Hello and welcome to my new weekly column. You might be wondering what I could possibly have to write about on a weekly basis? Well, as the column suggests, I plan to be the watchdog. Like a guard dog that barks when it sees an intruder, a “Watchdog” role involves alerting others when a problem is detected. My commentary will be driven by historical facts with focus on government decision-making process, illegal activity, immorality, consumer protection issues, and of course the environment as it were. My experience and huge contact base in Malawi and on the continent has shaped my journalism. So it’s time for me to keep watch and hold leadership accountable.
So for starters, I would like to tell you a story that resonates so well with us today. What happens when the citizenry of a nation slowly realise that their President may not be, er, competent enough to champion their hopes and dreams?
Let me ship you back to A.D. 37 to AD 41, when Gaius Caesar, known as Caligula, succeeded Tiberius and served as Roman Emperor.
The first century writer Philo wrote that the young Caesar was adored, people rejoiced. “On all sides, you could see nothing but altars and sacrifices, men and women decked in their holiday best and smiling.”
The Senate embraced him, and he was lauded as a breath of fresh air after the dourness, absenteeism and miserliness of his great-uncle, Emperor Tiberius.
Caligula was a man of the people. They loved him. He was colourful and flamboyant, offering plenty of opportunities for ribald gossip. He had four wives in rapid succession, and he was said to be sleeping with his sister (Roman historians despised him, so some of the gossip should be treated skeptically).
History records that Caligula was charming, impetuous and energetic, sleeping only three hours a night, and a man of the people as he constantly engaged with the public. His early months as emperor gave hope to many in the empire.
Initially, Caligula focused on denouncing his predecessor and reversing everything that he had done. He was full of grandiose pledges of infrastructure projects, such as a scheme to cut through the Isthmus of Corinth.
But, alas, Caligula had no significant government experience, and he proved utterly incompetent at actually getting things done.
A Roman historian, Suetonius, recounted how Caligula’s boats had “sterns set with gems, parti-colored sails, huge spacious baths, colonnades and banquet halls, and even a great variety of vines and fruit trees.”
Romans initially accepted Caligula’s luxurious tastes, perhaps intrigued by them. But Caligula’s lavish spending soon exhausted the surplus he had inherited, and Rome ran out of money.
Why am I telling this ancient story, does it have any relevance to our Malawi today? We are all watching President Peter Mutharika with increasing alarm as he scandalises the public by seemingly supporting corruption and showing utter contempt for it.
Yet as this administration wreaks havoc, Malawi is slowly losing values, institutions and that inspired resistance that saw the masses usher in plural politics 25 years ago.
He is practically offending everyone, he can’t deliver on his promises, he has showed that he simply has no idea how to govern. Within four years, he has lost a lot of support.
Likewise, Rome survived Emperor Nero a generation later, even as Nero apparently torched Rome, slaughtered Christians, slept with and then murdered his mother, kicked his pregnant wife to death, castrated and married a man and generally mismanaged the empire.
“If there’s a hero in the story of first-century Rome, it’s Roman institutions and traditional expectations,” reflects Emma Dench, a Harvard scholar of the period. “However battered or modified, they kept the empire alive for future greatness.”
To me, the lesson is that Rome was able to inoculate itself against unstable rulers so that it could recover and rise to new glories. Even Malawi may suffer an incompetent leader in Mutharika, but the nation can survive the test and protect its resilience — if the public stays true to its values, institutions and traditions. That was true two millennia ago, and remains true today. So let us survive the incompetence and in 2019, rise to new glories
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