Two years after assuming office President Lazarus Chakwera still wields ‘too much’ power just like his predecessors. The man, who promised to step down if he did not deliver the promised change, has jealously safeguarded the powers he promised to shed.
In June 2020, Chakwera became Africa’s first opposition leader to defeat a sitting president in a repeat election ordered by the courts.
From his inauguration, the pastor-turned-politician was a man to watch.
For two years, his speeches, spiced with an American accent, have been a marvel to listen to due to his eloquence and inspiring promises for Malawians craving change.
“I will propose legislation to reduce the powers of the presidency and empower institutions to operate independently, including Parliament and the Anti-Corruption Bureau,” said Chakwera during his inauguration at Kamuzu Barracks on July 6 2020.
The President reaffirmed his supposed allergy for excess power a month later.
“Having a presidency that makes too many decisions has created problems for our country for a long time. Chief among them is that it has stifled a culture of responsibility and innovation among public institutions and private citizens,” he said in August 2020.
And he drove the message home.
“Even in our homes, we know that rigidly concentrating too much decision-making power in the parents hinders a child’s ability to develop critical life skills. This is a mistake we must stop making at a national level,” he explained.
Two years on, the President remains as powerful as his predecessors, including the power to appoint his children to public offices.
Chakwera publicly tasked the Ministry of Justice to review relevant laws and take power-shaving amendments to Parliament for debate, but he has not done much to expedite the promised reforms.
Political Scientists Association in Malawi secretary general Makhumbo Munthali says: “The Executive, especially the President himself, must be seen to be in the driving seat pushing for this agenda as pledged in both MCP and UTM manifestos,” Chakwera also expressed an interest to trim his presidential powers as Chancellor of public universities, but happily wore the ceremonial garbs from all five institutions of higher learning.
The President has also shattered his campaign promise to end motorists’ long waits for his motorcade to pass.
During his incessant travels, police still stand sentry along the road for hours.
Munthali says the onus is on Malawians to define their own destiny by taking proactive steps to keep this agenda alive.
“As a nation, we need to clearly and soberly define what presidential powers do we need to trim besides what was already pledged as regards presidential appointments of some senior public officials?” he suggests.
For the political scientist, the big question is:
To what extent should such powers be trimmed for the good of Malawi’s democracy?
“We need to be futuristic in our approach to this question to just make sure we trim only those powers that are necessarily for the functioning of our democracy and developmental agenda,” he explains.
To the analyst, it is becoming clear that the Executive has no interest to push for the power-trimming agenda “due to narrow selfish political interests”.
“Just like the case of the previous government, there is apparently no political will for this agenda to succeed,” he states.
During the swearing-in of his first Cabinet, the President gave the ministers five months to perform or face the chop.
“At the end of that period, you will each give a report to Malawians publicly on your progress in each of the key performance indicators that I will give you” he said.
In his oratory, he promised to shortlist star performers to be interviewed for a year-long Cabinet appointment and sack the least impressive.
However, the push to professionalise State business has stalled, with none of the promised Cabinet appraisals taking off.
Despite several reminders, the President only reshuffled his Cabinet after 18 months and none of the ministers publicly accounted for their performance.
Chakwera even redefined merit to justify the maiden Cabinet he stuttered to change.
“To be a Minister of Government is to accept the responsibility of national and political leadership. That responsibility should only be offered to someone on merit, where merit means a proven track record to lead people effectively in producing results in the face of formidable odds and political complexities” he said.
Transparency and Accountability
However, Chakwera stands tall in terms of accountability.
Unlike his predecessors, he has respected the Constitution by appearing before Parliament to answer questions from lawmakers.
More than once, he has faced journalists to take stinging questions and update the nation on the State of affairs.
Besides, he has fulfilled his promise to activate the Access to Information Act, which his forerunner Peter Mutharika loved to hate. Amid pressure from the media and civil society, Mutharika dared the nation that neither ultimatums nor protests would sway him to make the law work.
But Chakwera changed the legacy of impunity with just word and political zeal.
However, the President and his Tonse allies have maintained secrecy over their source of funding and the contents of the pact the governing alliance made in the name of Malawians.
The agreements remained a top secret until recently when Vice-President Saulos Chilima disclosed that they include a shared vision to remove the President’s immunity to prosecution and ensure Chakwera does not seek re-election.
Similarly, the President has refused to disclose the civil service reforms proposed by an expert team led by Chilima.
Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency executive director Willy Kambwandira says: “Failure to make information available to the public is another cause for worry for this administration.
“Two years on, the public is still in the dark about source of funding for these political parties and what is contained in their Tonse alliance agreement? That is taking citizens for granted.”
Nepotism and corruption
Gender activist Emma Kaliya is excited that many women have been appointed in influential positions epitomised by Secretary to the President and Cabinet Coleen Zamba.
“This is a move in the right direction. We need to respect the provisions of the Gender Equality Act which require that there should be a 60:40 ratio in public appointments for either gender. We can do more,” she states.
But Chakwera triggered a global backlash when appointed his daughter as first secretary at Malawi’s Embassy in London.
This was ironic as Chakwera, while in opposition, hit at Mutharika’s regime for nepotism fuelling the looting of public resources.
Chairperson for Congoma Kossam Munthali warns that unless the Tonse Alliance begins to walk the talk, public confidence will continue to drop.