies, it is divided into the elite and the masses. For the elite, especially the opposition leadership, NGOs, religious leaders, and the academia, I would say they have been quite engaging—the recent PAC meeting being an epitome of such engagements. But for the masses, apart from their informal talk in the streets, they don’t engage much to the point of influencing their leaders such as councillors and MPs—and thus they seem to suffer in silence. But history has shown us that when Malawians are hit hard, they reach a point where they react angrily through, for instance, participating in mass demonstrations. One just have to go back to 1992 and 93, and recently in 2011 to appreciate the reaction of Malawians to unresolved socio-economic problems.
Anything you want to add…
I would urge government to desist from inciting unnecessary tension especially in the midst of the current socio-economic problems that demand that we focus our attention on finding short-term and long-term solutions. I would also urge PAC to carefully distil PAC meeting deliberations and provide constructive recommendations; and government to positively engage with the recommendations as we search for solutions to our problems.