Rise and rise of sycophancy

President Peter Mutharika, in particular, and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are under severe pressure. They’ve been under the lurch, so to say, well, since the country voted in May. Majority of the voters rejected the President or his party.

Although Mutharika was declared the winner, thanks to the first-past-the-post system, that victory has been protested as fraudulent by the opposition and civil society ever since.

How Mutharika’s administration reacts to the political and social dimensions may have ever lasting impact on the country’s democracy.

For a long time, Mutharika’s response has been to ignore protests and hope the organisers will lose steam and the country will eventually move on.

While that is not as bad as jailing, maiming or killing opponents, as more tyrannical leaders would do, Mutharika’s approach still is bereft of any imagination, least of all, any nation-building credentials.

But of late, the Mutharika administration seems to be diversifying its tactics. After failing to threaten the dissidents into submission, trying the courts in vain, the ruling party has turned to propaganda and buying loyalty.

On the propaganda front, the DPP, has always dominated airwaves at the State broadcaster, with attacks on opponents, but so sickening has the attacks on opponents’ reputations that one activist is now suing MBC for defamation after a nauseating report that painted him in bad light.

The ruling party’s social media machine, too, is now a vehicle of fake news and spews divisive content.

The end is consolidating power but in an environment where majority Malawians have a bone to pick with the ruling party—62 percent of Malawians did vote for the Mutharika—the means might prove an Achilles Heel by enraging the very same public whose soul any propaganda campaign, to be ranked successful, must capture.

Already, Mutharika’s administration, which has always been accused of nepotism and cronyism even in the best of days, is throwing around government jobs like confetti. The catch is, those jobs are only being given to party zealots.

At all levels—from the tea maker to executive management—State-owned companies, ministries, embassies are all being stuffed with all-manner of party cadets—the lexicon for DPP loyalists.

As CEO of one State corporation bemoaned to me recently, ministers, State House, party officials, are drawing lists of party functionaries to be rewarded with jobs with little regard to due process. Most of the folks are terrible misfits at the new jobs; are underqualified and brings all sorts of tension, discipline and governance challenges to the institutions. And they’re mightily resented by colleagues whom they trump in every way.

To get a comfy government office, the privileged cadets don’t have to be competent at anything. All they’ve to do is to have a few Facebook posts, pictures clad in the party regalia, or run a social media page where they lambast or defame the administration’s critics.

DPP’s history of cronyism is long. But a new stage in this history is being entered. As sycophants are rewarded and deserving professionals turn collateral damage, the relationship between party and citizenry can only grow more strained.

A colleague recently fell victim to the worst of this cronyism. A devout Catholic, he has never been involved in party politics. But while Saulos Chilima, a fellow devout Catholic, was still vice-president and a member of the ruling party, they met at a Catholic public event and naturally took a picture for posterity. That picture recently found itself on DPP’s Facebook propaganda pages. Therein, too, was a brazen threat to a State-owned company that had just employed my colleague. “You are employing a Chilima boy,” alleged the page, and the next day, the contract was withdrawn.

Unbeknown to the ruling party, such antics only fester resentment in a country where the majority have already acted with revulsion at the re-election of a president and party they resent.

But such cronyism and sycophancy will continue as Mutharika’s party seeks to consolidate power and later on, as the battle for succession intensifies in DPP.

DPP top brass will compete to buy favours; its surrogates will compete to earn the favours of the top brass. Meanwhile, Mutharika, fed lies by his intelligence and loyalists, will remain blind to the painstaking job of uniting and rebuilding this deeply fractured country.

As Mutharika returned to the capital Lilongwe Thursday afternoon, surrounded by armoured vehicles as if entering a warzone, the public television reported, of course, without aide of any footage, how Mutharika arrived to the capital welcomed by “masses of people” who thronged the streets to see their “beloved leader.” That is North Korea-level delusion. But we aren’t a dictatorship, in a democracy, that will breed more revulsion.

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