Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Challenge With the State Presidency

Nothing prepares the victorious presidential candidate for the pressure that builds after the euphoria of electoral victory dies down. Numerous examples in Malawi’s 20 year democratic span bear witness of that.

May be the best way to gauge the abruptness of this change is to look at the tramp cards of former governing political parties on their way to Sanjika Palace in Blantyre and The New State House in Lilongwe.

The United Democratic Front (UDF), for a start, took the nation by storm when it promised the blue moon of Free Primary Education (FPE) in public primary schools.

But no sooner had the euphoria of victory in the June 1994 presidential election descended into reality than former president Bakili Muluzi realised that improving access to the national cake of education entailed more than firing the guards-of-fees who were manning the gates of public primary schools.

As it were, the gates to primary schools were, really, opened to the masses, culminating in the new wave of learners overwhelming the system when enrollment levels rose by over 50 percent, from 1.9 million pupils in 1993/4 academic year to about 3.2 million pupils in 1994/5 academic year.

It did not come as a surprise, therefore, when the ‘Policy and Investment Framework for Education in Malawi’ report later revealed that “The primary education system is beset with serious problems in areas of access, equity, quality and internal efficiency”.

Its damning conclusion was that the government would not be able to meet all the costs required to construct 38,000 classrooms to meet the needs of an expanded primary education.

And, yet, FPE is the horse Muluzi rode on on his way to The State House! Muluzi’s other trump card, Respect for Human Rights, worked so well for a while, too. Only to be thrown to the dogs at the twilight of his administration as The Young Democrats became vicious dogs set loose on opponents of the Open Term bid that later became Muluzi’s Third Term bid to no avail.
Dreams can easily wear off in politics!

Up pops Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika. Although Mutharika stood on the UDF presidential ticket in the 2004 general elections, only to do what former Speaker of Parliament Sam Mpasu describes as “getting into government in order to form a political party; instead of forming a political party in order to get into the government” when he dumped it on February 5, 2004, he came up with his own tramp card: Revolutionising Muluzi’s Starter-Pack programme into the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp).

Mutharika, who had been touted as an economist of sorts by Muluzi, also promised grow the Malawi economy- something he did to perfection during his first five-year term when Malawi’s economy was reported to be slower only to the oil-rich Qatar in the world.

But his fortunes plummeted during his second term, a stint characterised by thawed relations with development partners, and an economy that was oscillating between the graveyard and the death bed. Under such circumstances, there is no better choice. Depleted foreign exchange reserves also meant fuel became as scarce as hope. Just in the nick of time, Malawi’s economy became an endangered species.

So, a man who rode on the horse of economic growth on his way to The State House found that the dream could no longer hold. As they say, the rest is history.

Then came Malawi’s most immediate former president, Joyce Banda. While Bingu’s horse had two names: Economic Growth and Food Security- nicknamed Fisp- and Muluzi’s horse also had two names, namely, FPE and Respect for Human Rights, Banda came with none.

No. Not none. She rode on the Horse of Death, becoming Malawi forth post-independence president after the death of Bingu on April 5, 2012. Not to be outdone, she introduced her horse; a horse of two names, too: Mudzi Transformation Trust and One Cow per Family initiative.

But, like those before her, she got carried away with excitement and succumbed to the ballot paper now turned political bullet on May 20 this year. She had become so big-headed that attending presidential aspirants’ debates was deemed a time-wasting for her.

And, yet, the houses she constructed and the cows she distributed to society’s less privileged members were her own Achilles heel as the rest of the nation watched in awe. It epitomised systematic failure at its best and, with it, Banda failed the Tripartite Elections Ballot Box test.

As consumer rights activist John Kapito observed in February this year, “President Joyce Banda has lost tough with herself, and people on the ground”.

Which brings us to the question: What is wrong with Malawi’s presidents? Is something wrong with their trump cards, or is there something wrong with their personality?

Lessons from history

However, while the nation eagerly looks forward to how Mutharika’s reign will pan out, there are lessons she can be drawn from history and the country’s past leaders.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice is that given by Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch who, through his book ‘Parallel Lives’ suggests that the best way to gauge one’s success in life is to equate one’s leadership style to that of past leaders, especially those from other countries.

For instance, Plutarch paired Roman heroes with Greek statesmen and, often, he paired leaders who run parallel in both merits and the odds they faced in a bid to gauge how human beings react to different leadership challenges. In this case, Mutharika may pair himself with former president Muluzi, analyse where Muluzi failed, and see how he could have done better.
He can do so with Malawi’s other leaders, too, all the time remembering that he is his own person, with his own nature, either wild or tamed.

However, his greatest enemy should be recycled politicians. In the past, these politicians have hindered presidents such as Muluzi, Mutharika and Banda from sensing the signs of a malfunctioning economy, tumbling education system, a society ripped apart by HIV and Aids, and a host of other ills- most of which too long term to be solved within a five-year, or 10-year political span.

Otherwise, the recycled politicians will lie in waiting for him, their open arms turning into a mantrap as Mutharika’s political fortunes decline. When they run their full cycle with the new leader, they will drift either northward, southward, eastward or westward, wherever they see the promising eggs of political opportunities.

Take, for instance, the self-proclaimed Chenji Golo Uladi Mussa. He has been part of the UDF administration, DPP administration, and now PP administration. But, make no mistake about it, his constituents in Salima love him.

The good thing about Uladi is that he is an honest politician who has the audacity to call himself Chenji Golo (shift the goal posts). But the others, the more dangerous ones, lurk in the background, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting Mutharika.
Sometimes, the president knows what is going on, but sheer arrogance prompts them to welcome the roving politicians.

Then, there are businesspersons who care more about their businesses’ interests than the president’s reputation. But, while the political opportunist feels childlike excitement of crossing a political divide when they hop from one ruling-now-turned-opposition party to a new ruling party, the businesspersons fall with the fallen leader.

These are some of the little infidelities that threaten to riddle Mutharika’s administration. As time flies, Mutharika will find that people like Kapito- who has already asked the new president to consider abandoning Fisp for the many implementation challenges it faces- will be pulling in one direction, while others will be pulling in another direction, calling for the abolishment of quota system, or management of the Kwacha, among other things.

At the same time, Mutharika should realise that the President’s universe is a network of outer and internal constraints, and that only a sense of relaxed plenitude and the ancient force of belief that helped him excel in his teaching job in countries far and wide will help him escape the hurt of political stones thrown his way.

Let us just hope that Malawi’s politicians are not a root of the same tree because, as the
Chinese say, “The falling leaf returns to the roots of the tree"; meaning that, the beginning is always better than the end, and that it is good to die the time one is born.

This time around, let this saying prove inapplicable in Malawi for the first time since 1994!

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