WITH a press conference that oozed of intelligence, brilliant political maneuvering, vision and an uncanny grasp of the country’s economic and political problems, Vice president Saulos Chilima dispelled whatever illusions finance minister Goodall Gondwe had that the vice president was a baby. Clearly Gondwe’s sentiments two months ago, just like his grasp of the country’s economic problems and their possible solutions these days, were severely misjudged. What we have in the Vice President is a man fully grown and ready to join the list of those that have fought for a better Malawi through the years. More importantly to me though, it is also clear from the public’s reaction to the press conference that Chilima is inspiring a new generation of Malawians that his brand of politics may just be the revolutionary transformational kind that Malawi desperately at this point of this country’s existence.
Until recently, politics has been a turn-off for his and my generation. The average age of Malawian parliamentarians elected in 2014 was 55, 19 years above the national mean. Malawi’s old-timers have done everything to get themselves discredited. After years of a culture of corruption and impunity, 40% of the current cabinet have been implicated in one corruption allegation or another. Some have been to courts and some are under investigation. Politicians in Malawi now are generally unloved. Only their respective party’s cadets admire them; only a measly 11% of Malawians (according to my snap survey) approve of President Peter Mutharika.
Confidence in parliament and even in government itself has been sagging for ages and is at an all-time low. In 2014, on the back of Joyce Banda’s cashgate corruption, we believed that things could sure not get any worse. They did. According to the Auditor General’s reports, more money has now been lost through various dubious dealings in the government that was lost during the Joyce Banda administration.
Young Malawians are fed up, and to be honest, have been so for a while now. As a matter of fact, four years ago someone like Chilima being touted popularly as the hope for the nation going forward seemed to make no sense at all. With one press conference, however, all that seems to have suddenly changed. Suddenly there is hope for real transformation in the air.
While all Malawian politicians to date have operated under the principle of getting elected first and then worrying about their agenda later, here is a young politician that is reminding us that it should be the other way around. On Wednesday, he spoke of what needs to be done to develop the country, not about how he alone is the solution or the only one who can do that. He spoke of problems and their solutions, an economic development agenda that serious Malawian need to embrace, not about his plans to become president and how he will achieve that particular goal.
Not surprisingly, to a Malawian public used to listening to self-glorifying politicians who step to the podium convinced that they and they alone are the answer to Malawi’s problems, this came as a major surprise and many analysts have called the speech and the press conference empty.
The coming to age and entrance of Saulos Chilima into the political fray makes the forthcoming elections in 2019 perhaps the most important since democracy was installed in this country in 1994 after 30 years of dictatorship. They also promise to be unpredictable.
If you follow political developments like I do, then you probably know that in 1994, we had a political transition that did not usher any political transformation, and you have had enough of the establishment politics with its predictability regarding not only who will lead the parties in elections but also of how once in government nothing changes and we go down the same old corruption route. If you are like me, then I am certain you want to try something new. This is what makes Chilima’s presence in the political space interesting.
Of course, his efforts to change the political landscape and conform it into adopting his brand of politicking will meet plenty of challenges. The Malawian political landscape is stuck to the traditional thinking that political parties and money are everything when it comes to electioneering.
As a matter of fact, contrary to Get oodall Gondwe’s claim that Chilima was apparently a baby and not ready to be president, I respectfully submit that it is the country’s democracy and political thought that is still a baby. Malawian political thought is stuck in the Kwame Nkruma model that one cannot develop a country without a political party, and that to become president one needs to have a political party and party structures of regional governors and area chairmen and such other cadre. This thinking causes Malawians to overlook the obvious point that the political party model is what has brought patronage and is the breeding ground for nepotism and corruption, and that if there is one particular reason why this country has been sliding over the years, it is because once an election is won, so-called ruling party members move in to control the president and share what they consider to be the deserved spoils of victory. They plunder the national coffers to the exclusion and at the expense of everyone else, even including the very cadets and the village folk that voted for them.
We must not forget that they only time in the multi-party dispensation when this country was being run on the basis of merit and registered significant political growth was when Bingu wa Mutharika was ruling from 2004 to 2009. This was not accident. The reason to any analyst should be quite obvious. He had no political party and there were were no political party loyalties to disturb and undermine him.
While it is agreed that political parties and money are essential for mobilizing election campaigns, sustaining political party organizations, and communicating with citizens, I continue to submit that in Malawi this is the very paradigm that needs shifting. Political parties remain the leading culprit on the list of factors destroying this country’s governance and development prospects. For this reason, in order to truly be excited about stemming the country’s downward spiral, it is important to recognize that any real change must accept that the role of political parties in elections, and especially what party officials do AFTER elections needs to be reviewed.
In the words of Chilima, it is time to clean up the swamp.
So how can politics be cleaned up most effectively? Clearly, if Chilima’s popularity is anything to go by, then obviously many more younger Malawians need to step forward from the comfort of their social media devices, their offices, desks and from in front of their computers and actually step into the political fray so that Chilima’s voice should not be the only young voice speaking new politics. We cannot expect old people to the cleaning of Malawian politics. This is a task that can only be carried out by the youth.
It must also be accepted that the idea of cleaning up the political space means trying new concepts and ideas that have not hitherto been tested. I have already alluded to the singular evil that is the political party model for contesting in elections.
I do believe that a new generation of Malawians, those thinking clean and new politics like Chilima the grown man, can take on the establishment in a new way and demonstrate that the essence of change actually means doing things differently from the way they have always been done.
Chilima has demonstrated he is a man, not a baby. It is time for Malawi to follow suit and grow from a political baby to a man as well.