Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Downside of Executive Powers epitomised by President Peter Mutharika

The ascent to the highest position in the land has traditionally been perceived as the discovery of easy privileges, like growing wings and flying away from a hungry lion in a mid-night dream.

But, as President Peter Mutharika’s dithering in appointing members of his 20-member cabinet can attest, the powers of a sitting president are huge, but lack a sense of purpose when accompanied by long periods of indecision. In other words, it is apparent that, while the decision to appoint a 20-member cabinet originated from campaign promises that seemed easy to implement at the time, he has been reminded, once again, that talk is cheap and that a lot goes into the President’s head before reality types itself into a presidential decree.

So, against all hopes that the President’s first 100 days in office would remain unsullied by the excessive demands of stakeholders, he found analysts pressing him to announce members of his cabinet on one hand, while the likes of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera were imploring him to desist from making appointments in bits and pieces.

Others, not to be outdone, joined the fray with their assortment of impossible demands. MCP Member of Parliament for Dedza North West, Alekeni Menyani, rekindled a debate that has been going on with muted voices: Malawi should experiment with the federal government system.

Harry Mkandawire, the outspoken People’s Party legislator, then raised another issue: Nepotism in cabinet appointments. He faulted the President for filling his cabinet plate with faces from one region.

But it was not an all-men affair as women, feeling hard done by in some respects, came calling for pragmatic action. NGO Gender Coordination Network’s national coordinator, Emma Kaliya felt that women were not well-represented in cabinet, with only three- Gender Minister Patricia Kaliati, Health and Population Minister Jean Kalilani, and Youth Minister Grace Chiuma- making it into the 20-member cabinet. Kaliya, like many gender activists, feel that gone is the time when women were believed to be masters at living what those in the West call ‘the easy lot of feminine existence’. This easy lot of feminine existence propagates the idea that women should remain women-like by being kept away from the ‘dangers’ of politics and public life.

In all fairness, Kaliya had a point. The life of a modern woman no longer resembles the tableau of simple domestic bliss we wrongly assume they inhabit. Women have played a critical role in Malawi politics since time immemorial, and even supported nationalists who were fighting for more freedoms. A good case in point is Ida, John Chilembwe’s wife. She supported Chilembwe even when she knew that the feeder-road that her husband took ended only in the highway of death.

To cut a long story short, women should be given a more prominent role in politics and cabinet because, even when they are denied the opportunity to take part in the development of their country, it is a fact that women never will escape the impact of political decisions and government policies on their lives.

But Kaliya was not the only woman who contributed to national discourse in the week gone by. Veteran writer, constitutional lawyer and human rights activist Vera Chirwa added her voice to calls for collaborative efforts in advancing the national agenda. She asked the President to engage those who contested for the presidency.

That was not all she had on her plate, though. She also called for the deregistration of the political bandwagon of briefcase parties, suggesting that, “We might do well with two or at least four parties, and the rest be disbanded”.
But the question is: Do the male leaders listen?

Experience has shown that, in most cases, suggestions from respected women such as Kaliya and Chirwa are not taken into consideration. In fact, we have all signs that their sentiments merely emerge as a tool for activism in the political jungles, rarely succeeding as a weapon against the absurdities of political justice. Take, for instance, the issue of the 50:50 campaign. While the campaign sounded good to the ear, it only became one of those fluffy concoctions of adorably sweet sensibilities because Malawians elected fewer female members of Parliament than in 2009.

Needless to say the campaign ended up as a disaster of double proportions, hammered shapeless by the chauvinistic ballot.
All these developments, occurring in the President’s first 30 days in office after being sworn in on May 30, discard the notion that the ascendancy to power by an aspiring presidential candidate translates into getting things tickled over one’s back, or like growing wings and flying away from a hungry lion in a mid-night dream. It is more serious than that.

From the look of things, this reality seems to have hit the President. What with political parties, human rights activists and other interest groups calling for the President’s attention to this or that, piling more work in the President’s in-tray?

Old versus new
In the end, Mutharika seems to have resolved that it is better to be a man of tradition by not entirely discarding what his predecessors introduced than being a new player in a game whose boundaries are properly defined. That is why recycled faces- meaning, those who served in his brother, the late Bingu,’s cabinet and other administrations- have made it into his cabinet. Finance and Economic Planning and Development Minister Goodall Edward Gondwe served in Bingu’s cabinet; and, so, did Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Minister Patricia Anne Kaliati, Foreign Affairs and International Corporation Minister George Thapatula Chaponda, Labour Minister Henry Amon Robin Mussa, Health Minister Jean Alfazema Nachika Kalilani, and Minister of Information, Tourism and Civic Education Kondwani Nankhumwa (who deputized Peter as Foreign Affairs and International Corporation Minister during Bingu’s tenure), Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Minister Atupele Muluzi (who served in former president Joyce Banda’s cabinet as Economic Planning and Development Minister), among others.

Unfortunately, by practicing ‘Project Continuation’ type of politics, Mutharika has baffled the nation with his characteristic and perfectly aimed irony, throwing new faces (Francis Kasaila, , Samuel Tembenu, Bright Msaka, Allan Chiyembekeza, Emmanuel Fabiano, Vincent Ghambi, Joseph Mwanamvekha, Jappie Mhango, Grace Chiuma, Paul Chibingu) into the mix while propagating the congenital practice of maintaining the proverbial old broom in the house.

This could, yet again, prove to be the most visible indicator of our presidents’ comic sense.

That pre-election pledges are better made than done is also clear when we consider the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s campaign gimmick of subsidizing iron sheets and cement. Just the other day, Vice-President Chilima ‘clarified’ that only the ‘poorer’ will benefit from the same.

Surprisingly, some Malawians were surprised by the turn of events. But who doesn’t know that politicians are jokers who play around with people’s lives. When we accept gibberish from politicians, we simply accept a joker’s invitation to go out for dinner. Chances are that the joker will stick you with the bill and it will be too late for you to refuse to become their victim.

Moral of the story: When we willingly accept to become pawns in a political game, we accept that someone else has begun a game they expect to win at our expense!

Living for ourselves
And there is nothing wrong when politicians do this. They have learned life’s big lesson that, sometimes, it is good to put our interests first. We only invite trouble when we always put the interest of others first, according to renowned author Regina Barreca.

“The trouble,” said Barreca, “(is that) most of us have been brought up to be so concerned with putting the welfare of others before our own that we can’t let ourselves triumph with a great comeback.”

But this does not give the President an excuse either. There were delays in appointing his full cabinet. And, in this respect, we can say his first task (of appointing members of the 20 member cabinet), laboured over when the DPP was preparing its manifesto which was launched full of the high hopes to occupy the highest position in the land, foundered on the first 30-day voyage due to indecision.

That is not to fault Mutharika, however. A hastily written cabinet list, sent away to the spokesperson for the Office of the President and Cabinet Arthur Chipenda for announcement with no thought beyond the plaudits of The-President-is-so-fast it might have brought, would not have sailed with a fair wind straight into public favour.

Instead of coming home heavily laden with an unexpected cargo of positive feedback, it would have been scrutinised and faulted by self-appointed experts, and the wreck might have continued to float long afterward on the liquid papers of history. It would have been the smoke used by opponents to hide their own follies and light their political fires on their way to State House one day.

After all, it takes very little political fire to make a great deal of smoke nowadays!
All these realities must be hitting the President now. And he might already have discovered that the state presidency is not the fortune of tax-free privileges he gratefully received when he was sworn in and inaugurated after the May 20 Tripartite Elections. It is not even half so large as comfy as the world reported it to be.

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