We are living through a global health crisis with no modern-day precedent. What governments, corporations, hospitals, schools, and other organizations need now, more than ever, are what the writer David Foster Wallace called “real leaders” — people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”
I have studied courageous crisis lea political leadership for decades, and through my work, I know that real leaders are not born; the ability to help others triumph over adversity is not written into their genetic code. They are, instead, made. They are forged in crisis.
Within a week, with two contradicting speeches, President Peter Mutharika has made me raise serious doubts about his ability to lead Malawi through the Covid-19 pandemic. One speech was not only applauded by his usual hand clappers, it was dubbed, rather misguidedly, as ‘presidential’ by some opposition supporters. The other speech was typical Mutharika: totally senseless and nonsensical.
I can be persuaded to forgive the opposition supporters that mistakenly applauded Mutharika’s 4th April speech because I believe it is the perennial lack of anything sensible at all from the president that made them erroneously think his political speech was brilliant.
Let me scrutinize the two speeches in detail and illustrate Mutharika’s rather feeble attempt to hoodwink Malawians into believing that he is on top of his game as president.
In his speech Mutharika ordered the recruitment of two thousand nurses and an increase in risk allowance for all medical workers. While this might seem like an extraordinary measure, the reality on the ground shows that our readiness to fight the corona virus can’t improve with such little measures done too late.
Just after his speech media reports showed that health workers at Area 18 Health Centre in Lilongwe were staging a sit-in to force management to provide them with protective equipment. Health workers at Zomba Central Hospital also staged a sit in to force authorities give them their salary arrears and allowances for the past months.
This shows that our health system has been suffering under the weight of underfunding and insufficient staffing for quite some time and the corona virus pandemic has found us ill prepared to fight it. For years, our health sector has cried for adequate funding to pay for basic medical equipment and medicines but these cries have been ignored by Mutharika and his government.
In contrast, over the Mutharika years, billions of Kwachas have been spent on corrupt deals and useless state functions. All functions and activities that help high ranking government officials personally and politically are fully funded whether budgeted for or not. This is why the state house vote always overspends. These practices are still continuing now with reports indicating that Ministers are getting ridiculous thousands of Kwachas in allowances in corona virus response meetings. Only the channeling of such resources to the health sector where they are desperately needed would impress me.
In his speech, Mutharika also ‘ordered’ Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA) to reduce fuel prices. To Malawians who don’t follow world events and news, this may have sounded like a caring president who genuinely wants to cushion his citizens from the effects of corona virus. But a close look at the world oil markets shows that Malawians have been paying too much for the fuels at least for the last three months when global oil prices started going down.
The outbreak of the corona virus has left international markets in turmoil and the demand for oil has subsided. Oil prices have significantly dropped on the world market yet MERA maintained fuel prices. In fact, the fuel price reduction should have been more than the announced. Perhaps this is why Vice President Dr Saulos Chilima went the extent of suggesting what the fuel prices should be according to calculations on the landing cost of fuel considering current world oil prices. Chilima has suggested that the prices should be K623 for petrol, K704 for diesel and K505 for paraffin.
The fuel price decrease was supposed to help poor Malawians. Yet now Malawians who use public transport are paying more because, before the price reduction, government ordered minibus operators to reduced sitting capacity to minimize chances of corona virus transmission. While this was a good move, it was done without consideration on the effect of sitting capacity on the operators’ revenue. The minibus operators increased the fares to maintain their revenue. Now fuel prices are down but fares remain the same as adjusted after the seating capacity was reduced. This means two conflicting government actions done to ‘help’ Malawians have ended up causing more suffering. This is a government that has no direction and can’t be trusted to manage affairs in a crisis.
Another insignificant measure that was announced by President Mutharika was the 10% reduction in salaries for the president and cabinet ministers. The salary reduction might look like a huge sacrifice but when one looks the rumours MK300,000 coronavirus meeting sitting allowances, and at reported billions of Kwachas lost to corruption under Mutharika’s watch, the peanuts saved from the salaries do not count as anything at all. In fact, everyone knows high ranking officials in Mutharika’s government did not ridiculously get rich from their salaries. Again then, there is no point in applauding such a move.
Another bizarre point is how the Malawi government can, through the Malawi Electoral Commission, be paying hundreds of millions to South African lawyers to challenge the Constitutional Court’s decision that the elections in May 2019 were irregular and new elections must be held. Imagine the impact that wasted MK600 million would have in the fight against the pandemic!
Mutharika also announced an increase on the MEDF loans allocation from K13 billion to K15 billion in order to help Micro, Small and Medium Scale businesses that have been seriously affected by the Corona virus pandemic. It is doubtful that this can really help because we know there’s no transparency in how beneficiaries of these loans are identified with political connections mostly deciding who gets the loans.
Currently, there are billions of Kwachas not recovered from previous loan disbursements and this extra two billion Kwacha is destined for the same fate. The additional two billion Kwacha should be used elsewhere. Since the idea behind the additional two billion Kwacha is to help Malawians on the effects of corona virus, I agree with Chilima’s suggestion that the money should be channeled into the health sector.
In his next address, instead of lambasting opposition and making unfounded allegations bordering on defamation against Dr. Chakwera as he did the other evening, President Mutharika should walk the talk, swallow his pride and work with oppositions leaders to manage the corona virus pandemic. As a matter of fact, If I were Peter Mutharika and someone presented to me a speech like the one he read the other night, I would not only throw the speech in the trash, I’d order the army to shoot the bastard!
Those that watch South African parliamentary proceedings will attest that there are fierce debates between the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Nevertheless, when South Africa was confronted with the corona virus, President Ramaphosa invited the opposition including EFF leader Julius Malema for their input on the crisis. Mutharika should do the same, it’s never too late.
I hope APM will put politics aside and implement the proposals made by Dr Chilima on the fight against Covid-19. His suggestions seem to have a better pulse on what needs to be done in this time of crisis. They are very sensible and to allow ourselves to be blinded by political differences will result in the deaths of millions.
My final thought is to agree with Dr Saulos Chilima in calling for extra vigilance against corruption in this very difficult time. The greatest obstacle in Malawi’s efforts to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic will not be politics. It will be corruption.