The trouble with our politicians’ mouths

Message bungling appears to be the curse of our politicians and so goofs, misspeaking and miscommunication have become the order of the day.

From experience, it appears that Malawian politicians do not like being managed in terms of communication messages, are somehow unable to master the art of message discipline by sticking to agreed scripts and have this insatiable appetite for saying more than they should or planned to—or what my wife, Maria, likes to call “too much unsolicited information”.

I was too young to make logical sense of founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s speeches and analyse them well enough to determine the levels of discipline in them. But I can speak with authority on first democratic president Bakili Muluzi, his predecessor the late Bingu wa Mutharika and the current chief executive Joyce Banda.

They have all fallen into the message confusion trap. Take Muluzi, for example. One day in November 2003, him of the nkhani za m’maboma fame, went to the area of Chief Somba in Blantyre where he, together with then minister of Sports Henderson Mabeti, attended Eid ul-Fitr prayers.

When his time to speak came, it pleased ‘Atcheya’ to depart from the core message for the holy event and instead started praising himself that “he is a very good leader” and castigated Kamuzu Banda—long hounded into death at the time—for not praying.

A month earlier, Muluzi had also drawn fire after departing from his speech on the commissioning of the Karonga-Chiweta Road to accuse participants of an Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI) workshop in Mangochi of planning to topple his government. It turned out Muluzi thought through his mouth.

Then enter Bingu wa Mutharika. In the excitement of the campaign in the run-up to the May 2004 general elections and probably aiming to please, Mutharika drew the wrath of some influential groups such as the Federation of Disability organisations in Malawi (Fedoma) when he and his forced running mate Cassim Chilumpha said they are not “wa poliyo”, a derogatory term used figuratively to refer to a stingy person.

Fedoma and other commentators felt that was inappropriate as the derogatory words were devoid of respect for the feelings of people living with disabilities. What were they thinking?

Nobody knows for sure because Mutharika and Chilumpha never explained. Suffice to say that Muluzi—their chief campaign surrogate at the time and reigning president—apologised on the duo’s behalf.

And do you remember how candidate Mutharika, back in April 2003, almost ruined his campaign when he vowed that should he become president, he would “protect” Muluzi by not dragging him to court the way then Zambian president, the late Levi Mwanawasa, had done to his predecessor the late Fredrick Chiluba?

At that time, Chiluba was facing fraud and corruption charges in Zambian courts.

The troubling questions that followed Mutharika’s protective declaration were: What had Muluzi done wrong while in government to warrant his potential successor’s protection?

Were we destined to have a president who protected suspected criminals just because they had delivered the presidency to him on a silver platter?

Muluzi had to do damage control, asserting that he did not need any protection from anybody because he had not done anything wrong. But the damage had been done. Joyce Banda too has had her baggage of unsolicited gaffes. Attending Eid ul-Fitr prayers in Blantyre a day after budget director Paul Mphwiyo was shot in September, the President departed from her statement on the holy event to volunteer a claim that she knew who shot the fiscal technocrat, only to fail to tell the police who those alleged assailants were.

She later tried to walk back those words, but again, the damage had been done. Once again, a president had spoken before thinking or at least without thorough preparation.

Then at a press conference to respond to the cash-gate issue on her return from more than three weeks of globe-trotting, President Banda made an astounding statement to the effect that those who stole money should not try to implicate those who partook in ‘chewing’ the loot.

In other words, those caught—whether sent or not—would have to face the law on their own and not start rattling out names of who sent them. One would presume that the President meant that those caught are mere collateral damage or that those who stole on behalf of their masters had to accept their expendability for the good of the bigger picture—political survival.

Again, that was totally off message, self-destructive and unsolicited verbal diarrhoea that her opponents picked up as a political gift into their campaign folders.

I suspect that what President Banda meant to say was that she will not accept any excuses for stealing public funds or let people try to hide behind phony connections to the ruling party. But the message did not quite come out that way.

Then there is this Deputy Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Godfrey Kamanya who—at a function in Phalombe that had nothing to do with the stench that was about to come from his mouth—badmouthed the health personnel from Kamuzu Central Hospital who petitioned Parliament to move quickly to resolve the drug and medical equipment crisis at the facility. When hell broke loose, the junior minister had to swallow his own filthy vomit the following day and apologised.

What is my point? Political communication is a dangerous field. You cannot stand at a political podium to speak without being prepared by communications experts who have to choose carefully every word you utter. It is amazing that most candidates, especially those running for the presidency, do not have campaign managers to run their campaigns in a structured way and to develop consistent messages for the party officials.

It is a mistake that ails what my best friend calls ‘professional liars’. And it usually becomes their undoing.

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    Well written and well articulated Ephraim. Your last but one paragraph brings to the fore an important issue for parties to consider. Employing professional campaign managers who advise campaigns on how to communicate facts and separate fiction or lies from the truth. I am just surprised that you have spared one Uladi Change-goal Mussa in your analysis because instead of being a plus to the PP, he is bringing the party into disrepute with the citizenry by foul-mouthing other politicians. Then there was the tactic by Bingu Wa Mutharika to hoodwink the masses that he was doing enough to protect vendors by threatening that he knew who were burning markets. The key question was- why not arrest them if you know the culprits?. As it turned out, it was DPP functionaries torching shops of the opposition vendors in the same way PP has torched ESCOM House. But like I have said, it is good article.

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