I don't usually criticize Malawi Cabinet Ministers. This is not because they do a great job- far from it. The simple truth is that over the years, I have come to expect very little from them. Why else would I expect so much from a bunch whose primary qualification appears to be their ability to shout the most in praising the President and showing up at each and every presidential function? Coupled with the fact that ours is a politics where the president wields so much power and influence that non-performance of government ministries and departments is always blamed on the president and not the responsible ministers?
I should add here that this is not a new tradition. In the first year of Malawi's independence, the country's first president, the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda, demonstrated his strong intolerance for independent minds in his Cabinet when he crashed with a group of progressive political upstarts such as Henry Chipembere, Kanyama, Yatuta Chisiza, Orton Chirwa, Willie Chokani and others and dismissed them from his Cabinet. In the years that followed, Banda's presidency thrived on the appointment of praise-singers into Cabinet, with Ministers fighting to be seen as the loudest and most noteworthy hero-worshippers of Banda.
Although Bakili Muluzi's tenure as president in the mid 1990s started off with the appointment of what could be considered as a truly meritocratic cabinet, he very quickly fell back into the old trap of seeking to place the presidency at the centre stage of Malawi politics. Merit was soon abandoned and replaced with political expediency. Like his predecessor, Muluzi began to appoint individuals on the basis of their ability praise him.
Exit Muluzi, enter Mutharika. At his first swearing in ceremony in 2004, Mutharika intimated that he would only appoint individuals into cabinet on merit. However, over time, this has been nothing more than mere rhetoric. Instead Mutharika has continued with the tradition of appointing praise-singers into Cabinet while ostracizing those that are perceived as political threats. As a result, we find individuals such as Charles Mchacha, Billy Kaunda, Vuwa Kaunda, Aaaron Sangala, Nicholas Dausi, among others, becoming permanent features of Cabinet while the likes of Goodal Gondwe, the late Moses Chirambo, among others, faced the chop. I dare say if one Roy Comsy was still an MP, he would have been one of the bozos retained in the Mutharika Cabinet!
Anyway, I therefore need to be excused for not having high expectations of Malawi's Cabinet Ministers. Even when so many commentators took the view that Mutharika's new Cabinet after the 2009 elections included highly learned and qualified individuals, I still took a deem view. And if the truth is to be told, some of the disappointments have been exactly the supposedly very learned Ministers.
Among the worst disappointments, in my view, is one George Chaponda. Despite his acclaimed academic qualifications, Chaponda's incompetency continues to befuddle the mind. This is an individual who, as Minister of Local Government in 2006, said Local Government Elections were unnecessary because the absence of councillors was not being felt. For a Minister who was appointed to champion local government, such myopia was unforgivable to the extent that I and my colleague, Harold Ngalawa, called for his immediate resignation in our Sunday Times of 28th May 2006. Of course, Chaponda never resigned and continued to enjoy the confidence and trust of his boss, Bingu wa Mutharika.
So the fact that in recent times, Chaponda has 'fouled' Malawi's image by wrongly suggesting that the provision on fouling the air that was part of the recent local courts bill included the banning of farting did not come as a surprise to me. It was frankly terrible that an entire Minister of Justice did not read the bill which had already been circulated to Members of Parliament by his own Ministry. This spectacle not only demonstrated the casual approach that we have in making laws, but it also goes to shed some insights into the laissez-faire attitude of Cabinet in fulfilling its responsibilities. In a normal world, Chaponda would have tabled the bill in Cabinet for extensive discussions. Only when cabinet was satisfied should the bill have been sent for debate in Parliament. And yet, when the line minister had not read the bill, it beggars belief to think that the other Cabinet Members bothered to read it either or that there was any deliberation over it in Cabinet. But, well, Chaponda still enjoys the confidence of his boss, never mind the embarrassment he has caused to the country.
Chaponda's incompetence however, pales in significance compared to that of the man he swapped ministries with, Peter Mutharika, currently the Minister of Education. This supposedly second coming of Moses, as we are being made to believe, comes across to me not only as aloof, but also clueless of what is going on in his ministry. While students at both Chancellor College and the Polytechnic have been out demonstrating over unpaid allowances; my fellow academics at Chancellor College get besieged by the Police; primary school teachers are in revolt over a poorly thought of policy on hardship allowances - the younger Mutharika goes on to claim that he he has no knowledge about what is happening at the colleges and about the striking primary school teachers.
Given that these events have received wide media coverage, I can only assume that the fact that Peter Mutharika knows nothing about them means the guy cannot read and has no advisors to read on his behalf. For someone who professes to be an Academic, the younger Mutharika's handling of events in the Education Ministry has been nothing but a disaster. He could, for example, have intervened very quickly when the Inspector General of Police unwisely decided to interrogate my friend and colleague, Blessings Chinsinga over the content of his lectures. This issue could have been quickly defused if this supposed Professor of Law jumped in and defended his fellow academics from the attempts of Mukhito to take Malawi back to the dark days of interference of academic freedom.
A forward looking Minister of Education should have foreseen that the policy of discriminatory payments of hardship allowances to teachers was bound to cause problems when all teachers in the country- including both those in urban and rural settings- are grossly underpaid. One could make the argument for example, that urban teachers need more resources to cover their rentals and the generally higher cost of living there compared to rural areas. Instead of this stupid policy, government could have offered some forms of general allowances, such as chalk allowance (teachers), risk allowances (medical staff) payable to all civil servants in these lines of work.
But maybe this is expecting too much from a man that we are supposed to coronate as our new Brother President come 2014. You would think Malawi has other better qualified and more competent people than these jokers. Perhaps the fact that the younger Mutharika, despite his obvious limited leadership abilities, is the best that Malawi has to offer, is no more than a reflection of the intellectual limits of the country? I wonder.