By Z Allan Ntata
To govern a country with excellence and lead it to economic prosperity, leaders need to be open minded. From my experience working in government, I have come to the conclusion that this is the most difficult attribute to have when one is governing. In government, perceptions easily become blurred by prejudice and presumption.
I once worked in government, so I am speaking from experience. Our governance framework has made it so easy to automatically go into the siege mentality every time someone criticises it. The result is that the leadership closes its ears to relevant and useful advice because praise singers and party loyalists brand any change agent an enemy of the State. Instead of considering the soundness of the message, they attack the character of the messenger.
With our country in retrogression 50 years after independence, I strongly submit that the fear of being considered an enemy of the State and being castigated physically and in the media has stopped many from becoming the change agents that our governance framework, which still operates very much like a one-party State, desperately needs. Of course, being a change agent is not for the faint-hearted. Free money is given to anyone with a pen or smartphone to attack and assassinate the character of anyone who dares to point out where the government is going wrong. But if we love Malawi and want it to truly develop and get out of this 19th century thinking the country is stuck in, we Malawians must become change agents and accept the risks that come with that choice.
By definition, change agents are ‘the messenger’—and one thing change agents can be certain of is that as messengers, shots will be fired at them. ‘Shooting the messenger’ is considered a subdivision of an ad hominem attack, which is: ‘…insulting or belittling one’s opponent in order to attack his claim or invalidate his argument, but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent’s argument’. This is logically fallacious because it relates to the opponent’s personal character, which has nothing to do with the logical merit of the opponent’s argument.
When inevitably you have become the target of hostility, remember that it is your message, not you personally, that the person or group is reacting to. When people attack the person delivering the message instead of debating the issue raised by their message, they are reacting to someone placing them in a state of cognitive dissonance. Refuse to make yourself the issue. Your goal is to help the country move forward, not justify your character or your past; or defend motivations presumptively and prejudicially imputed to you. If you decide to talk about governance and the intolerance of those you criticise, you must be prepared to demonstrate that you are not just speaking but that you, yourself, are tolerant of those that speak spitefully about you.
Truth is truth regardless of who speaks it. And in this country, there are truths that need to be spoken by someone. Anyone. The suspicious Malawi Savings Bank (MSB) sale, the totally empty Public Service Reforms and the presidential puppetry are but just a few examples.
It is a failure of good governance to refuse to take criticism or to quickly brand all that point out issues as enemies of the State.
As a writer and a governance scholar, I have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in a character debate or justify myself and my motives to individuals who let their presumption and petty prejudices guide their thinking. The fact that apparently well-respected journalists can waste their time writing nothing but character assassination articles instead of debating these important national issues is a clear testimony to our country’s intellectual bankruptcy.
I discuss governance not because I believe my character is angelic, but because having studied governance and worked in government, I have the advantage of understanding that when in government; it is easy for myopia and complacency to set in, accompanied by the feeling that the government can do no wrong. I also know that fear of losing their jobs or being branded as disloyal traitors prevents many from speaking out about obvious wrongs.
My fellow Malawians, criticising government and speaking on issues that matter is not about having previously teamed up in the trenches with anyone. It is about having the courage and the presence of mind to speak out. Period.
**The author is a barrister of Middle Temple, governance specialist and author of Trappings of Power: Political Leadership in Africa.