One of the biggest problems in African politics is how to deal with political opponents. Invariably, it seems that regardless of the edicts of the democracy to which they claim to subscribe, African leaders sooner or later become convinced that opposing voices do not fit into their particular brand of governance. Additionally, there seems to bean astounding tendency to personalise politics, such that a criticism is seen as a personal attack and not a political opinion of the speaker.
Western democracies tend to be more objective and tolerant of opposing views. Responses to criticisms are political and not personal.In the case that a given policy is criticised by the opposition, the focus of the leadership in western democracies is generally on how to justify that policy. The matter is publicly debated, whether be in the media on the parliamentary floor, and merits of lack thereof of the policy exposed, leading to the natural conclusion that the public are given both sides of the issue and left to make their choices based on all the information available, provided by both sides of the debate.
In comparison, the first reaction to a criticism of a policy in Africa is to analyse the speaker and speculate about his or her motives. Invariably,the motives behind any given criticism are deemed to be personal and therefore the criticism itself without any merit whatsoever. Instead of looking objectively at what is being said, it is not uncommon for leaders often take to the podium to tell their listeners that the speakers is criticising not because of a genuine concern with the policy under discussion, but because the critic is an immoral person as demonstrated by his recently being excommunicated from his church congregation!
This personalisation of politics leads to undemocratic tactics that target political opponents personally rather than addressing the political questions raised. Intellectual debate on policy is rare if not non-existent.Once a leader is in power, he does all he can to silence opposing voices not through solid and successful political performance and tactics, but through undemocratic tactics that often involve intimidation, abuse of human rights and personal attacks.
It is even more disturbing that this phenomenon is not just isolated to government leaders but is even more powerfully present in party politics.
Once a leader has been elected at one party convention to lead and represent that party in an election, it seems to me that the thinking soon becomes that the candidate cannot ever be criticized or challenged. Somehow his or her mandate is deemed strong to lead the party even when the country has demonstrated its dislike of him or her by refusing to elect them to the presidency.
Although some may argue that a candidate that represents a party in an election and fails to win has just as much a right to represent that party again in subsequent elections as any newcomer, I am inclined to argue that parties have better odds of increasing their chances of winning when they field new blood instead of recycling the same leader at every election in the hope that the same public that rejected the candidate will be forced to swallow their word.
It makes sense fielding the same candidate when he is the incumbent. But when he lost in previous elections, I submit that more often than not, the reason for recycling is not a general party belief in the candidate or the persistence of that candidate’s mandate within his party as the party leader, but rather because the candidate has now become a dictator and controls opinion in the party using threats and patronage.
It is evident in how hangers on and sidekicks shout down anyone who suggests a change of leadership that they are not doing this out of any objective logical reasoning, but because of personal interest and the belief that this is a leader who will reward them best personally.
In a democracy, where there are challengers to a leaders mandate to lead a political, the way to test or reaffirm that mandate is through the party convention where challengers can either prove their claim or be defeated and shown to be unpopular. Yet what we see in our political parties are cases where party conventions are only called when there is an election, and when they do happen, they are kangaroo affairs where the conclusion as to who will eventually lead the party in an election is already known, the votes having been bought and secured beforehand.
In Malawi, we have a five-year presidential term. This has consistently meant that political parties both in government and in opposition also have five-year leadership terms, with no party conventions or general meetings in between. It has also meant generally that whoever is leading the party at any given time continues to be presidential candidate in every election until he or she dies or retires. Challenging for the leadership of the party without a pending election is severely discouraged and those that dare to do so are called bad names and dismissed as rabble-rousers and agitators.
It bothers me to see people perpetuating unlikely party dynasties with the very same people contesting in elections as though there is a shortage of eligible people in Malawi who can lead the country better.
What I have seen in Malawi’s main political parties, DPP, UDF and MCP (and yes, even PP) suggests to me there seems political party leaders and their friends have set a trend where they make it a cardinal sin to suggest that the party may be served well with a different leader, and dare to suggest a convention where an incumbent leader’s mandate can be tested. This has remained the case even where the party leader has demonstrated a lack of direction and leadership skills, such as that seen in the UDF leader Atupele Muluzi’s continuing to lead the UDF in spite of completely being a DPP puppet. It has also been the case where the leader has deliberately infringed a party’s constitution and started leading contrary to the path mandated in the party’s laid down rules, such as seen in what is happening with Lazarus Chakwera in the MCP.
This is how dictators are made across Africa, for when eventually such a leader who could not step down after failing to win an election, or who can so easily disregard his party’s constitution just so he can entrench his power base eventually becomes president, he is seen as a hero,and all opposition and criticism is now suppressed using state resources.