From the political chatter coming out of the various aspiring presidential candidates and parties, all you hear is greed and lust for power without purpose and direction. I am yet to hear anyone admit that the structure of political administration in Malawi has for a long time been wrongly organized, and accept with a compelling intervention recipe the challenge of its desperate need for systemic reform.
In Malawi, the cabinet is supposed to run affairs of government. There is nothing wrong with this as this is exactly what the constitution provides and assumes. The problem is that in Malawi, the reality is altogether different. It is not really cabinet but rather the political party fatcats that control the President and the government. Cabinet ministers often also form the primary political think tank of the party in power, meaning that although a president usually has political advisors and other ancillary politicians that are supposed to assist in running the party and not the country, frequently there is no clear line of demarcation between government administration and political administration. When a president is faced with a political crisis such as the third term bill, the open term bill or Section 65 wrangles in parliament, the president’s primary response it to call cabinet ministers and discuss the political connotations of the crisis. Governance priorities and implications are decidedly ignored. When he is faced with administrative crises such as an academic freedom standoff or allegations and charges of corruption against him or his ministers, he calls political party strongmen to advise him. It usually follows then that these cabinet ministers give not governance advice, but political advice. The problem is clearly that of a conflict of interest.
Cabinet ministers whose government jobs depend solely on the political decisions of their president boss cannot give impartial and objective advice. Their advice will always be that which will ensure their own political survival because their political survival equals their survival in government. Most Malawian ministers in the past thirty years have been pathetically ill-equipped to give strategic and intellectually competent advice anyway- political or otherwise!
In a political think tank meeting discussing the merits and demerits of a bill proposing to reduce presidential powers for instance, cabinet ministers will almost invariably agree with the president because if they speak out and declare their support for the idea, the president will remove them from their position, and their political influence and social affluence will be in jeopardy.
A structure that lets cabinet ministers be political advisers to the leadership will sooner or later build a dictatorship. This is because cabinet ministers are almost incapable of advising objectively. Cabinet ministers will never want to argue with their boss. Their advice, first and foremost, will consider what is most convenient for their own careers. In a dictatorship, this can be excused. But such dreadful political organisation can never be forgiven in a 21st century democracy.
During the old MCP single-party days, there was no real need to have an administrative system that would maximize the application of democratic principles. Power was taken for granted because in a dictatorship, no one has a free voice except the dictator himself. It is curious though that the system has been maintained even in post-dictatorship Malawi. Either those in power are unaware that the administrative structure is conducive for a quasi-dictatorial system of government, or they are aware of this and are deliberately letting it be because it is convenient for their political schema.
So much had been said about Civil service reforms, and if you read the things that Seodi White writes, you can be forgiven for believing that Malawi is becoming a public service heaven and that everything is honky-dowry! But it must be understood that without some dramatic reform, Malawi shall continue to have a flawed political administrative system, which will result in impeded development. A visit to departments such as immigration and Road Traffic, or any government department where you need efficient service brings you face to face with this reality and makes you wonder what the hell Seodi is on about!
It all boils down to the fact that a more democratic and desirable structure is one where presidential advisors play their politics in the background. These individuals are committed to formulating policy and advising the President on how the implementers of that policy – the ministers – are performing. Counsels to the president can do so without fear or favor only when they do not have ulterior personal political agendas clouding their judgment.
This is a principle that has been understood by almost all administrations in successful democracies. Senior counsels to the president or the prime minister are not members of the cabinet. On the contrary, they are strategists and professionals who can evaluate the performance of the cabinet or any government entity dispassionately, and analyze political situations objectively. These will usually be individuals who were responsible for planning campaigns and masterminding electoral victories. They are the individuals who know how to communicate positive messages with the world outside of the administration and how to position the leadership in a positive light. Most importantly, they tell their boss the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The cause of so many of Malawi’s political bumbling is the fact that this important truth has not been appreciated. The country has come out of thirty years of strong dictatorship with unwanted political baggage. Curiously, since the transition, leaders seem reluctant to totally shed themselves of all of the dictatorial baggage. Somehow, it has proved politically expedient to maintain some of the very tendencies and practices that led Malawi into the dictatorial path in the first place.
If this discourse is anything at all, it is a call for an understanding that when aspiring leaders speak of new politics and a new way forward for Malawi, they must be prepared to undertake a total and thorough reformation and transformation of the system.
It is a call for the truly committed Malawian leader to stand up, step forward and be counted for taking the road less traveled. It is a call for unswerving vigilance and commitment to transforming the system and overhauling this rotten arrangement. It is a dare for the perceptive Malawian leader to upset the status quo.
Malawi needs a leader that will make the perhaps somewhat risky but necessary steps to renovate and modernize the presently archaic and inefficient leadership system into a system that can accommodate objective thinkers in the administrative set-up. While it is appreciated that economic development should be the top-most agenda for the aspiring politician, and indeed for any aspiring presidential candidate, it must also be appreciated that failure to understand that economic development can only truly thrive in an appropriate political framework is a clear indicator of unsuitability for leadership.
I urge all aspiring leaders and presidential candidates, as Malawi closes in on yet another election, to put political and executive reformation at the top of their agenda. Furthermore, I urge my fellow Malawians not to support any political leader that fails to expound convincingly how he or she plans to overhaul Malawi’s rotten political administration.
This is the only “New Politics” that makes sense to my Uncommon Sense.
Allan Ntata’s Column can be read every Sunday on the Maravi Post