Speaking in Parliament on February 24 2017, Juliana Lunguzi, the Malawi Congress Party MP for Dedza East constituency, suggested that the appointment of board members to statutory corporations should be based on merit as opposed to the current system whereby officers are appointed by the presidency, with little if any explanation why such members have been appointed. The results of this system of appointments has been plain to see throughout the history of our nation: we have seen individuals without even the dimmest idea of the concept of corporate governance left in charge of some of the most critical elements of our economic and social infrastructure. The consequences of these decisions for some of our most prized statutory corporations such as our water services boards, our electricity commission, our agricultural co-operatives or indeed our Admarc have been traumatic.
Yet, go through the list of some of the people that have graced the boardrooms of these institutions, one really ought not wonder the root causes of such dismal performance. A succession of our presidents, from Kamuzu Banda to Peter Mutharika, have not appointed the best talent to provide corporate leadership and governance for the most important but also often quite complex and vulnerable statutory corporations. When else do you need the best leadership for a corporation, if not when it is down on its feet? Little wonder then that we have lost our railways, that our lake transport services are a shadow of what they used to be; that we have no airline at a time when more Malawians are travelling by air than ever before, that we see an energy regulatory agency procuring maize when that is clearly not its mandate, and that the corporation mandated to buy maize procures such product under a funny (but not funny at all) contract even when there is clearly no need buy such maize.
However, while the process of appointments to public institutions is an issue we need to discuss, there is something a little more fundamental in Juliana Lunguzi’s attempt to push back against a process that has become an entrenched part of our presidency: the ability to use the powers of appointment to reward those who are affiliated to a particular political party or indeed neutralise those who might be a threat to the said political party. These aspects of the appointment process, rather than ensuring accountability, seem to be the determining factor regarding the exercise of these powers. Consequently, by questioning this implicit understanding of the president’s appointment powers, she is questioning the legitimacy of a power that all of our presidents have held very dear. This is subversion and our democracy would be the poorer without it.
Our history is replete with these moments of subversion, a fundamental questioning of accepted political or constitutional practice. Consider, for example, Henry Chipembere’s insistence that the prime minister (a position then held by Kamuzu Banda) must resign if he or she lost the trust of his Cabinet. Bakili Muluzi and Sam Mpasu have learnt that immunity gained from incumbency in political office is useless currency: it is soon lost and the chickens come a-roosting real quick. Under Bingu wa Mutharika, citizens let the president know that a people who had faced bullets to get rid of the MCP cannot be easily intimidated into surrendering their political rights. My president will find out soon enough my fellow Malawians’ views on apparent failures to act decisively over seemingly corrupt officials.
The success of these moments of subversion depends on the extent to which the proponents are prepared to keep pushing even in the face of expected heavy resistance in favour of the status quo. It was not surprising that Kamuzu Banda unleashed hell and high waters for Chipembere and his supporters. It is not surprising that Juliana Lunguzi’s submissions have been met with stony silence from the government benches. Indeed it is not surprising that moneybag officials can count on the protection that their offices guarantee. This is the status quo. But beware of democratic subversion. History tells us that Malawians will keep fighting for a more perfect democracy, a more accountable government; one in which citizens speak truth to power.
*Thoko Kaime is from Bangwe and sometimes teaches law.