Bingu: his five lessons of leadership


Every life is a classroom where we learn so much. But Bingu wa Mutharika’s life was a university from which we learn much more than average lessons. MZATI NKOLOKOSA dissects seven lessons of leadership from Malawi’s third president, who died in office on April 5 2012.

It takes about 10 years for people to begin to miss a leader after his or her death. But for Bingu, it took two to three months for Malawians to realise that he was a great leader. Now, seven years after his death, and as we go to the polls to elect a president on May 21, it is important to reflect on Bingu’s life and learn useful lessons that can help us move our country forward. The lessons I have shared here are from my view of Bingu as a child, growing up in Thyolo District; from his work life in different countries; and from his vision as president of Malawi.

Lesson 1: Childhood ambitions matter


The baobab tree still stands at Kamoto Village in Thyolo. The scribbling is visible but the names are invisible. They have been swallowed by the aged baobab. But the story of the name is still alive; people talk about a boy who inscribed his name and ambition onto the tree in the 1940s.

I arrived at the tree one recent afternoon and, immediately, a group of boys and girls came close. “He is looking for Bingu’s name,” they said to each other. Three adults, walking on the paved road that passes through Kamoto Village on its way to Luchenza on Limbe-Muloza Road, pointed at the top of the tree. “There,” said one, “was Bingu’s name.”

It is a common story—and a true story—that is told almost everyday in Kamoto Village. A primary school boy wrote his name on a young baobab tree in the 1940s. He labelled himself prime minister. He wanted to become prime minister, some day in future.

LAUNCHPAD OF BINGU’S DREAMS— The baobab tree (left and centre)

Now the baobab tree has grown, high into the sky, and its invisible roots deep into the earth. When Bingu scratched his name into the bulk of the baobab tree, and that he wanted to be prime minister, his dream began to grow with the years of the tree. And, yet, his ideas, the roots of his leadership, grew deep into the world of the earth we cannot see. Perhaps that is the reason we find it difficult to understand Bingu’s dreams. But what is clear is that Bingu realised his childhood ambitions. And he was not ashamed of his ambitions. He laid them in the open, on a baobab tree, for all to see, and to be his witnesses. He lived and worked towards that dream for nearly 50 years and, finally, became president of Malawi in May 2004.

Lesson 2

Ambition is contagious

The story of names on a tree is not for Bingu only. It is a story about two primary school boys, Bingu and his young brother, Peter, who inscribed their names onto the young baobab tree. Bingu had ambitions. Bingu wanted his ambitions kept on a tree, to grow with that tree, forever.

But he did not forget his young brother. Bingu ensured that young Peter, too, developed ambitions to become prime minister. In many ways, Bingu led and Peter followed. But it is important to note that Peter followed in his own way, his own style. While Bingu studied econonomics, Peter studied law. There is a big lesson that Bingu teaches us all: that ambition is contagious. One’s ambition should inspire others to develop their own ambition.

Lesson 3: Strategy takes time

The Chinyanja proverb “Tsokonombwe anatha mtunda ndi kudumpha” —equivalent to “Rome was not built in a day”— remains critical in 21st Century just as it was in the 20th Century.

Bingu had a dream to rule a country in the 1940s and started by going to school. That was his strategy. In the early 1960s, he sniffed at a possibility of getting into politics and found that his place was not available.

He muted by going into exile. He returned in 1993 to compete for the presidency at a United Democratic Front (UDF) convention and lost to Bakili Muluzi. Bingu muted again by going out of Malawi. In 1999, he reappreared to contest for the presidency under his United Party. He lost and muted again, only to reappear when he was appointed deputy Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) governor by Muluzi.

Next, he became Minister of Economic Planning and, finally, UDF presidential candidate after Muluzi’s failed third term bid. He won the 2004 elections and ruled Malawi until his death.

How did Bingu end up into the State House? He had a strategy and his life teaches us that a strategy takes time.

Lesson 4: The future is more important than present

During the 2004 election, Bingu was paired with Cassim Chilupmha as running mate. Bingu and Chilumpha were allowed to speak for two minutes during campaign rallies.

Bingu was not bothered although he was older and better educated than Muluzi. Bingu’s eyes were on the future, the presidency after elections day. The challenges he faced on the journey towards the presidency did not matter. Bingu taught all of us humility, that it is better to lose our identity for a while as long as that is a tactic towards a greater achievement.

Lesson 5:Wait for your time

Bingu had presidential ambitions from the 1940s and tried in early 1960s when Malawi was in the process of attaining independence. But he read the setting and realised that it was not his time.

He went into exile and waited for 30 years during which he did not make any attempt to join different rebel groups that wanted to topple Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Bingu had to wait until 30 years when he contested against Muluzi. Muluzi won and Bingu went back to his job in Zambia.

He was back in 1999 and contested in the presidential election under the UP ticket and lost. His campaign was smart. His loss was graceful. He disappeared and remained mute until his appointment as deputy RBM governor and later as minister of Economic Development and finally as UDF presidential candidate in 2004.

Bingu’s journey to the presidency teaches us patience, the ability to wait for our time, not to force ourselves onto the scene.

Lesson 6

Be arrogant

When Bingu became president of Malawi in 2004, Aids-related illnesses were killing a minimum of 10 people per hour, according to the Ministry of Health. Life expectancy was at 37 years.

Teachers were dying faster than they could be trained. We lost skilled labour. We lost great minds. So, Bingu had one pledge during his two-minute speeches. And true to his word, during his two-hour inaugural speech at KAmuzu Stadium, he said he would introduce universal ARVs within months.

And he did this against the advice of World Health Organisation (WHO). The world health body argued that Malawi did not have enough medical doctors to manage complicated regimes of ARVs. Clinical officers and nurses could not manage the drug, said WHO.

But Bingu was arrogant. He introduced universal ARVs, saying he could not watch people die painfully as the country waited to train enough doctors. Two years later, in 2006, WHO was learning from Malawi. The country had become a model on how to treat Aids without doctors.


Now the baobab tree on which Bingu wrote his name and ambition has grown, high into the sky, and its invisible roots deep into the earth. When the two boys scratched their names into the bulk of the baobab tree, and that they both wanted to be prime ministers, their dreams began to grow with the years of the tree. And, yet, their ideas, the roots of their leadership, grew deep into the world of the earth we cannot see. Perhaps that is the reason we find it difficult to understand their dreams.

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