Monday, August 9, 2010

Let us revisit the issue of a maximum age limit for the President in Malawi

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 on the Presidency in Malawi (the paper can be accessed on 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 several issues that I touched on in my presentation, the topic of a maximum age limit elicited the most comments and discussion. 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 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 the proposal).
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' own deputy at the time, were accused of planning to assassinate him . Civil society leaders, the media, the judiciary, his vice president, his predecessor as President were all accused of one thing or another and publicly chastised by the man. Those of us in academia were similarly dressed down, warned that we could be replaced on a count of three . And there were business leaders who were also hounded by the President for daring to go against his decrees (remember the issue of the tobacco prices and how some CEOs of tobacco companies were deported from the country on orders from the President?)

Come this second term, the man was given a commanding parliamentary majority and yet his eccentric behaviour seems here to stay. Perhaps we should have seen the warning signs earlier when he embraced the establishment of the Mulhako wa Alhomwe to champion the course of his Lhomwe 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 went out in public to lambast critics of the new policy which he justified by claiming that it is a way to neutralize what he alleges were the advantages that people from the region of Malawi were getting through 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 (although the white star on the 'new' flag looks like the moon than 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. A week later, he decides to bring his wife into cabinet - which presumably means she gets all the perks of a full cabinet minister (read that as a Mercedes Benz and a 4 x 4 vehicle, a plush office and salary to boot). Well, perhaps the savings made from reducing the salary of the leader of opposition can be used to pay for part of the salary of the new Minister of Safe motherhood!
In between, he has also 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?
As we all get older, sadly, we 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.