Friday, September 3, 2010

The two faces of Bingu?

In my recent discussions about Malawi politics with friends and colleagues, a recurring theme has been whether we are now seeing a different Bingu wa Mutharika from the Bingu of 2004-2009. My take is that Bingu has not changed: what have changed are the circumstances of Malawi politics, enabling Bingu to show his true colors more.

Mutharika's first term as Malawi president (2004-2009) has garnered him several accolades. He is is credited for spearheading the fertilizer subsidy, reviving infrastructure construction, getting Malawi's foreign debts wiped off after reaching the completion point of the highly indebted poor country (HIPC) initiative in 2006; promoting new investments, notably in the mining sector, among several initiatives.

In his first term, Bingu had to cobble together a disparate coalition of mostly opportunistic defectors from the opposition ranks. Yet, even with this, he did not have complete control of the political agenda, as the combined opposition had a majority share of the Parliamentary seats.

To counter the opposition's influence, Mutharika was compelled to appeal to the public as his primary option for political survival. This resulted in a number of populist projects such as the fertilizer subsidy (which, admittedly, was forced on him by the opposition in 2005). One could also argue that the ambitious (but now since stalled) infrastructure construction boom during Mutharika's first term, were an example of the president's populism. Certainly, in most cases, we saw symbolic, yet popular 'Ground breaking ceremonies' for road projects that are yet to start. These and other similarly populist policies propelled Mutharika and his DPP to victory in the 2009 elections.

Not only did Mutharika personally secure the highest proportion of the presidential vote by a candidate in Malawi's last four elections (see this link for a summary of the 2009 general election results), but his party, the Democratic Progressive Party (which, it must be said, has recently demonstrated to be neither democratic nor progressive, but that is a story for another day), won a significant share of the parliamentary seats. The hitherto powerful opposition parties, meanwhile, have been reduced to role players in and outside the National Assembly.

However, recent developments - which include sidelining the vice president; bulldozing the name of the president's brother, Peter Mutharika, to succeed Bingu in 2014; increasingly dictatorial and threatening language by the president; a rubber-stamp Parliament that has oftentimes been bypassed by an overly-powerful Executive (as was the case in the purchase of the presidential jet); government machinations to undermine the weak opposition parties; irrational and frankly, stupendous policy decisions (read the quota system for university selection; flag change; relocation of the University of Science and Technology from Lilongwe to the President's farm at Ndata in Thyolo etc), have all conspired to not only poison the political environment, but have also eroded much of the public goodwill that Mutharika enjoyed in his first term.

So does all this mean Mutharika has changed? The signs and outcomes have certainly changed, but I do not think Bingu the man himself has. Instead, I am strongly of the view that what we are seeing is the true Mutharika. Because of the political climate in which he had to operate between 2004 and 2009, we could not have been able to see this true personality of Bingu, even if the signs were always there in the background. The threats against the opposition for example, were always there throughout his first term. The current ill-treatment of Vice President Joyce Banda, for example, is an almost mirror image of the treatment of Mutharika's first veep, Cassim Chilumpha, who was confined to Mudi House under house arrest for much of Mutharika's first term. The university academics, the media, business leaders, the clergy, among several groups, were all also attacked by Mutharika at one point or another during this period.

To cut a long story short, I believe Mutharika was forced by circumstances to show a different persona between 2004 and 2009. A good case in point, I believe is the recent flag change – listening to the president's comments on the reasoning behind the flag change, one gets the impression that he has always wanted to do this. However, given the precarious position he found himself in during his first term, he could not have succeeded in doing so until after 2009. Comparing the Bingu of today to the Bingu of 2004-2009, we can actually see that this is essentially the same man – a self centered individual who does not listen to advice; one who is keen to only have yes-men around him; an egocentric man who is intolerant of criticism. The main loser in the process is Malawi's democracy, which, as a close friend of mine said recently, is on life-support.


Montfort said...

Straight to the point. Actually a friend of mine and I were last year discussing the then to be general election and how we wished Mutharika wasn't given any kind of majority in parliament following the way he handled issues that were supposed to be voted on. unfortunately he got a majority, and greedy opportunistic mps who won their seats as independents crossed over en masse to the government side guaranteeing him an outright majority. unfortunately in this democracy of ours we the citizenry, the employers of the president, can only show our (dis)pleasure every five years!

Joe Mlenga said...

I was privileged to be live on BBC Network Africa in January 2009 a few months before the general elections. When the presenter Paul Bakibinga asked me to outline the state of politics in Malawi, I was of the view that there were signs of intolerance and overt violence against critics of the government. An individual I know very well texted the BBC from Blantyre, to vilify me. Nowadays, seemingly, he regrets the praises he sang that day and the vilification he poured on my remarks.

Boni Dulani said...

Montfort and Joe,
Thanks for both your comments.
Montfort: I agree the five yearly cycle is problematic for voter participation. But we also need stability for at least a given period. But then, there are other avenues for speaking out outside the general elections: the government can be given a message through bye-elections and peaceful public demonstrations (were there any against the flag change for example?).
Joe: You're spot on. Dictators are not born- they are made. There is too much hero-worshiping of our leaders in Malawi - from Kamuzu to the present incumbent. Instead of treating these guys as the servants of the people they are supposed to be, we elevate them to the status of demi-gods. Now we have to live with the consequences.
thanks once more for commenting.