The enduring Peter Mutharika stereotype is not amusing: A guy who when push comes to shove, closes his eyes and hopes the problem vanishes. When the problem persists, he jumps on a plane and fly to America, once added journalist Idris Nassah.
That stereotype is fuelled by mistrust for a guy who has spent half his adult life in diaspora. Majority of that time was spent in the corridors of Washington State University as a law professor. Back home, he has always been depicted as a lost, reluctant non-politician forced into the political jungle by circumstances.
And you know that perceptions are the blood and fuel of politics.
Well, Nassah’s classic Mutharika portrayal, rung true when the academic freedom saga rocked Chancellor College with APM, then Minister of Education, caught between a rock and hard place. He was the then president’s kid brother occupying a Cabinet portfolio directly connected to the issue.
As a former academic with repute, he was expected to do something apart from sympathising with the lecturers. He did nothing.
For months, Jessie Kabwila and fellow renegade lecturers stuck their guns and refused to take their seats in, allegedly, spies-infested classrooms. They demanded nothing short of apology and renunciation of any sort of espionage at the college at the bequest of the police Chief Peter Mukhito.
Bingu rallied against any such calls. Not only did the older Mutharika declare any apology from Area 30 a non-starter but also declared Mukhito, “the best Inspector General ever.”
Fast-forward a few years, the kid brother is now his own man and CEO of the Malawi Inc. Chancellor of the University of Malawi, too. Mukhito top policy adviser and gatekeeper as chief of staff.
Chanco is once again closed for months running, seeking the Chancellor’s intervention. Parallels are being drawn to the academic freedom saga. It’s been months since the constituent college was shut down amid a wrangle over salary hike demands by the same lecturers from Chirunga campus.
Lest we forget, perception is everything in politics. Much as APM’s current trip to Europe is well-intentioned (The Nation reported this week about the billions of development and investment cash it will inject into the economy) its timing—amid the standoff—reawakens old ghosts for APM.
Not only is the President travelling without any progress in sight for the Chanco saga; primary school teachers, too, have downed tools over various grievances, including non-payment of leave grants.
The irony is, amid all this, APM is expected to address Oxford University students. Yes, in the academic circles, APM must look like a fish in the right pond but, politically, it couldn’t have come at a more poignant time. And it does enforce stereotypes his government can ill-afford.
Such irony couldn’t have been lost on both his regular army of detractors and those genuinely injured by either impasse. Some students and civil society guys launched a late attempt to petition their colleagues at Oxford to block Mutharika’s address. It appears a doomed attempt but it will irk APM more.
Mutharika’s backers say the President’s Chancellorship is a ceremonial role and real questions should be directed to the varsity council over the impasse. But in a country where power is centralised, there is no escaping the responsibility. His own past interventions in previous varsity matters, such as the loan fees debacle only raises the spectre of Mutharika’s policy failure now.
Unfortunately for APM, as illustrated by the just-ended Public Affairs Committee (PAC) meeting, the impasse at Chanco fits in neatly with a perplexing narrative that his three-year old government is underperforming in many respects.
“Malawians are hurting,” concluded Professor Wiseman Chijere Chirwa at the all-inclusive PAC conference as he presented his paper on state of governance in the country.
While, the ‘hurting’ might be attributed to a myriad factors and not solely on the inefficiencies of the Mutharika administration, one can’t help to note that the public perceptions, as also alluded to by Chirwa, point to a President out of his depths. Ahead of the 2019 elections, that is an ominous sign for the mighty Democratic Progressive Party. You don’t need Afrobarometer to tell you this.