For the next couple of weeks, I invoke a discussion on why the political party model for our governance and political leadership is the cause of the problems of corruption and the failure of economic development in the country.
Political parties promote patronage. Once a political party wins an election, it is time for its leader to reward supporters and cronies. Patronage is a powerful system which allows favours to be given to ‘friends’ as rewards for support or loyalty, or offered in advance to buy their co-operation in the future. It creates an elite where the only route to power lies in finding favour with ‘the powers that be’. Patronage destroys a society based on merit and rots the democratic process. Patronage gives power to patrons and takes it away from everyone else. Patronage thrives on secrecy because the process is so shameful that even its greatest enthusiasts are loath to have to justify each decision. Patronage encourages corruption.
In simple terms then, the problem of corruption that the country if facing and failing to address is the result of the political party patronage system.
Every extension of the power of patronage is a step further towards centralisation of authority, a step nearer to a totalitarian regime. The ultimate patronage state was Communist Russia, where every job, every home, every place at university, every privilege was handed out at the whim of party officials. Patronage belongs in Malawian history to the one party era where Kamuzu Banda bestowed favours, estates and titles as a means of control.
However as can be clearly seen in each of the administrations we have had since the multi-party dispensation, patronage shows no signs of dying. A colleague of’ mine was recently offered a replacement for the post of Attorney General that had recently become vacant, if only he would declare his loyalty and allegiance to the Democratic Progressive party. My friend is a UDF supporter. He refused because he fundamentally disagreed with the culture of corruption that the DPP has instilled in the government. He told a very senior figure within the DPP: ‘You need to realise that there are some things that cannot be bought.’
This shameful episode is an example of patronage at its very worst, just another form of bribery, used for the sole purpose of undermining integrity. The individual is concerned that his blunt refusal may affect his future career and for this reason has kept quite about what happened. He is scared that his identification may lead to retribution from the party and a loss of business to his private legal practice.
How many others have been targeted in this way through shabby offers and then silenced with fear? All Malawians know of cases where people seem to have altered their positions on matters of public policy and then been rewarded with a seat at a parastatal board or a government post or some other favour. It is impossible to prove a link and so the individuals must remain nameless, but they know who they are.
We see unhealthy patronage not only in appointments to parastatals, but also to awards of government procurement contracts and mainstream government position appointments.
The growth of Parastatal power has been staggering. There are now 88 executive parastatals responsible for almost a third of all government spending centrally. Examples are MACRA and MERA; ESCOM, Universities and Water Boards. They are not properly accountable to the public, and some appear to have fallen far short of acceptable standards. The problems with parastatals who report to the president and whose executives are hired and fired at will by the president and the ruling party is that they are more solicitous for presidential and political approval than they are for efficiency, effectiveness and customer service delivery.
This is because the president has great power over these appointments. The constitution and most of the legislation that creates these bodies give the powers of appointment to the president, giving him great powers of reward and control, and great powers to make people serve in fear and fake loyalty instead of according to competence and merit
The appointment process can be interesting. The Chairman of one parastatal told me of how she was appointed ‘as a consequence of sharing a taxi with the sister of the president’s Executive assistant once’. She thinks that such a method can work rather well. Another parastatal chairman was appointed following a drunken night out at with a cabinet minister- and trusted confidant of the president- was present. A certain Chairman of a Water Authority bumped into a Cabinet Minister while conducting a consumers meeting at mount Soche hotel. He was offered the position and that was the end of his consumer rights outspokenness.
Of course, many would point out that patronage is nothing new and is not a party political issue. The argument is that the president, once in power must use patronage to appoint friends and allies whom he will be comfortable working with. So how can these posts be filled, if not by ministerial -favouritism? There are only a few options. One is ‘random selection’ or statistical representation. This is the basis of jury selection, and is hardly likely to be suitable. Quotas are a variation on this. Another option is ‘free competition’ ‘ which includes election.
But shouldn’t competition be the only basis for civil servant recruitment?
Clearly patronage exists to some degree or other at every level of society – for example where someone chooses to employ a friend or a member of the family in a small business. Society as we know it would probably collapse if all such low-level patronage was banned. Relationships are always likely to count as much if not more than a piece of paper listing achievements. But what we are seeing is a wholesale domination of public life by an extreme form of patronage which is an abuse of privilege and power.
Charles Trevelyan wrote: ‘Patronage in all its varied forms is the great abuse and scandal of the present age.’ This is easy to agree with when we see totally incompetent people being given great responsibility.
Just over a century later, in 1963, Peter Richards wrote: ‘Perhaps the greatest danger for the future is the possibility that one party will exercise uninterrupted power for too long a period. Temptations would grow as security bred carelessness.’
Those blindly following and promoting political parties for 2019 probably have not considered how foolish it would be for this country simply to substitute one kind of patronage for another, having seen the scale of what is possible. Switching from DPP patronage to MCP patronage will not solve the country’s problems.
The kind of leader this country needs is one that has no political party to appease, and no political party baggage to conciliate.
Next week, I will propose the merits of this option for a nation steeped in political corruption.
Allan Ntata’s Column is posted Every Sunday on The Maravi Post