Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Re: Revisiting the issue of Maximum age limit for the presidency

Regular readers of the blog will recall this article that I posted in August of last year.  The recent decision by the  government of Bingu wa Mutharika to expel the British High Commissioner from the country makes it worth re-posting this article in its entirety, with an addendum at the end - Boni

Let us revisit the issue of Maximum age limit for the presidency 
Examining initially the gross changes which occur in the brain with ageing, it can be observed that the normal volume and weight of the adult brain begins to decrease from about 50 years of age. This is due to a reduction in the number of cells in a wide area of the brain: the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus, the substantia nigra, and the cerebellum....". - Martin Blanchard

Some years back, I presented a paper at the Constitutional Review Conference a comparative assessment on the Presidency in Malawi (the paper can be accessed at this link). One of the topics I touched on in that presentation was whether Malawi should consider introducing a maximum age limit for the office of President. Although there were many issues that I touched on (and a few that I would like want to take back), the topic of a maximum age limit elicited the most comments and discussion during the conference. I found it interesting that while many justified the retention of the minimum age limit of 35 on account that one's mental faculties are not fully developed to be President before this age, the proposal for a maximum age limit was resoundingly shot down (although in a later anonymous survey of key political leaders, there was overwhelming support for such a limit).
Anyway, why bring this issue up again now? Much as I respect our traditions and value the wisdom that comes with old age, I am sorry to say, a series of decisions and pronouncements by our President has started to make me wonder if he is not losing it.
During the period 2004 and 2009, the president made a number of rather wacky decisions that we thought could be explained by the pressure of working in a political environment dominated by a very pesky opposition (which by the way, he rubbished on numerous occasions).
Some groups of people were accused of plotting a coup against him, while yet others, including the presidents' predecessor, Bakili Muluzi and his one-time deputy, Cassim Chilumpha, among others, were accused and charged with treason for allegedly planning to assassinate him. Civil society leaders, the media, the judiciary, among others, have all been accused of one thing or another and publicly chastised by the President. Those of us in academia were similarly dressed down, warned by the man that he could replace us all on a count of three. Business leaders have also not been spared (remember how some CEOs of tobacco companies were deported from the country for disobeying the President's unilateral price fixations?)

Despite getting a commanding legislative majority after the 2009 general elections, Mutharika's eccentric behaviour seems to get from bad to worse. Perhaps we should have seen the warning signs earlier when he embraced the establishment of the Mulhako wa Alhomwe to champion the course of one ethnic group instead of becoming a champion of the all-inclusive ethnicity of 'Malawi'. A few months back he not only ordered the re-introduction of the quota system for university selection, but he offered a rather bizarre justification for this policy by making unsubstantiated allegations about some corner of the Chancellor College campus!
In recent times, he has spearheaded the change of the national flag under the false illusion that Malawi has transited from the dawn of development to a full blown developed nation deserving of a full sun. Those of us who have been critical of the flag change have meanwhile been ridiculed as drunkards - talk of irony!

The President is also not content with silencing critics and trumping on the already weak opposition. Instead, he has gone further to embarrass its leadership by ordering a significant reduction in the salary of the Leader of Opposition. This was followed by the decision to bring his wife into cabinet  (despite the initial protestations, the recent discolure that she's getting paid millions of tax-payers Kwachas for doing charity work just underscores the fact that her inclusion on the cabinet list was not an error in the first place).
In between, he has tried to incite mob action by not only calling for the deportation of the couple whose dog bit the family's long-serving guard, but he has also tried to frame the matter within the context of race (never mind that dogs are almost colour blind!). Malawi's traditional donors too have borne the blunt of the President's hallucinations. Oh, and by the way, his current deputy - handpicked by none other than the president himself - seems to be falling out of favour (and her predecessor too suffered a similar fate)
Given that there is now no opposition to worry about, why does our President continue to see ghosts where there are none? Why can't a man in his final term of office not seek to build a legacy of a unifier instead of the increasingly divisive character he has become?

Addendum:
Add to the list I compiled in August last year to even more bizarre decisions by the President in recent times:
  •  Building and opening a 'port' in Nsanje before  carrying out a feasibility study and without liaising properly with Mozambique, where a significant proportion of the water way lies
  • Ordering his supporters to 'deal' with his critics
  • Decreeing K2m deposits for demonstrators
  • Ordering the Inspector General of Police not to apologize to University of Malawi academics (could we speculate that he must have ordered the IG to summon Chinsinga in the first place?)
  • Ordering University Lecturers to get back to work, even if he has no legal powers to do so
  • Paying his wife millions of tax-payers Kwachas to his wife for doing charity work
  • Ordering the deportation of the British High Commissioner, despite widespread condemnation and advice of many not to do so.
  • We could add several issues to this list, such as the decision to withhold funding for his predecessors' medical bills; the recent scam at Malawi Housing Corporation where the president's brother got a house for a song; the decision to relocate the University of Science and technology from Lilongwe to the President's farm at Ndata...I am sure there are many other similar wacky decisions that I have forgotten
As we all get older, sadly, we all begin to lose our mental capacities. This is a fact of science. It is perhaps high time we considered bringing back the maximum age limit. But then, as someone once said, every mad man thinks that everyone else is mad. It is perhaps my own madness that makes me think that our country's politics is being led by mad people.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reflections from reading William Kamkwamba's Story

For a change, I read something with very little political content this past week- William Kamkwamba's "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind". (There is some politics in the book, as William freely shows his admiration for the Banda and Mutharika governments while showing his open disdain for the Muluzi regime, but that is a minor part of the overall story).

I have to say it has been very heartwarming to read William's story instead of the usual depressing stories about Malawi politics and the self-centred individuals who populate the Malawi political stage.
William's is a moving story and one that has received commentary in far more influential sites than this humble blog. But it is a moving read, a story that serves as a demonstration of what is possible despite the great obstacles that many of Malawian peoples encounter every day. In William's case, he shows great determination and overcame great obstacles in the quest to realize his dreams...drought and the subsequent hunger and starvation visited on his family and community in Wimbe, Kasungu; being forced to drop out of school because of lack of school fees; an un-supportive community who took his explorations on creating a windmill as a sign of madness. Against all these odds, here was William, a young boy that could hardly read or speak English and certainly not schooled in the physics of electricity generation, who still demonstrated his natural brilliance to come up with his invention and generate light for his home by simply looking at pictures from a library book .
In a country where very few have access to electricity from an unreliable power grid, William's ingenuity offers an important lesson in that there are many Malawian geniuses of his calibre that are capable of coming up with local solutions to Malawi's myriad development challenges. Just imagining what is possible if all the William Kamkwambas of Malawi could be given support to unleash their creativity....no more unsafe drinking water; no more reliance on imported fertilizers; maybe some car designers that can build new cars locally and turn us into an exporting nation....some coming up with new medicines to cure us from disease and share with others outside Malawi the fruits of their discovery...the possibilities are infinite.
Sadly, the limited opportunities in our education system which prevents many William Kwamkwambas from emerging and nurturing their potential means that many inventors are out there that are not afforded the opportunities to invent. Yet, William's story teaches us more than the potential that Malawi has: it also tells us that despite countless obstacles, it is still possible to dream and translate those dreams into reality. Though belated, William, I salute you and am proud to count myself as your fellow Malawian.