“Reform is not pleasant,
no person can reform themselves
and hard work,
how much less a nation?”
It now looks like some light years back but sometime in 1993 I was on my first salaried assignment somewhere beneath the hills of Dedza when one Chakufwa Tom Chihana was in town.
That was the time Chihana had seen off his treason trial, conviction and sentence and, thanks to the brave – if not foolhardy, nay, dare-devil – Catholic bishops, Malawians were bracing up for multiparty politics.
Chihana had made the most from the bishops clarion call; he jumped on the next flight home from a conference in Lusaka, Zambia, and made sure all important radio stations, including the BBC and Radio RSA – as it was known then, knew of his every step.
His April 6, 1992, arrest on the tarmac of KamuzuInternationalAirport in Lilongwe was heavily choreographed. He knew the MCP agents would not let him finish reading his epistle. In fact I guess his wife, Christine, did not even prepare a meal for him for she knew he was not coming home.
But, as the hackneyed word goes, the rest is history – Dr. Banda succumbed to the referendum calls, thanks largely to the suicidal bishops and Chihana’s dramatics.
So the Chihana I encountered in Dedza in 1993 was the presidential candidate who was surely set to win had elections gone ahead as scheduled in December of that year. Chihana was surely the ‘man of the moment’.
I am recalling my first encounter with Chihana because of what he said about civil service reforms. In his typical trade unionist down-to-earth speech, Chihana said something close to, “We have 120,000 people in the civil service; most of them just go to work to play bawo. When I become president I’ll trim the civil service by half!”
Of course, the speech drew a thunderous applause and hand-clapping. But, as a temporary civil servant myself, I could see some of the hands freezing in mid air. “Is this guy saying he will fire half of us? He must be crazy!” I could almost eavesdrop some of the people thinking.
Of course, the elections were shifted to the next year giving a chance to Bakili Muluzi and his band of populists to outsmart Chihana who was seen as leading an elitist group of people. The tribal card and strength in numbers, of course, also played a huge part and Muluzi, the most vilified of the candidates, carried the day. In fact the heroic Chihana was beaten into third place.
But how much did his plans to reform the civil service by trimming it by half contribute to his loss in the elections? Surely many people like the laissez-faire way of doing things in the civil service, therefore, you may not harvest many friends if you start tinkering with the way “we do things here”.
The reason I am evoking the Chihana Dedza ‘I’ll fire half of you’ speech is Vice President Saulos Chilima’s blue-print for the reformation of the civil service.
Although Simbi ya Moto might have lost a few votes because some people might have been jittery he would make them jobless and destitute, he would be vindicated later.
Muluzi, when he became the first multiparty president, commissioned a number of civil service reforms. The Chatsika Report and the Jana Commission stand out. Both point to one and the same thing – the civil service is bloated.
While Chihana had a figure as to how many civil servants he would send packing, Muluzi thought making 60,000 people jobless was not the best way to win votes. So both the Chatsika and Jana reports are quietly gathering dust somewhere on Capital Hill.
And here comes Angoni Saulos, fresh-faced and coming from the results-oriented private sector. What his commission has found may be couched in different nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But, if truth be told, they may not be too different from what Chatsika and Jana unearthed before him.
The fact may not exactly be that the civil service is bloated. It may be distribution of staff that is disjointed. You may find, for instance, that there may be six drivers assigned to one officer to drive one car and five secretaries to serve the same officer on only two computers. And yet the officer has no accountant or auditor.
Those people you see at Capital Hill playing bawo at 8 o’clock, going to lunch at 11, coming back at 2 and knocking off at 4, are not exactly lazy; they simply have nothing to do.
The Saulos commission should freeze new recruitments and critically study distribution of human resources in the civil service. There are some departments that are over-staffed while others are under-staffed. Many experienced civil servants are even ‘warehoused’ and, therefore, rendered idle because of politics.
A serious reform may not necessarily go down to sacking people; some people just need to be shuffled around.
Of course, there may be some positions that will be found redundant because of age and qualification/competence of officers and, of course, advances in technology. For instance, in this day and age you can no longer be using type-writers and the age of the magical fax machine is quickly going on the wane.
The Mutharika administration should not be afraid of how many votes its ticket might lose if it sends a couple of thousand civil servants packing. If they are clever the affected staff may appreciate the ‘one-off’ compensation which they may invest in something useful than spending hours playing bawo on the grounds of Capital Hill.
I am not sure if the number of civil servants is still at 120,000 and to implement meaningful reforms we needs to trim it by half, meaning putting some 60,000 people on the dole.
But what I am sure of is that we can do without some of these posts in the civil service. A village of 100 Principal Secretaries is clearly wasteful. Very few crucial ministries require more than one PS.
But, like I said above, some of these reforms were already proposed. But politics affected their implementation. I know every politician will do anything to win the next election and sacking thousands of civil servants may not be that attractive an idea.
But, come to think of it, if quickly and meticulously implemented, these reforms may actually work in the administration’s favour. A properly functioning civil service will boost goods and service delivery in the country. Additionally, if properly compensated those that may be laid off may improve their livelihoods and, by extension, the national economy.
And come 2019 people may say here is a government that was not afraid to get dirty for the betterment of the entire country.