No boss in power

It is 25 years since the June 14 1993 Referendum when Malawians chose  multi-party democracy after 31 years of one-party rule. Is the lamp of democracy still shining? Our reporter ALBERT SHARRA engages political analyst Dr Michael Jana, who has done a study on the legitimacy of Parliament in emerging democracy.

Living Our Faith, the pastoral letter Catholic bishops issued in 1992, fanned the wind for change. Today, the bishops are still writing pastoral letters demanding better democracy. How best should Malawians react to the most recent  pastoral letter issued in April?

There are many takeaways from the 2018 episcopal pastoral letter. One of the significant messages is that Malawians need to change their mindset. They should consider political leaders as their employees and hold them to account. Malawians should know that they hire and they pay these political leaders. They can demand accountability at any time. They can fire these political leaders if they don’t perform. If we are complaining about poor performance of leaders and do nothing about it, it is like an employer who is complaining about the poor performance of his employee and does nothing about it. That’s how absurd it is. By doing nothing about it, Malawians are complicit in the poor government performance.

How did the country end up with the cadre of leaders who boss over the electorate?

Political leaders have continued to use bio-cultural symbolisms to hoodwink Malawians into believing that they are not employees who can be held accountable, but that they are in fact our parents who are untouchable and invincible – and we are all children. Kamuzu Banda promoted the narrative that he was Ngwazi and Nkhoswe Number 1; Joyce Banda was Amai; and now Peter Mutharika is Adadi. These symbolisms have significant effect on Malawians’ mindset and significant effect on accountability.

The positive side is that if political leaders behave like responsible parents, one would expect that they will nurture their children and allow them to take over the responsibility of ruling. However, what is happening is that these ‘parents’ are actually considering the majority of Malawians as ‘babies’ who cannot rule this country. Therefore, we see a trend of politicians who are way past their retirement age in formal employment clinging on to power. This also has an implication on the performance of these political leaders. Since they consider themselves as ‘fathers’ of this country who are invincible, they end up acting with impunity, no wonder corruption and general poor service delivery is the order of the day.

How can we overcome this problem?

That is why a mindset change among Malawians is necessary now to treat these political leaders as our employees so we can discipline them and fire them if they underperform.

Would party manifestos help reduce this gap and ensure that politicians serve people’s interest once in government?

The problem with party manifestos in the country is that they are written almost as a formality. Very few Malawians read, let alone know what is in the manifestos of different political parties except through superficial political speeches. Worse still, I don’t think political leaders themselves understand the implications of what they promise in their manifestos. That is why manifestos are rarely adhered to when a party wins a national election. For instance, the governing Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] in their manifesto promised to trim the powers of the president, but to date President Peter Mutharika is as powerful and untouchable as before. Party manifestos need to be made accessible to Malawians so they can use them to inform their choice and hold ruling parties to account.

Going by your study, what makes it hard for  our leaders to work as servants of the people?

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so the saying goes. That is why we need restraint mechanisms in our systems to check the exercise of power. There are formal and informal restraint mechanisms. In Malawi, we have these mechanisms but I don’t think they are working effectively to check those in power. For instance, parliamentary committees that are supposed to oversee government activities are so underfunded they can hardly do their job consistently. The Anti-Corruption Bureau [ACB] director can be hired and fired by the President and the agency is underfunded. How do you expect ACB to effectively take on corruption cases, especially against those in the ruling party? The formal restraint mechanisms need to be reformed and strengthened to keep those in power in check.

Malawians are to blame for this status quo, aren’t they?

Malawians, much as they show flashes of activism, are generally passive and indifferent to holding leaders to account. For instance, we recently had public demonstrations, which is good, but the pressure normally is just once-off. There is no sustained pressure on leadership to bring about the change we want. All these factors and more, leave political leaders in comfort zones and they act with impunity.

Should Malawians expect prospects of servant leadership soon?

If the formal and informal restraint mechanisms are reformed and strengthened, we can shift towards that accountability model. But for this reform to happen, there is need for sustained pressure from Malawians, including the civil society. The recent pastoral letter and the recent public demonstrations are positive signs to effect this change, but they need to be sustained until we see the change.

Any additional comment?

If Malawi is to be a truly democratic society, power should rest in the hands of the people. That is why Malawi should shift its accountability model from a parent-child to employee-employer model, where the citizens are the bosses. This goes with mindset change as well as subsequent reforms to restraint mechanisms.

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