Unsolicited advice to President Lazarus Chakwera
By Milward Tobias:
This write-up follows another, published in The Daily Times of April 13 2022, in which I discussed systemic causes of corruption in Malawi.
Today, I offer unsolicited advice to His Excellency the President.
Your political administration was received with great expectations. Malawians had become fatigued with mediocrity, corruption, nepotism and Executive arrogance. You won the hearts of many people as they saw you as a symbol of meritocracy, honesty, equity and decisiveness. Combined with your eight alliance partners, you got 58 percent of the votes cast. The other alliance of two parties had the remaining 42 percent, still a formidable force.
Less than two years in office, the hope has faded. Mr President, trends of the popularity curve have been that leaders have enjoyed popularity in the first term or first years of their administration and lost it later. You have lost yours too soon and it is unprecedented.
You have a tough task to restore people’s trust. But why has this happened? I know others will tell you a litany of excuses, including blaming previous administration, effects of the Covid pandemic, effects of tropical storms and the war in Ukraine.
Mr President, except the war in Ukraine, the rest of the excuses your government gives to justify under-performance are not new. You knew them when making campaign promises. The blame on previous leadership is the weakest you must avoid mentioning at all cost. The reason you were voted into power is because people did not like what the previous leadership was doing; as such, you need not waste time reminding people about the very reason they voted others out and voted you in.
They wanted you to correct the errors others were doing. The role of leadership is to offer solutions and not excuses.
I have few observations I believe are negatively affecting your performance to meet expectations of Malawians. I list them.
i) Your focus on process rather than mission
The Bible has an account of the return of the Israelites from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem. Time had come for God to free His people and He used a pagan King, Cyrus. The Israelites were not freed from captivity by Cyrus. They were freed by God using Cyrus. You are a clergy man so you know the story better.
Mr President, reading your statements, be it State of the Nation Address or public statements, and your actions, there is cause to think that you believe you were put in office by the courts, by those who organised and led protests, by alliance partners and by your party members.
I have a different view. God had heard the cry of Malawians and believed you were the one to take care of His people on His behalf. The courts, alliance partners, organisers of protests, your party members were simply weapons God used.
You may recall the unprecedented events that happened. For the first time in Malawi, the military was involved in providing security during protests which worked to the advantage of protesters. The passing of a bill in Parliament to have the fresh election and the change of leadership at the Electoral Commission was all beyond human power.
My thesis is not that you should not care about those who were involved. It is that, where their actions stand in the way of national interest, the national interest should prevail. If they are alleged to be involved in wrong-doing, you must crack the whip on them. You will not lose another election because you corrected a wrong. God gave you a mission, accomplish it.
ii) Less helpful support system
There are a number of occasions where the lack of a sound support system, especially on matters of the economy and finance, is noticeable. One occasion is when you presented a break-down of the use of the K6.2 billion Covid funds.
You presented broad figures that could not communicate any message. You seemed convinced, such that if it were not for activists’ steadfastness in speaking out, you were not to commission the audit. The lack of detective ability as to whether you are told the right thing or not remains too visible.
iii) Some ministers are poorly oriented
Your Cabinet has a number of ministers who, apparently, are taking too long to understand their duty and that is making your office over work.
There was a time you issued a directive to controlling officers whose ministries and departments received Covid funds to submit reports. Most did not. This was shocking. Anyone who understands the Political- Administrative Interface Theory would know that the directive was ultimately to ministers because their role is to champion your agenda.
The fact that a controlling officer would defy a presidential directive under the watch of a minister just exposed the serious capacity gaps among some ministers. You were gracious to send controlling officers home while maintaining the ministers.
As an administration that campaigned on the banner of restoring discipline in the public service, you need to have ministers who take interest even in how their ministries are spending money. I am aware that ministers do not approve payments. I am also aware that there is nothing unlawful in a minister asking the controlling officer to brief and share with them expenditure return so as to know whether there is fiscal discipline or the status quo you promised to end continues.
You cannot afford to have ministers under whose watch public resources continue being abused. You cannot afford to have ministers under whose watch public service delivery continues being poor.
Your government may consider moderating on responding to public reactions. There are times the response clarifies issues and there are times the response messes up things even more. Few cases in point include the issue of creating one million jobs. The job campaign promise was made in a context.
Much as a conventional definition of a job may include small businesses as selling mandasi, Malawians were already selling mandasi when the campaign promise was made. The lecture on what is a job was simply politically damaging. It was an insult. Government was to lose little by remaining silent.
Another case in point is your crop inspection tours. When some people raised concern about the high cost of presidential travel when Malawians are suffering from high cost of living, we were given a lecture on how the budget works— that the money used was budgeted for and approved by Parliament.
What people are saying is that you do not have to act luxuriously when your people are suffering. Show solidarity with your people. Act in a way that shows that you understand their suffering and you are equally sacrificing.
Let me conclude by saying that the best political campaign is service delivery. Mr President, after election, the next thing that matters to people is economy-livelihood. No one should fool you that it is impossible to win an election alone with the at least 50 percent plus one vote rule. It happened in the 2009 general elections and it was because of satisfactory service delivery. Strengthen your support system, especially on economy. Fight corruption decisively. If someone stands in the way of your agenda, remove them from their position. No one put you in power but God. Get in alliance with Malawians. You will thank me later.
*Milward Tobias is Director for the Center for Research and Consultancy, a Think Tank focusing on economic policy.