“Running a government
Before we go into issues of diplomacy, let us hold a session of ‘Politics 101’ with one Austin Atupele Muluzi.
In politics always get it right the first time; any attempts to clarify a gaffe later do not wash. A caveat to this lesson is: always be clear what your message is. Ask yourself what you want to communicate on the political podium; do not leave anything to doubt, conjecture or speculation lest you risk communicating stuff you do not intend to.
Once the message hits the public sphere it is difficult to disown it whether you were genuinely misquoted or you indeed just innocently mis-spoke in the heat of the political moment.
I am offering these free lessons to Atupele because the young man caused a stir when he claimed he met some donors who allegedly told him they would not open their aid taps unless – and until – the May 20 elections deliver regime change.
When I read – and heard – that careless statement attributed to AA, who oftentimes cuts a sober and calculated personality in his speech, I said: “What are the people in the North feeding the young man on? Ganja cake from Nkhata Bay or what?”
Seriously, I mean, even if the gist of his message were true, no donor would say that…well, they may in private and in strict confidence; they may not wish the same to go public.
That’s a ‘no-no’ in diplomacy.
So I thought perhaps the Uladi Mussas of this world were not being unfair to christen Austin Atupele Muluzi ‘Bebe’ – a baby in politics – after all?
Look, as his famous dad famously put it, ‘running a government is serious business’. By carelessly dragging donors into the mud of local politics, Atupele may have lived up to his moniker of ‘baby in politics’ and proved he is incapable of managing touchy-feely intricacies in diplomacy.
Of course, as expected, the donors were quick to deny dangling the carrot of the ousting of President Joyce Banda as a pre-condition for disbursing aid.
But the political damage Atupele has caused by his statement may be irreparable. Look, if the donors made that undertaking to the trusty ears of Atupele, they would still deny it. No diplomat would want to suffer the fate on one Fergus Cochraine-Dyet.
Atupele, too, tried to make some feeble attempts to eat his own words. But, like I said before, the damage has already been done.
The whole affair has created a political snafu because it is a fact that Atupele indeed met some donors and we all know Malawi’s most important donors have put their aid kits on ice.
Now the UDF presidential hopeful’s careless statement has created a crisis of trust. Imagine that Bebe is, after all, saying the truth that indeed the donors confided in him that their opening up their kitty depends on one election outcome – that the Joyce Banda administration is out of office or, as AA succinctly puts it, regime change.
This does not reflect too well on the young man for it constitutes a serious breach of trust. Meetings between envoys or emissaries – foreign or local – and various political interlocutors are held under ‘Chatham House’ rules. This means Atupele should have found a way of using the information without disclosing the identity of his sources. How he could have done that, that is why he is in politics for.
Now, look, if indeed they said what Atupele said they did and Atupele goes around yapping about it, how would the donors trust him next time? They would still be suspicious of him even if he became His Excellency the President Atupele Austin Muluzi on the other side of May 20.
And imagine the young Muluzi just made this up, the donors never said anything like that but there was proof that AA indeed met with them. How would the donors trust him next time they meet him that he would not misrepresent facts of the meeting?
Bebe should have said the same stuff he said without directly attributing them to the donors. After all, it is no brainer that donors have withheld aid. That in itself is enough ‘vote of no confidence’ in the current administration.
Now he has put the donors between a rock and a hard place. They cannot entirely trash AA lest he becomes a hostile host if he wins the elections. But, at the same time, foreign envoys are accredited by the Government of Malawi which is in power that material time. If the current Government of Malawi feels the donors are working in cahoots with the opposition, there will be diplomatic mess.
And any government will be justified to issue persona non grata edicts to wayward envoys. Ama may not be Bingu but it is within her ability to abuse her executive powers.
All this discussion would have been avoided had Atupele been mature enough to tame his tongue. What AA said made political sense but it was a serious diplomatic gaffe.
It is true the donors may be hedging their aid plans on the outcome of the elections. But it will be foolhardy for any donor to explicitly say they will unlock their aid based on one candidate’s fate. One can make an intelligent guess that, basing on the reasons leading to the withholding of the aid, releasing it now may advantage the governing party unfairly.
Look, if truth be told, if donors released aid now, what could stop Joyce Banda and her PP apparatchik from claiming victory from the cashgate imbroglio?
The truth, I submit, may be that the donors may aid Malawi irrespective of who wins the elections (JB or AA or, indeed, anyone else). What they may be waiting for now, I can hazard a guess, is that the process of the elections be satisfied fairly, rather than the outcome.
If the donors released aid now, it carries the risk that PP might hijack the narrative and skew it in its favour.
Or, worse still, PP can abuse the funds if it knows it is on its way out. That cannot be desirable to anyone who understands the genesis of the current cashgate affair.
So Atupele should always think through his narrative before going public. So far he has shown that, despite his youth, he can be rational most of the times. These needless gaffes may make him be classified as among the ‘ordinary as they come’.