Good leaders must have the ability to disappoint


By Milward Tobias:


Malawians are due to vote in the fresh presidential election following the nullification of the 2019 election. In last year’s poll, parties made several promises.

The Covid-19 outbreak has caused severe devastation to the economy and obviously has subjected manifestos to the need for review as what voters expect to hear now is how the government will rebuild the economy, restore lost jobs and businesses, strengthen the health system and build resilience to mitigate effects of similar crises in the future. Only after that should voters expect to hear what parties will do to move forward.


Malawi has been a politically stable country since independence in 1964, yet it remains poor by all considerations. With a per capita income of $389 and human development index of 0.485, Malawi is a low-income country by the classification of the World Bank, a least developed country by the classification of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and a low human development by United Nations.

It is estimated that 51.5 percent of the population live below the poverty line and we would need to redistribute 45 percent of national wealth to attain equality (gini coefficient 0.45) meaning that inequality is high.


Anyone aspiring to be a president must understand that they are taking up a big challenge. They must be telling themselves that they have the capability to lead the nation and change the depressing statistics shown above. The issue of interest is whether Malawi has such leaders. This article discusses one attribute that a good president needs to have.

One important characteristic of a president Malawi needs is the ability to disappoint. Political leaders are surrounded by supporters of diverse motives, capabilities and backgrounds. Even people who have committed heinous crimes which are publicly known support political leaders in anticipation of either being protected from possible further prosecution or be considered for positions if the party they support is in power. A president must be prepared to disappoint them.

Supporters hold expectations, some legitimate and others illegitimate. Some assign for themselves the foreign mission they would want to be sent to, the parastatal they would want to be board member or chief executive officer of.

For those providing security, they begin to harbour ambition of joining the security institutions. They believe their capability to provide security during political campaign qualify them to be in the police. This is one reason the nation complains of less professional police service.

There is the issue of senior party members, inner circle, First Lady and family members who act as if they were associate president. They all of a sudden become construction contractors. They can direct who should be given what position in the public service, who should be removed to another position and behave as if they have the mandate to ‘help the president in public service management’.

A good president must be able to tell their senior party members, friends and family members that they are not the president or do not hold any public position. They are merely party members, wife, children, relatives or friends to the president.

A good president must be able to assure public servants that no one should threaten or instruct them on what to do or where to procure goods and services. If one does, the president should be informed and he will act decisively.

Public servants desperately need this assurance. Those who mess up with public service management are those ‘felt to be close to power’ not the one holding power. It should be said that there are some public servants who induce politicians and those close to power to indulge in malpractice because such public servants also benefit. This must stop.

Malawians in general (in general, because others are exceptions) have high affinity for what Professor Patrick Lumumba of Kenya describes as ‘feel good effect’. They want to be associated or seen to be associated with those in authority.

Immediately, a new government is in office, there is a flood of invitations to functions some of them far beneath the presidency (president and vice-president). Professional associations expect the presidency to attend their annual gatherings, traditional leader X expects the presidency to attend their cultural festivals; religious leader Y expects the presidency to attend their fundraising function.

A minister expects the president to preside over the launch of a 2-kilometre road which a Principal Secretary in the ministry, not even the minister him/herself would suffice. The public is either unaware of or insensitive to high cost associated with travel of the presidency. It takes the presidency to decline invitations and delegate officers who are appropriate matches to the function. This certainly will disappoint the organisers but it is a necessary disappointment.

There is a construed perception that the presidency is all powerful and all capable of doing everything. The salary for a president and a vice-president is public information yet the requests for financial support the offices receive are as if they keep cartons of money ready for distribution to whoever asks for it.

This mentality must be corrected and it will require a leadership that is ready to communicate that they are not able to support because they do not have the money. This is not easy for politicians for they love to be seen as having all the capability.

There is a problem of transferring personal responsibilities to the government where political leaders run kinds of ‘social protection programmes’ in form of referring those pestering them for help to be employed in the public service regardless of their qualifications. This has led to distortion of public service structure and affects command and control aspect of management. A senior public servant is hesitant to discipline a malpractice if it concerns those who come through politics.

Then there are campaign financiers. The issue of state capture has been a concern and during the presidential debate in 2019, candidates were asked how they plan to deal with it. I argue that state capture will always haunt us for as long as citizens are attracted to politics of material identification rather than of policies.

What may change is the form of state capture where financiers only benefit from preferential treatment in winning contracts but deliver goods and services that meet value for money standards. Our politics is expensive. To procure the cloth, T-shirts, caps, move around and mobilise people is not cheap.

Then there are two groups which overrate their political relevance – traditional and religious leaders. They present as if they have the authority to dictate their subjects who to vote for. Politicians being full of illusions tend to believe them. It is this type of politics that catalyses state capture because there must be financiers in huge amount who expect return in form of contracts once the party they support is in power.

For this to change, the president must be ‘inhuman to financiers’ treating everyone equally and regard contributions of supporters as their contributions to a better country for everyone and not a ‘bribe’ for anticipated reward. Whether we have leaders capable of executing this disappointment is a big question.

The campaign environment is very different from the executing environment. During campaign, political leaders make promises on the basis of ‘all is possible.’ They forget they are fighting for just a section of power as Parliament and Judiciary have their stakes too. In fact, in our setting, a village headman is more powerful than a president relative to their respective jurisdiction.

Anyone can block a decision of the president through a court order. When voted into office, reality creeps in. First, management team from Treasury will seek audience to brief the president on the financial status. Second, Parliament will convene and may shoot down some bills which would have enabled the government fulfil some of its campaign promises. Third, there are some decisions that depend on cooperation of other countries.

One classic example in Malawi is the Nsanje World Inland Port. The president now begins to know what is realistically possible and not. The public, however, still holds the promises dearly. They expect close to free public goods and services yet those services must be sustained. Who will pay taxes to finance them? This is a reason political parties are so popular when out of government and quickly lose polarity when in power.

To conclude, I argue that Malawi lacks fundamentals for development. The institutional set-up and general mind-set are in serious need of ‘repair’ to catalyse conditions for development. Countries which have graduated from poverty such as those in South East Asia like Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan including those making strides in Africa such as Rwanda and Botswana have had distinct features- progressive public mindset, complementarity of institutions, visionary leadership and sufficient administrative space for the leader.

The last is a reason I find the advocacy for reducing powers of the president being more reactive to the abuse we have experienced than objective examination of facts. The president needs latitude to crack a whip where it is necessary and is for the common good. Otherwise, it does not matter how best a president can be, as long as the rest of development fundamentals remain deficient, we will as a nation achieve suboptimal development results. What will be different is level of sub-optimality as we experienced between 2006 and 2010 when economic growth rate was high compared to previous trends but still low compared to the potential of the economy.

Milward Tobias is Director for Centre for Research and Consultancy, a private and independent firm focusing on economic policy

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