President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera speaks earnestly, passionately and sounds like someone who means what he says. He is likable and has a face that exudes honesty and trust. The fact that he has been a respected man of God throughout most of his adult life does not hurt either. He smells piety.
So, when he says he will root out corruption, sternly deal with abuse of office, do away with executive arrogance, govern by the rule of law and through servant leadership, one cannot help, but give the man the benefit of the doubt.
So far, he appears to have brought dignity to the presidency with his measured tone, a careful choice of language and, yes, even looking and sounding damn presidential. But the string of blunders he is piling since assuming power tells me that either Chakwera does not believe in what he says in public or he just does not talk to or listen to advisors.
For example, when he came into power, Chakwera replaced the Commissioner General of the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA), yet the law says that only the tax collector’s body can hire and fire its head. Did he seek legal advice on the matter? Does that read like the behaviour of a man who respects the rule of law?
In defence, the President said at the time that the two appointments were temporary while a new MRA board was being reconstituted.
“I have made these provisional appointments to stop the free-for-all pilferage of taxes and the destruction of evidence that have been taking place there in the last few weeks, crimes which need to be stopped as a matter of urgency,” claimed Chakwera. But this explanation did not make sense for two reasons. First, where on earth do you pick someone from outside the organisation to work in an acting capacity? MRA has a lot of career professionals who would have acted in this position unless Chakwera produces evidence that they were all too compromised.
Second, why didn’t the President first appoint the board and instruct them to expedite the recruitment of the MRA chief? Meanwhile, it is roughly three months since the new MRA board assumed their duties and there have been no adverts to float the ‘vacant’ position.
The President unceremoniously sacked the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi Dalitso Kabambe and packed him somewhere in the Office of the President and Cabinet while the man’s contract as Governor is still running.
Now I hear Kabambe is not taking the insult lying down and is demanding hundreds of millions of kwacha from the taxpayer for the tasteless removal.
Just last week, Chakwera sparked another controversy with the appointments of boards of directors of parastatals and other subvented organisations.
Ignoring Malawi’s gender laws, the percentage of women in the boards is well below the threshold that the laws prescribe. Prominent women, lawyers, gender activities and organisations protested heavily and demanded that the boards be reconstituted. In response, Chakwera—the man who promised to do away with executive arrogance and work to respect rule of law—dispatched his Information Minister Gospel Kadzako, who basically told everyone complaining about the illegal composition of the boards to go to hell.
The President’s silence is a tacit approval of Kadzako’s arrogant response to serious concerns.
Chakwera also messed up the rollout of his Cabinet in which people from the Central Region grabbed more than half of the portfolios, centralizing power to a region the President comes from and which is the bedrock of Malawi Congress Party support.
Yet, this is the man who said he would do things differently and consistently condemned Peter Mutharika’s staffing of top jobs with people from the Southern Region, especially from the so-called Lhomwe belt.
He also filled his Cabinet with families—including spouses and siblings—much to the chagrin of the general public. Even then people demanded that he dissolves the Cabinet and re-appoint a new one that helps to re-unite the country and share national power in a more representative way.
Chakwera refused not because he wanted to show his decisiveness, but he was too afraid of the families and his party that have captured him to change anything.
It has only been three months, but at the rate President Chakwera is alienating certain constituencies, he won’t have enough political capital to do much.