Two years on: How the Tonse Alliance government is faring
By Innocent Mussa:
The Tonse Alliance-led administration has clocked a full year in office following the dramatic June 23, 2020 court-sanctioned fresh presidential election.
The truth of the matter is that Malawians’ expectations were very high because they were smarting from a government that had so much taken them for granted and seemed to be living in a world of their own.
That time, the top leadership did not care whether Malawians were complaining about neglecting their welfare. In fact, the mass protests which followed the 2019 elections were largely borne out of a desire for change because it was really difficult to imagine life in another Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration.
It was clear that the mismanagement of the elections only reignited the anger that had been smouldering in the hearts of many for a long time.
Elections had been mismanaged before and there was all evidence for that, but Malawians could choose to let it be and avoid taking to the streets even when they would be profoundly justified to do that.
They would not cling to precepts of passiveness any more.
The courts, too, refused to behave in what had become conventional predictions about how election petitions would progress. History had stumped a dangerous deduction—that seeking redress from the courts if one felt an election had not been properly managed was a non-starter.
At an unprecedent pace, the case progressed and five judges, who had handled it as a constitutional referral following the certification by Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda, delivered their verdict on February last year before the Supreme Court upheld the judgement after the Malawi Electoral Commission and then-president Peter Mutharika appealed the lower court’s decision.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, we have a new administration—ushered in through a revolution—and there is all freedom to take it to task where things are not working because, as some people argue, it is the first ‘people’s government’ as even seen in its composition.
The alliance comprises of nine political parties who banded together to send DPP parking.
Now, it is important to look at the Tonse Alliance has fared since it took over the country’s leadership mantle on June 28 last year.
Rule of law
President Lazarus Chakwera rode on the back of several promises which endeared him, and his running mate Saulos Chilima, to voters who gave them the power to govern at the fresh election.
Among the promises was following the law to the letter in all public decisions which would have a bearing on the lives of Malawians.
Chakwera promised that he would not interfere in the recruitments of heads of government agencies for which there are clear laid-down procedures in line with their relevant Acts of Parliament.
He said wherever the law makes it mandatory that a president does not have powers to appoint parastatal heads, he would not do anything about it, a departure from his predecessor who had become a classic example of how not to govern.
We have seen it in the recruitment of various parastatal chief executive officers and directors-general where due interview processes have been undertaken and successful candidates have been given the jobs deservedly.
There could be other underpinning issues in the processes but, at least, the President has not appointed anyone to the positions without the law being respected.
Additionally, in terms of respecting the rule of law, President Chakwera has tried his best to appear before Parliament to answer questions from lawmakers on important national issues including his State of the Nation Address and budget meeting opening statement.
While, it is in our statutes that a president should appear before Parliament, his predecessors have blatantly ignored this significant obligation for whatever reason. It was only Bakili Muluzi who once appeared before Parliament but never repeated the arrangement.
Of course, perhaps because it is not commonplace among our politicians that a president can answer questions in Parliament, they have posed some very trivial questions, thereby failing to utilise the huge opportunity before them.
We hope next time the President appear before Parliament, our representatives will take the moment to ask relevant questions on critical national issues and not about some local projects in their constituencies whose issues can be better handled by relevant line ministries.
While we talk about Chakwera respecting the rule of law, we must not be blind to the fact that there are areas in which he has not done what he had promised.
For instance, in the run-up to the fresh presidential election, Chakwera promised that he would now allow to be chancellor of public universities to divest the institutions of higher learning of the implicit or explicit political tags.
If anything, we expected that the President, now that he has the ultimate power, would push for the review of relevant Act of Parliament to ensure he is not a chancellor of public universities.
Of course, it is important to acknowledge that while the Acts remain in the form they were before the elections, there is nothing Chakwera can do apart from temporarily accepting that he should be the public universities’ chancellor.
What is important now is how he will progress moving forward. When the relevant laws be reviewed so that his promise turns into reality? How interested is he in making sure this happens? It will be up to Malawians to judge in the course of time whether Chakwera meant it when he said he would not be comfortable being chancellor of public universities.
On governance, in general, it is important to state that it has been a mixed year for the Tonse Alliance administration which promised it would do things differently.
In a democratic state such as hours, leaders must be particularly careful in their choice of individuals who should help them in reaching their visions.
Cabinet ministers are crucial in central government affairs. While there were concerns in terms of choice of individuals who had been drafted into the current Cabinet— which has not been reviewed up to now—it has eventually transpired that the majority of them are performing, after all.
It was more like a test Cabinet, and we hope that drastic action will be undertaken in reshuffling it. It is clear that there are those who should not be holding those portfolios because they have shown that they do not have the interest of Malawians at heart.
The composition of parastatal boards is something that Tonse Alliance administration seems to have got right. Experts were drafted into the boards, depending on the needs of those institutions.
Of course, there were concerns that some individuals were given the positions simply because of their political connections.
But truth be told, it would be ridiculous for any government to ignore its ‘cronies’ and opt for ‘outsiders’ when there is an opportunity to get people into public positions.
It happens everywhere in the world—even in the world’s advanced democracies, leaders do not ignore their ‘cronies’. It happens in America, the United Kingdom and France. No one wants to be surrounded by people they cannot trust.
It is easy for a government to lose its popularity if it fails to sufficiently feed its people. Feeding, in this case, should be understood to mean being able to provide means through which people have enough on their plates.
The Tonse Alliance promised ahead of the 2020 presidential election that it would universally subsidise fertiliser so that everyone in Malawi accesses the farm inputs at lower prices regardless of how big or small their farming ventures are.
Some of us questioned whether universal subsidy would be possible looking at the country’s economy. Our concerns got vindicated in the government’s decision to instead just increase the number of households benefiting from subsidised farm inputs.
The results, to say the least, are impressive.
Malawians have enough food in their houses. The government is even planning to export the surplus. Of course, there are those who argue that too much money is going into the subsidy programme and I agree. There should a way of graduating from the programme and paying attention to other equally important areas in the agriculture sector.
In the meantime, the fact that there is enough food in this country scores significant points for the Tonse Alliance administration especially among the rural folk.
Nevertheless, there are serious issues that need to be looked into. The economy is performing badly and the poorest of the poor are feeling the biggest pinch.
Prices of basic commodities are rising in an unprecedent fashion. While we appreciate that some of the problems are beyond anyone’s control because we remain a largely importing economy, it is important for the current administration to put in place measures that will revamp the economy beyond the pandemic.
Several countries are grappling with the resultant effects of the Covid pandemic but it is the recovery measures that should matter most. It is difficult to identify any in the current administration.
One of the biggest vices that have crippled the development progress of this country is corruption. It is a cancer that has continued unabated, partly because previous administrations did not seem interested to deal with it.
The current administration has shown great interest to root out corruption which seems to be the order of the day in various public processes.
It is clear that the corrupt are worried and will use every means possible to frustrate efforts to deal with the vice. At least, we have an able director-general at the Anti- Corruption Bureau who has gone flat out to stop the corrupt in their tracks or track them down so they face the long arm of the law.
We have to acknowledge that the change of government does not mean corruption has instantly ended. Some of the public offices who were engaging in corrupt practices in the past are still there in government ministries, departments and agencies and will not immediately abandon their evil acts simply because there is a new government in place.
There are more issues which can be looked into when analysing the progress of the Tonse Alliance administration’s one year in office.
In terms of health, it is clear that this country is still struggling to mee the needs of Malawians. The Covid pandemic laid bare serious health challenges which need immediate attention. It is good that the Minister of Health herself acknowledged that we have a long way to go in revamping our health system.
The fact that we keep referring patients—even those with some very basic conditions—elsewhere because we cannot treat them in this country is cause for worry.
Then there is education whose standards remain low. The teacher-learner ratio remains appallingly high. So far, there are no clear measures to address this problem.
In conclusion, it is fair to state that the first one year that the Tonse Alliance administration has been in office has shown that a better Malawi is possible.
While the battle is far from being won, there is willingness to win the battle. Of course, it will take the continued vigilance of Malawians who are not ready to accept anything less than what the alliance promised.
There obviously are promises which have not been met during this first year. There are plausible reasons for the failure including that we have been struck by the Covid pandemic for over a year now.
Nevertheless, our belief is that the government has laid the foundation for more action in the coming years. It has to start with the second year and Malawians will not accept any excuse. Participatory democracy is at its best and those in power must be aware of this.