Professor Matthews Chikaonda, who breathed his last in California, United States of America on Tuesday this week, was a man of many faces. He fitted in as many shoes and stirred a fair share of controversy.
That he was eloquent cannot be disputed. He even delivered controversial statements with ease. He studied his audience and ensured that it listens to what he had to say, regardless of circumstances. I recall a news conference he addressed after delivering his maiden national budget as Minister of Finance and his wife, who sat at a corner in the room waiting for him, sent me note cautioning: “He loves talking and won’t stop if you [media] don’t take control…” That was over two hours into the briefing.
Of all his attributes, one that cannot be taken away from him was his boldness to tell it like it is. In many situations, he called a spade by its name, little wonder he unruffled a few feathers and arguably found his way out of politics where he served as Cabinet minister under then president Bakili Muluzi.
In his tribute in an interview with The Nation this week, Muluzi—who appointed Chikaonda as Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) governor in 1995 and minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development in 2000—acknowledged that he was “an honest man who could correct me whenever I was going wrong”.
Said the former president: “He was always straight-forward on advice. He would easily open up and say when things were not alright.”
I noted the traits of bravery in Chikaonda when he presented the 10-Point Plan in his first news conference as Cabinet minister on March 10 2000 and later on February 22 2003 in his delivery of a keynote address to an Economics Association of Malawi (Ecama) Annual Economic Conference in Blantyre.
His address, after he was replaced in Cabinet and became group chief executive officer (CEO) for Press Corporation plc, was themed The Imperatives of Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction.
In a nutshell, he attributed the country’s ‘never-ending’ poverty to misleading poverty prescriptions from key players such as international financial institutions, government and its experts and the people. He advanced the view that international financial institutions are “allowed more leverage than they deserve”; hence, they “capitalise on the insecurity of governments” to push their agenda.
To reduce poverty levels, he said “political will and courage” were critical. Here, he cited the need for full cost-recovery in university fees, passport fees and driving licences as well as introduction of fees in public hospitals as some drastic reforms needed. He stepped on raw nerves over the university fees. The hospital fees are still pending.
In his addresses, Chikaonda would also detest overdependence on politicians and politics, noting that most of the problems cannot be solved by politics or politicians: “Politics is only part of the answer. We should desist from putting everything in political terms.”
What I also picked from other encounters was the need to discard the excuses culture and instead taking responsibility for our actions.
During another encounter, he advocated the need to respect the resource constraints through efficient use of resources as effective means to reducing poverty.
Further, he emphasised on focus, saying it was important to “select a few things that can fit in our resource constraint and do them well” instead of trying to do everything without meeting the minimum required funding to complete the task.
In his tenure in the private sector, Chikaonda faced criticism for his management style that, among others, saw the conglomerate resorting to ‘burying’, as it were, “sick babies” such as Press Bakeries, Malawi Pharmacies Limited, Enterprise Containers Limited, Tambala Food Products instead of developing turn-around strategies. It was like PCL, failed to learn from the approach of the eagle in its corporate logo. Fish eagles tend to exploit situations to their advantage such that in a storm, for instance, they get to their vintage best to overcome.
When it was time for him to leave PCL, the corporation’s lack of succession plan for a business of its stature was evident as PCL invited applications from suitable candidates to fill his big shoes from January 1 2017.
Whereas the opening of the top job to outsiders was equally good, to an extent it exposed a lack of planning. I recall at that time questioning what became of the PCL management development programme where several were drilled and groomed for such top jobs. It transpired that some of them retired or died along the way.
Insiders know the organisational culture and the people, but tend to develop cold feet to implement radical changes. On the other hand, “outsiders” may bring with them new ideas, but are sometimes also limited by their lack of understanding of the particular industry, company or its culture.
It was on December 31 2016 when Chikaonda took a bow after serving at the helm of PCL since April 1 2002. Come October 30 2018, he is no more.
Personally, I will miss Chikaonda’s passion for business and economics journalism. He gave me and several colleagues insights on issues, constructive criticism and encouragement.
My tribute Bible reading is from 2 Timothy 4:7-8: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.”
Fare thee well Matthews Aurelius Padzuwa Chikaonda.