Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bingu wa Mutharika: Statesman Misunderstood

By Richard Chirombo
The hopes, fears, bitterness, joys, anguish and national wishes of the past eight years centred upon the heart of this one, mortal Malawian man. The First Citizen, he was called.
It is not just the title ‘His Excellency the State President of the Republic of Malawi’ that Bingu wa Mutharika wore; there was much more to it. With it came the willingness to embrace the lessons drawn from political turmoil, the will to stand firm against the, sometimes selfish, drumming of ruling Democratic Progressive Party  (DPP) cadres, and the wit to maintain composure under the burden of fear and suspense.
Sometimes, may be, the president could be adjudged to have been warding off an unapprehended blow, only because the persona of the President is a piece of clay in contradictory mode. The President would not be human if, every working minute, he did not battle the combined feelings of hope and fear.
It must have been particularly tough during the past three years as Malawi, short on forex, fuel and, possibly, hope, skidded towards the abyss. The president sat at the centre of it all, sometimes becoming the subject of unfair attack. It all settled in his heart; pressuring it, burdening it. Mutharika stood firm and, like the economic engineer he was, went about looking for spanners that could fix the breeding economic wounds.
He was never the one to run away, as he rightly observed in Mangochi as recently as March this year: “Bingu does not run away from responsibility…” The president even added that, other than taking the easy road to resignation, he would walk his Constitutional mile, and finish it at ‘Destination 2014’.
He had the heart to go on.
Many misunderstood him. When, for instance, he said on 5 March 2011 that Civil Society Organisations were planning July 20-like demonstrations, he was merely expressing his fears and hopes aloud: The fear that, looking at the wreckage of the pro-democracy demonstrations- in which millions of kwacha disappeared in routed and gutted property, and 19 lives went towards the way of all the earth- Malawi could find the deep of anarchy her final destination.
Mutharika, who established a make-believe pattern since his ascendancy to the position of Malawi’s Chief Executive Officer in May 2004, stroke a familiar chord that Sunday morning: He had, over the eight years, touted peace-maintenance, characterized by a nation in one frame, as the pre-requisite for national development.
Some quarters of society took issues with the way he bemoaned the involvement of development partners, casting himself in the light of a figure who appreciated their (donors’) faces, eating habits, body movements, childhood names, their children’s names, and the names of the children of their children. Just like that.
But Mutharika knew what he was doing. He had travelled widely, came to know the A-Z of foreign cultures, and knew his lines well. The other reason could be that he was, truly, Malawian. Locally, people point at others- imaginary or real- to array their own fears. It is part of Malawian culture, after all. In fact, Mutharika might have ‘mastered’ this lesson from, not only the cup of political science he drunk from in class, but Malawi’s long-held tradition.
 It is a tactic best-mastered by the Chewa. Mask dancers (Gulewamkulu) , notorious for taking on the uninitiated in the Central Malawi districts of Salima, Dedza, Dowa, Ntchisi, Kasungu, and some parts of Nkhotakota and Ntcheu, have been known to corner the uninitiated by producing the ‘empty’ shout: “Ndakuona, ndakuona, Ndakuona...!” (Waste no time hiding; I have already seen you!!!)

Some people, so clueless to this old bait, rise up from their hiding places, and hand themselves over to the ‘ignorant’ mask-dancer. Likewise, Mutharika established a pattern of someone who knew things that others did not. When, for instance, he went to ‘sorry’ victims of a wild flame at Blantyre Flea Market on the sunny Monday of September 19 last year, Mutharika claimed to know the people behind the attack.

With merchandise worth millions of kwacha incinerated in the wee hours of that fateful Monday, and some vendors yet to recover in both shock and merchandise, the President added to the sombreness of the day with one threat: “Don’t think I don’t know you. I know the people behind this unsavory
It was all ‘Ndakuona games’, played by people so knowledgeable about the psyche of the Malawian people. It is not wrong to play these games because it is not wrong to be Malawian. 

For one, the Head of State and Government sees things others may not see. Every face, no matter how soft or well-curved, is blended with conspiracy; that is, when ambition is seen in the same light as ‘conspiracy’. To have ambition is to ‘conspire’ to ride over current circumstances. To frame the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy is to ‘conspire’ against under-development. And, so, are the Millennium Development Goals: a documented piece of conspiracies. That’s how presidents look at things.
With so many development blue-prints (read, conspiracies) lined up in the in-tray of the Head of State, the ordinary individual may not appreciate the amount of work pressed upon that one heart and mind. Inevitably, this development blends a combination of Presidential fear and skepticism, and may instantly produce the alternating reactions of fear, violence, or hope.

Under such circumstances, it is so easy to send signals with conflicting messages. It is all too possible to also fall into the pit of revengeful hate, or produce responses lighted with hope.
Hope? Sure. The president had hope.
“Give me three years to fix the economy. We are putting in place short and long-term plans to solve the challenges currently facing the country. Some problems cannot be solved within a day, or month,” Mutharika spoke hope in Mangochi last month. The hope was there, it was not hidden.
As the one upon whom it had been imposed by a ‘fateful’ majority on May 21, 2004 (a feat repeated, this time resoundingly, in 2009) to govern the country in trust, the President had his fare share of criticism. In this seat, criticism neither be avoided (even from quarters that offer no solutions), nor pushed away as one fights off a nightmare.

It must have been tough for the president, with all the social ostracism from CSOs, financial ostracism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF/IMF) and near banishment. All these banishments came when socio-economic challenges bogged the dismal village that is Malawi in the mud of confusion. This confusion being the man-made pit dug by development partners who deprived the country of financial resources that could help it stand firm against macro and micro-economic instability.

Mutharika- as one fit for exact fiscal policy discussions; clear in seeing the general truths of  devaluation worldwide; active, unresting, and fond of love for his people, and; enquiry (as manifested by his trip to Nigeria the other day)- always wanted the best for his people. But his policy-objectives were restrained by the shrewd policy machinations of the World Bank, IMF, development partners, and an opposition bloc out to make fun out of Malawi’s challenges.

The truth is that the IMF has no economy. The World Bank has no country. It is only Bingu- who had the tenacity of purpose, courage, and an unbending will which never flinched before antagonists- who knew the material constraints of the Malawian people better, and, possibly, how to solve them.

Unfortunately for him, these characteristics were unhappily out of tune with IMF/World Bank intrigues and policy passions of the day. These institutions have the tendency to shoot down what, apparently, works, and Mutharika knew this pretty well. That’s why he stood his ground, and Malawians mistook it for selfishness.
A good case in point is that of farm input subsidies during the 1980s. The IMF said ‘No’, since it was like subsidizing consumption. When governments, including that of Malawi, accepted this, food security became a forgotten past. The African leaders must have been wary. But, more likely, the status quo might have pleased the bosses in Washington.
A successful politician, to the Breton woods institutions, must be a man of the IMF and World Bank, and never a man of his country.
Just that Mutharika had people to rule, people he loved, and was, therefore, ostracized for the same.

Of course, though Mutharika was one of the most ambitious presidents to stand at the helm of this great nation, he had few of the characteristics that, ordinarily, give colour and charm to personality.
But, for his intellect, he served as African Union President, where he introduced the African Food Basket masterpiece as a replication of Malawi’s successful Farm Inputs Subsidy Programme, and; Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, first as secretary general and, until the hour of his death, chairperson, among other positions.

He died, on April 5 this month, undismayed and still refusing to follow that easy, straight
path to national doom through devaluation of the Kwacha. Surely, a rise in commodity prices could not be the best way of serving Malawian citizens well.
It is sad that the ambitious Mutharika died at a time when his detractors made an obscure conglomeration of all the charges that place leaders in negative light, in part designed by some development partners to furnish a common ground for those who propagated lawlessness but were unwilling to directly identify themselves with such issues.
People may mourn that death, coming so unexpectedly, has robbed Malawians of a Statesman. But Mutharika has left two things for posterity: words and works.
The words “Let the works of my hands speak for me” will, forever, reverberate across Malawi; as the works of his hands- the New Parliament Building, Five Star Hotel, the University of Science and Technology, this 2011/12 subsidised inputs (through the Farm Inputs Subsidy Programme)- continue to remind Malawians of the man who came in time, but left before his time.

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