Last week I discussed the curse of the Big man Wamkulu Syndrome in Malawi. I pointed out its effects and its impact on our democracy and on our governance structure. Even as I was contemplating on that particular discourse, a very Big Man Wamkulu in the name of Sidik Mia, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) vice president, was writing a press release condemning some of our opinions that suggest that he is power hungry. His press release was received with two hands by those that consider him their Big Man Wamkulu. They immediately went forth to publicize the release. They castigated and denigrated us. Their Big Man Wamkulu, they said, should never be criticised. There should never be any negative comments made about him, they said.
I feel compelled to further contemplate on the Syndrome. The ready-made explanation usually trotted out to explain this retrogressive behaviour, that of the so-called “big man Wamkulu syndrome”, is African “culture.” In part, this is not far from the truth as this disease is a product of recent African history. Colonial administrators utilized African traditional structures for “indirect rule,” but deformed them by promoting the power of the chief or the traditional leader at the expense of the precolonial checks and balances mechanisms. Malawi was not spared of this manifestation. Post-independence Malawian presidents and politicians from Kamuzu Banda to Muluzi to Mutharika have just perfected these systems. It explains why Chief Ngongoliwa for example is such an important political voice today.
The Big Man Wamkulu Syndrome needs to be taken seriously as it impacts on elections, and here in Malawi we have yet another election coming up. The Malawian electoral system operates, to a large extent, at the discretion of the President. In practice, the President can operate behind the electoral body to make the rules, break them and sometimes even change them when he wants to. The electoral body’s decisions are by and large influenced by the interests of the president and his political party. In the lead-up, even the police can intimidate the opposition, while the president campaigns uninterrupted. And in some cases, we have even seen the registrar of political parties being ordered to refuse registration of certain political parties, or some public officials deny some groupings assembly rights to hold their rallies.
It is the Big Man Wamkulu culture that has resulted in equating popular will with the president’s person. The President is always patriotic, and it is only the President who is willing and able to do what is needed. When developments projects such as the building of roads, schools and hospitals are being completed, it is the president who is doing them, not the government or the nation at large. It is we, the nation, being done a favour by the Big Man Wamkulu up there at state house. Instead of remembering we are all Malawians working to build a successful nation, we defer our relevance, personality and yes, our very rights and existence to the Big Man politician who instead of being the servant that he is supposed to be, we regard him as the Great Benefactor.
Can we cleanse our country of this well ingrained disease? The answer is yes, with the caution at the outset that it is, however, not an easy fit to accomplish. It is difficult but doable.
First and foremost, it is important to Establish good governance as the norm. Philanthropist Mo Ibrahim offers an annual prize for good governance to an African leader who has recently left office. He has only been able to award it three times in six years and no Malawian leader has ever been even on the shortlist. This then seems to assume that bad governance is the norm. Psychological studies suggest that high expectations with punishment for those who fail would succeed better. If an outgoing president is adjudged to have failed to achieve basic standards of good governance, he should be entitled to the former president’s emoluments and benefits. Why reward a failure? Further, the standard of what is considered a successful presidency can be slowly increased so that quality of governance will improve.
Secondly, to remove self-interest from public discourse, presidents and politicians should perhaps have no special emoluments when they live office and go back to normal ordinary civilian life. This is what the philosopher John Rawls called the “veil of ignorance” as the concept of making moral judgment on public issues. What kind of society will a Malawian president want to live in if he didn’t have the knowledge that he was at the top of the pile? If they can try and build a society that would be fair to them after leaving office, it will be easier for them to withstand pressure to milk the system.
Thirdly, our educational system needs to be expanded and broadened to accommodate as many people as possible. The Big Man Wamkulu syndrome is fuelled by a culture of having a few privileged people having access to the best education and therefore rising too high to the top while the multitudes behold and wonder if they can ever attain such heights. Once at the top, these so-called elite then lord it over the masses, enjoying their big man status. The masses, having no real hope of ever reaching those heights, are only too happy to praise and hope to scramble for the crumbs that fall. Malawians must see the possibility of an ever-expanding pie able to accommodate everyone as long as they work hard. If one sees the pie as finite, then rational actors compete for a slice by barring others. If education enlarges the pie, however, giving others opportunity becomes a way of providing more for all and even more for the next generation.
Fourthly, there is a need to encourage female leadership. Women are less likely to wallow in the egotistical big man culture and can change Malawi faster if the issues they find important are actually brought to the table and discussed. Research shows that when women are in critical numbers in leadership positions (usually around 30%), they then can change deliberations to what is important to them. The few women in all male, misogynistic environments are silenced. They refuse to speak for fear of being ostracized by their colleagues and to get along. To curb the Big Man Wamkulu syndrome, have more women involved in political leadership.
Lastly, credible elections are critical for citizens to believe and participate as expected in a democracy. Credible elections mean that the electorate truly vote with their conscious and not because some Big Man has paid them money and bought their vote as is often the case in the country. To promote credible elections, monitoring of illegal electoral practices needs to be more vigilant than is presently the case. Credible elections are one of the first steps in holding leaders accountable. In this regard, our country probably needs not just election monitoring but supranational institutions to help out as well.
Malawi can keep decrying the bad apples whose corrupt and dictatorial characters only get revealed after they are already in power and have attained their Big Man untouchability, or we can consider cleansing the entire population of the rotten culture to make way for a new way of thinking and a new way of doing politics. After all, in the currently rotten governance framework, any apple that rises to the top is already sick. What is required is a population-wide approach that will halt the epidemic; the apple barrel needs fumigation and each apple cleansed.
Each person should become a responsible participant in growing a healthy democracy and refusing to look up to anyone as their Big Man Wamkulu. No matter their current status since everyone is a potential leader. Our goal should be to build a new nation of equity and prosperity instead of being vocal critics simply because we are waiting for our own opportunity to loot and become the “Big Man Wamkulu”.