In the light of the Gonapamuhanya political violence saga, we must begin to ask the question why the very people we elect to lead our country to economic prosperity, soon become the burden on our shoulders and the slave masters we despise. Where does their unscrupulous behaviour come from, and why do they begin to feel untouchable?
In answer, I have decided to remind us about some important truths regarding power and its legitimacy in a democracy.
The source of power even for any leader – and yes, even bad leaders like Mutharika – is not the police, the military or even the intelligence services. It is the Malawian people.
The cause of the plight of the nation, and its failure to progress may very well be pinned down to the unquestioning submission to authority and rulers that has been long inculcated in our population.
The framework of our politics has produced a political fabric where the social, political, economic, and even religious institutions of the society — outside of state control — have been deliberately weakened, subordinated, and some replaced by new regimented institutions used by the state or ruling party to control the society.
The population has often been atomized (turned into a mass of isolated individuals), unable to work together to achieve freedom to confide in each other, or even to do much of anything at their own initiative.
The result of this is that even in the face of some of the biggest leadership failures that the country has ever known such as the constant blackouts that are a clear result of corruption m, and bad public finance management, the Malawian population remains weak, lacks self-confidence, and is incapable of resistance.
People are often too happy to talk about their displeasure with the governance situation, but either too frightened to do anything about it, or two eager to be bribed once the government considers their voice relevant and worth silencing.
Although many talk in private and maybe online, on TV and on social media, Malawians, it seems to me, are often too terrified to think seriously of public resistance.
Instead, they prefer to face suffering without purpose and a future without hope. The truth is simple to deduce. Bad leaders require the assistance of the people they rule, without which they cannot secure and maintain the sources of political power.
In this very vein, Peter Mutharika’s source of political power and legitimacy, depends on the Malawian public’s acceptance of his regime, on the submission and obedience of the population, and on the cooperation of innumerable people and the many institutions of the society. We are as a people, collectively accepting his failure to lead. Full cooperation, obedience, and support increase the availability of the needed sources of power and, consequently, expand the power capacity of any government.
On the other hand, withdrawal of popular and institutional cooperation would diminish his power and censor his government, and may sever the availability of the sources of power on which his leadership depends.
Generally speaking, without the availability of those sources, which the Peter Mutharika administration is using to entrench itself and its rule, the DPP’s power would weaken and finally dissolve.
Naturally, political leaders are sensitive to actions and ideas that threaten their capacity to do as they like. Peter Mutharika and the DPP are therefore likely to threaten and punish those who disobey, strike, or fail to cooperate.
However, that is not the end of the story. Repression – even brutalities- do not always produce a resumption of the necessary degree of submission and cooperation for the regime to function.
The degree of liberty or tyranny in any government is, it follows, in large degree a reflection of the relative determination of the subjects to be free and prosperous, and their willingness and ability to resist efforts to enslave them. Contrary to popular opinion, even totalitarian dictatorships are dependent on the population and the societies they rule.
Niccolo Machiavelli argued that the prince “. . . who has the public as a whole for his enemy can never make himself secure; and the greater his cruelty, the weaker his regime becomes.” Three of the most important factors in determining to what degree a government’s power will be controlled or uncontrolled therefore are: (1) the relative desire of the populace to impose limits on the government’s power; (2) the relative strength of the subjects’ independent organizations and institutions to withdraw collectively the sources of power; and (3) the population’s relative ability to withhold their consent and assistance.
Malawi is experiencing untold electricity shortages because the country’s finances, natural resources, and production capacities are arbitrarily plundered and used to support political regimes time after time. In addition, the political opposition often appears extremely weak, ineffective, and powerless. That perception of invulnerability against powerlessness makes effective opposition unlikely.
In order to begin to move seriously towards saving this country, the cooperation of a multitude of people, groups, and institutions needed to operate the system, which has been somehow restricted needs to be strategically harnessed.
A Fourteenth Century Chinese parable by Liu-Ji, outlines a somewhat neglected understanding of political power quite well: In the feudal state of Wu an old man survived by keeping monkeys in his service. The people of Wu called him “ju gong” (monkey master). Each morning, the old man would assemble the monkeys in his courtyard, and order the eldest one to lead the others to the mountains to gather fruits from bushes and trees. It was the rule that each monkey had to give one-tenth of his collection to the old man. Those who failed to do so would be ruthlessly flogged. All the monkeys suffered bitterly, but dared not complain.
One day, a small monkey asked the other monkeys: “Did the old man plant all the fruit trees and bushes?” The others said: “No, they grew naturally.” The small monkey further asked: “Can’t we take the fruits without the old man’s permission?” The others replied: “Yes, we all can.” The small monkey continued: “Then, why should we depend on the old man; why must we all serve him?” Before the small monkey was able to finish his statement, all the monkeys suddenly became enlightened and awakened.
On the same night, watching that the old man had fallen asleep, the monkeys tore down all the barricades of the stockade in which they were confined, and destroyed the stockade entirely. They also took the fruits the old man had in storage, brought all with them to the woods, and never returned. The old man finally died of starvation.
Bad leaders can get away with enriching themselves at the people’s expense when the people legitimise the leaders’ actions because they are ignorant of their own power.
First the people need to understand their power. Secondly, they need to work together and act. Talking alone will not get rid of bad leadership.
Despite the appearances of strength, all bad leaders have weaknesses, internal inefficiencies, personal rivalries, institutional inefficiencies, and conflicts between individuals, organizations and departments. These weaknesses, over time, tend to make the regime less effective and more vulnerable to changing conditions and deliberate resistance. Not everything the regime sets out to accomplish will get completed and often in order to destroy bad leadership there are risks and casualties involved.
But would you rather have a Malawi without electricity than stand up and demand better performance from Mutharika because of fear?