Remembering Bingu: When men were real men
Three years after his sudden death, I remember President Bingu wa Mutharika as a widely controversial figure, divisive in life and in death. Remembering Bingu’s life has been dubbed wasteful by some, befitting by others while many more are simply nonchalant.
As for me, every cloud has a silver lining. This is my fallen President, a man I would like to remember with respect and civil accountability.
First things first, I remember Bingu as a father who loved his children; a granny who made time for play with his grandchildren; and an ordinary prayerful Catholic among his own family, the Church, the staff that supported him.
Bingu was a family man. A husband to be loved and supported; a brother to share ideas with; a man Peter Mutharika described as ‘my hero’ on the day he was laid to rest.
I would like to remember Bingu as an enigma; an un-irreplaceable rarity and genius who would have left Malawi a better society had his tenure followed that of his match — Kamuzu Banda.
Bingu was intensely self-aware. He knew what he wanted and he made this abundantly clear to those around him. He was not just a highly educated leader with global experience; he had maximum faith in his own ideas and ability. This is rare among leaders.
Similarly he was not just a ‘dream-in-colour advocate’ he was a leader endowed with skill and courage. Courage and skill, says George Hebert, are an unconquered army. And Harry Truman adds, when there is no leadership society stands still; progress only occurs when courageous, skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.
Bingu had both!
After dislocation of social order under annoyingly lacklustre leadership; high levels of crime; rude confrontations with government, I remember it was Bingu who had the stamina to clear the streets, to stop the rule of crime and give Malawians back their pride.
I remember Bingu as the leader who re-invigorated a decaying civil serve, turning it into an efficient disciplined body. This was a strong willed leader who re-defined both politics and development; turning the impossible into the possible.
You see, it is not always about who you are, but more about what you can do with your life for other people, the wise say. And so I remember Bingu for his Silver Grey Foundation, for the Reach-out and touch initiative and for Our People Our Pride.
Yes, this is a man who fundamentally changed the texture of political leadership bringing back firm authority and direction. But it is also the same man who invested his time and resources supporting the weak, the vulnerable and the rejected of society.
Bingu might have projected as the steel strong man that he indeed was, but he also had the softness of heart to relieve people’s pains, to lift people from despondency one at a time and to encourage celebration of achievement.
Bingu brought about fundamental change of attitudes to self, to work and to country. Remember it was Bingu who famously said Malawi is not poor but it is Malawians that are poor. On a bigger stage, the same Bingu said Africans are poor, but Africa is not poor. He saw and pointed at opportunities, advocated for hard work and sought to remove excuses for failure.
Indeed, as they say, the ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace making the best of circumstances. Learning from the wise the final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and will to carry on.
I remember Bingu for the courage to adopt zero-deficit budgeting. He was widely chastised but today zero-deficit budgeting is not only applied throughout Africa, Malawi is rolling it out right now. From the decisions of a leader perceived by some as autocratic, Malawi could be mastering the ropes of frugal economics on the road to fiscal independence.
We talk of skill and courage, but it was his bullish determination to achieve that I revere. Against great odds Bingu drove through donors his view of agriculture development via subsidies. Like Kamuzu he proved his point through the power of argument and direct demonstration of results.
I, along with many others in Malawi and in Africa, wish to remember Bingu as a leader who opened his heart about what he believed and pushed it through with incredible gusto and consistency. Bingu generated the courage for Africa to support agriculture subsidies and contributed to the emergence of the Green Movement intended to radically expand agricultural production in Africa.
Such was Bingu’s courage, skill and determination that he inspired millions, most of whom we will never know. Emerson says as people, our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we want to be. And Bingu was a great inspiration.
I will ever remember how Bingu withstood five harsh years characterised by destructive opposition and the support he got from civil society. But perhaps Bingu with his right hand man Goodall Gondwe was at his best when he faced such opposition. Rather than break, he plucked courage and moved on to show what stuff he was made of.
Indeed, reflecting on Bingu’s presidency three years after his departure, I dare say none of the leaders gone by initiated and rolled out so many development projects as Bingu did in five short years of his first hiring.
Yes, I do not know of any Malawian leader who moved Africa as much as Bingu did. In five years Bingu turned Malawi into laboratory for Africa in more ways than one; he turned Malawians into sources of new wisdom and into a confident people on the move.
My final accolade — according to one John Quincy Adams, if your actions inspire others to dream more, to learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. Bingu did. He was a leader.
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