By Alick Ponje:
At 05:45 Malawi time Tuesday, a distinguished economist, with a full trail of accomplishments, some loathed by others, closed his eyes at Loma Linda University Medical Centre, California, United States of America (USA).
In that Western State, it was still dark, nine hours behind Malawi, when Mathews Chikaonda, breathed his last, most likely in the midst of advanced medical equipment and personnel, having succumbed to metastatic colorectal cancer at the renowned Seventh-Day Adventist hospital and cancer centre.
Chikaonda was in the company of his wife, three children and his brother when he died from a disease that, perhaps, told those surrounding him that even among valiant Ngoni warriors, death is inevitable.
He had only known about his disease three weeks before his retirement in 2016.
His family has described him as a principled man who did everything for them and gave himself to the service of his country.
“His passion was in always being his best self and in constantly supporting and encouraging all those around him to do the same.
“His outlook was always, always hopeful. He loved our nation with all of his heart; fully believed in Malawi’s ability to reach all of its great potential and never stopped trying to facilitate this, right until the very end,” Chikaonda’s widow, Violet said.
She also described her late companion as a man who always believed that no one achieves anything on their own, without the support of those around them.
“He would have said in times like these that one does not get through these difficult times alone either. He said these words often and our family hopes he will be remembered well by these words,” she said.
Like is often the case with Ngonis, accounts from his family state that Chikaonda fought a long and hard fight until he gave up his spirit.
He is said to have well passed the prognosis given by all of his doctors—perhaps signifying that the last battle for a Ngoni warrior really comes at the very end.
“It is a brutal disease but we are at peace with the knowledge that, as with everything else he did, he fought back the cancer with all the energy he had in him,” Violet said.
Education, profession and principles
Born in August 1954 in Blantyre, Malawi, Chikaonda died a distinguished economist who obtained a doctor of philosophy degree specialising in Finance from the University of Massachusetts, USA in 1984-89.
He was professionally qualified in management with a Master of Business dministration (MBA) degree obtained from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, USA, in 1981-83.
Having obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree with honours from the Council for National Academic Awards, at Huddersfield University, United Kingdom in 1976-80, and a Diploma in Business Studies, with distinction from the University of Malawi in 1972-75, he rose through the academic ranks and reached the level of serving as a Professor of Finance from 1988 to 1994 at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.
In addition to having considerable experience in management and corporate restructuring, he had vast experience in economic management, policy formulation and implementation at the national level.
His firm stand against needless government spending was evident during his period as governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) between 1995 and 2000, a position he rose to having been the bank’s deputy governor a year before.
In March 2000, he was appointed to the Cabinet and served in the administration of United Democratic Front as minister of Finance and Economic Planning until January 2002 before he was appointed as group chief executive of Press Corporation Limited, a position he held up to his retirement.
Former president Bakili Muluzi, who was Malawi’s leader when Chikaonda served as RBM boss and Cabinet minister, yesterday said he was shocked to hear that the economist was no more.
“His death is a big loss to the nation. He was an accomplished economist. I recalled him from Canada to take up the [RBM] role because I had confidence in his abilities,” Muluzi said of the man who held several influential positions both in the public and private sectors.
During his reign as Finance Minister, Chikaonda introduced strict measures which he believed were meant to ensure fiscal discipline and curb over-expenditure across government departments.
Under his advice, government instructed foreign missions to buy apartments instead of paying monthly rentals which, in his economic opinion, were proving very expensive.
He also said Cabinet ministers and other senior government officials would no longer fly First Class with the exception of the President.
But it was his 10-Point Plan which seemed to have not augured well with his political masters and it flopped before establishing even transient roots.
Among other steps, the economic expert suggested that all borrowing by ministries and other government agencies should be subjected to justification before the Loans Review Board to be chaired by an RBM governor.
“There will be no extra budgetary expenditures except for unexpected emergencies such as those occasioned by acts of nature. There shall be full cost recovery for all activities where there is ‘exclusive consumption’ and benefits are internalised to the individual,” part of the plan said.
He also posited that all parastatals must carry their weight, cover their costs and service their debts and wanted the organisations to streamline their operations, cut costs and be realistic in their approach to the competitive global body.
In a system that benefited a lot from illicit financial transactions and bad economic decisions, the plan flopped.
Some believed it left little or no room for the siphoning of public funds, hence the rush to frustrate it. It later became a reference point of how a country can choose to remain with what does not work.
‘Abrasive’ political comments
In fact, other comments that he publicly made regarding Malawi’s political and economic progress pricked the wrong sides of those who felt targeted, even if they were not.
For instance, in 201 3 , Chikaonda added a new twist to the discourse on the plunder of public funds at Capital Hill, dubbed Cashgate, when he revealed that the malpractice dated back to 2005 when main expenditure ceilings were removed from expenditure control measures.
“What went wrong is that main expenditure ceilings were removed and there was an authorisation that all government cheques be honoured…and that was the turning point,” he said at that time.
Just a year earlier, he had described Malawi as case of failed leadership at two levels of the elected governing group and the people being governed.
He had argued that there was lack of vision, commitment and political will on the part of the governing elite such that there was failure by the governed to hold government accountable even when there was evidence of clear violation of their mandate.
“These are leaders who lived their lives superficially and just skimming the surface, never aware of the attachments beneath. That is why, when people were dying of hunger during the famine of 2002, they could readily say ‘show me who has died’,” he had said.
He had dared elected leaders to go beyond the comfort of their homes and offices and feel the suffering of Malawians and make ‘tough decisions’.
“Our leaders have focused on the next general elections and opted for an appeasement policy, the pacifiers. Sadly, it is these very approaches that have entrenched and worsened the poverty among our people,” he had said.
But the administration of that time did not entirely agree with Chikaonda
There were even more others who condemned his policies, which they posited where not considering poor people.
For instance, when he was Minister of Finance during the Muluzi era, the government raised fees in constituent colleges of the University of Malawi from K1,500 to K40,000 per academic year.
After protests, the contribution was reduced to K25,000 but, while some stakeholders believed the amount was ideal, others charged that it had come at a time most Malawians could barely afford it. They were saved by loans.
Chikaonda also came under fire in 2014 after he backed a decision to hike passport processing fees from a minimum of K15,000 to a minimum of K48,500. He defended his position, saying the hike was in line with economic trends.
And for such a man, who lived a full life, according to his family and those he once worked with, many other stories can be told.
To his wife, Violet, in the midst of the dark shadow that has engulfed Ntakataka in Dedza District, where the deceased came from, there is a whole load of gratitude to doctors, nurses and others who worked with dedication and care over the course of Chikaonda’s treatment.
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