Friday, April 6, 2012

Reflections on President Bingu wa Mutharika’s passing


The death of any individual is a very sad occasion for one's family and circle of friends. I feel for the late President's wife, children, grandchildren, family and friends on their loss.
There are, however, very few times when the passing of one individual might be a good thing for the greater good. Mutharika's death fits into this mold. Despite being touted for his economic credentials, the departed president has, single-handedly, brought the Malawi economy to its knees, to the point that people are not only queuing for fuel, but for basic commodities such as sugar.
His arrogance and know-it-all attitude has lost Malawi the goodwill of donors and friends alike. On Mutharika's watch, Malawi has lost long established friendships with the British, the Taiwanese, the Germans and many others. Closer to home, Malawi has picked up needless quarrels with neighbors such as Mozambique and Zambia, all largely because of the late Mutharika's obstinacy. Malawi has lost the confidence of international economic institutions, most notably the IMF and the World Bank because Mutharika believed that he, and he alone, had the monopoly of wisdom. While claiming that he was better placed to find a solution to Malawi's problems, he turned out to be the problem itself. As a result, the lives of Malawians, already burdened by the suffocating yokes of poverty, became even more intolerable.
Perhaps the greatest indication of Mutharika's poor leadership skills and his abject lack of foresight was how he squandered the overwhelming support of Malawians that propelled him to  electoral victory in 2009. It is reflective of how the fortunes had turned that Malawians are reported to be either apathetic or openly celebrating the passing of a man who only four years back had approval ratings of 83% (Afrobarometer R4). When the history books are written, they will have long sections detailing how Mutharika ceased to care about the people who elected him. He frequently called Malawians as an ungrateful people and other forms of slander and demanded to be adored and praised. The title of the chapter on his style of governance might simply repeat the old adage that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
While it would be too simplistic to assume that Malawi's myriad problems will end with Mutharika's death, there is no doubt that this offers the country an opportunity to hit the reset button and get a fresh start. Mutharika's successor, by law, the Vice President, Joyce Banda, has the opportunity to make small changes that could have significant impact in the very short term. Most of Malawi's recent challenges, including those rooted in a myopic foreign exchange policy and the loss of donor support, can be easily and quickly be reversed. Granted, the new administration will need to think long and hard on how to address some of the long standing issues, including finding alternatives to tobacco, Malawi's main, but struggling, source of foreign exchange; how to address the perennial problems in the health, energy, education, agricultural and sanitation sectors to mention but a few examples.
However, I would expect there to be a lot of donor goodwill, with the likelihood of aid taps reopening soon as a sign of support for the new administration. Joyce Banda has the opportunity to step up and offer a new and more responsive type of leadership, one that can hopefully recognize that presidents are servants, not masters, of the people.
At the moment Mutharika breathed his last, Joyce Banda's political stars just lit up a lot more brightly. She now has a major head start over her rivals in the 2014 elections. Whilst previously she would have had to count on the sympathy vote of Malawians, she can now earn the confidence of voters by demonstrating that she has the abilities to take Malawi in a new and truly progressive direction. She can seize the opportunity and win over the trust of Malawians who have grown increasingly suspect of those in the corridors of power. She could, of course, squander that opportunity depending not only how she governs, but also the people she will surround herself with.
Banda's ascendancy to power raises a number of interesting constitutional and practical questions once more. What agenda is she going to pursue, the DPP's or that of her People's Party, even if Malawians have not had a chance to endorse it in an election? How is her relationship with Parliament going to be like? Will DPP legislators and the leadership that emerges, frustrate the new president's agenda the same way the late Mutharika's was between 2005 and 2009 when the opposition had a commanding parliamentary majority? Will Banda work with the current opposition parties, perhaps bringing some of them into her administration? These will be questions that will need to be asked and addressed.
As for the DPP, the future is not only very uncertain, but most bleak. I would venture to suggest the death of the party's patron and sole financier might signal the demise of the party too. In any event, the DPP was never an established party, considering that it has the dubious honor of never having held a convention, not even to formally endorse the party's constitution or manifesto. We often talk of briefcase parties as those that are a one man show. Well, the DPP might have had many people, but for all intents and purposes, it was run from the monies in Mutharika's briefcase. That, in my view, makes it a briefcase party. Now that the honor of the briefcase is gone, I would predict the party will follow very soon.
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