Are There Lessons To Learn From Malawi?

President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi

By Alex Otti

“Even though the minister has since returned the money, his usage of the funds means that the money was unavailable for its intended purpose when it was needed most. And I cannot have in my Cabinet any individuals who either spend money budgeted for one thing on something else or do not ask tough questions to ensure that the money they are spending on something was budgeted for that purpose.

“So, I want all the thieves hiding in the civil service to mark my words: If the finger of evidence points to you as one of the thieves who stole COVID money for saving lives while hundreds of our people were dying of COVID, you are going to prison.” –President Lazarus Chakwera.

It is always refreshing to hear a different narrative out of Africa. Unfortunately, we seldom celebrate these blue moon events enough even when they occur, and they simply fade away from public memory. The world is more accustomed to the deluge of stereotypical news from international news networks that unconscionably always portray Africa as a region of hopelessness and despair.

The gladdening development that deserves our attention and applause took place recently in Malawi, where the President, Lazarus Chakwera, took a pivotal stand against corruption and abuse of office. Chakwera is a breath of fresh air from the land of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, where during the Banda days, corruption, repression, and autocracy were the order of the day.

Compared to Nigeria, in terms of population, the Republic of Malawi is small. However, there are parallels. Malawi is an East African country with an estimated population of 20m people covering a land mass of about 118, 000sq km, just about 13% of Nigerian land mass on 10% of Nigerian population. Just like Nigeria, Malawi is a multi-ethnic country with the largest ethnic group, the Chewa people constituting close to 35% of the population.

The Chewas are closely followed by the Lomwe indigenes who constitute about 19% of the population, Yao indigenes who make up 13%, Ngoni, 10% and Tumbuka, 9%. The remaining 14% of the population is distributed between several other minority ethnic groups. About 83% of the population are Christians, 14% are Muslims while traditional and other worshipers are a very tiny minority.

Malawi is a very poor country and is categorised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as one of the least developed countries of the world, relying mostly on Agriculture to run the economy. In the past, most of its external earnings comprised grants and aids from the international community but that has since changed, forcing the country to look inwards for its survival. The IMF cited massive corruption as a major reason why it no longer extends aids to the impoverished nation. Other donor and multilateral agencies followed suit and the country was virtually left stranded.

Infrastructure decay is a major problem in Malawi, and this has been worsened by poor healthcare delivery and educational systems. The country could not pay for imports as it was short of foreign currency for most of 2017. Current GDP per Capita of about $520 shows that the economy is struggling. Inflation rate hovers around 10% per annum while unemployment rate is around 6%.

Poverty rate is around 51% ie the percentage of the populace living below $1.90 per day. With all these statistics, it is easy to understand that the country needs a lot of help. This help will naturally start with leadership and that is the focus of today’s discourse. Malawi gained independence from the United Kingdom on July 6, 1964 and became a republic two years after. Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a medical practitioner became the first President of the country at independence.

In 1971, he declared himself, life President running a totalitarian government for about 30 years before he eventually lost power to Bakili Muluzi in 1994 under a new constitution allowing multi-party democracy. To achieve democracy once again, the people had to engage President Banda in protests, negotiations, and battles and in 1993, Banda succumbed to the wishes of the people. Muluzi was re-elected in 1999 for a second term. In 2004, Bingi wa Mutharika became the 3rd President of the country and was re-elected in 2009.

He died in office, having suffered a heart attack in 2012. Mrs Joyce Banda (no relation of President Hastings Banda) who was the Vice President was sworn in to complete Mutharika’s tenure. By 2014 when she stood election on her own, she came a distant third, losing to Peter Mutharika, the brother of the late President Mutharika. He was to stand for re-election in 2019 which this time turned out to be very controversial. He was subsequently declared winner with a very narrow margin which his opponents contested in court.

The court overturned his victory on account of massive fraud and irregularities and the Supreme Court upheld the verdict and ordered a fresh election. Lazarus Chakwera, the opposition leader won that election, beating the incumbent and was sworn in less than a year ago, in June 2020, amid the Coronavirus pandemic global lockdown.

President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, 66, trained as a theologian and was the President of the Assemblies of God Church in Malawi for 24 years. He joined politics in 2013 after several years at the pulpit believing that he could only make maximum impact in public service. He instantly became the face of the opposition. He started out at the National Assembly and garnered a lot of support from the people.

As he was being sworn in having secured close to 60% of the votes in the June 2020 election, he left no one in doubt that he had a mission. He made it clear that his administration was going to have zero tolerance for tribalism and most importantly, corruption. Even though he was criticized for some appointments with members of immediate families emerging cabinet members, he insisted that what was most important to Malawians at that stage was competence. Having said that, he did not rule out the possibility of taking another look at the appointments in due course.

He was more concerned about hitting the ground running from day one than the inanities. Like a newspaper reported, Malawi was like a serious patient in an intensive care unit and bitter pills were needed to heal it – this includes overhauling the civil service, employing and appointing people on merit and curbing corruption, nepotism and cronyism. Although one year is a relatively short time to judge the success or otherwise of a national leader, there was a dramatic shift in the fortunes of the country with the assumption of office.

It became clear that it was no longer business as usual and there were indicators that supported the new profile of the leadership of Malawi. GDP of the country, which was $5.5b in 2016 grew to $8.4b last year. Shortly after President Chakwera’s swearing in, he was concerned about the infections and deaths arising from Covid-19. In August 2020, he quickly allocated $8million to the task force on Covid to wage a war against the pandemic. He expected a lot of results, but that was not the case. On enquiry the Malawian office of the ombudsman reported that more than half of the allocation was spent on food, accommodation and travels by members of the task force.

The President, in a justified fit of rage, swiftly fired 28 District Council heads of the task force and he ordered a full-scale investigation into the fraud. As the report of the investigation was submitted last week, President Chakwera realised that more senior officials than thought, were involved in the heist. He discovered that his Labour Minister, Ken Kandodo, who was one of his closest allies and whose sister, Khumbize, he also had appointed Minister of Health, had helped himself to some $800 out of the money to fund his personal travel to South Africa. Even though the Minister later refunded the money sequel to the investigation, and in spite of the relatively small amount involved, he had to be fired from his job immediately. Some other19 cabinet members who were involved in the fraud were arrested for prosecution on the orders of the President. His comments upon the discovery of the fraud, are as paraphrased at the beginning of this column. One believes there are things to learn from this obviously poor country that seems to be getting governance right. These lessons are important for our leaders in Nigeria, not only at the centre, but also at all tiers of government.

First of all, the resolve of the Malawi populace when their votes were stolen and most importantly the courage exhibited by its Judiciary, combined with the refusal of that arm of government to be compromised, are what is required for any country that wants to grow its democracy. It was clear that the incumbent President Mutharika’s popularity had waned and Chakwera possessed the attributes that the people needed and wanted. They voted for the latter, but the former manipulated the election exercise and falsified the results. The people refused to accept the illegality and engaged in street protests.

Meanwhile Chakwera approached the court for justice, which courageously resisted both bribes and intimidation from Mutharika’s supporters. They wasted no time in sacking Mutharika. Celebrating this good news coming from an usual quarter in Africa, The Economist Magazine of London rightly pronounced Malawi, country of the year, 2020.

Secondly, the quality of leadership as demonstrated by the well-trained clergy man with character and love for country and the people of Malawi, cannot be ignored. The leader must always lead from the front. It is easy to believe that the background of President Chakwera as a clergy must have had a hand in shaping his behaviour. While one will not dismiss this, one would readily point out that there are many clergymen who have been a great disappointment in public service and a disgrace to the calling.

There must be something else, which I will attribute to character. Just like in banking, character is everything. Chakwera was not one to fritter away the tithes and offerings of his congregation in pursuit of worldly things. As a shepherd of the House of God, he did not own a private jet or a fleet of luxury cars at the expense of his flock.

The third point to note is that the sack of a cabinet minister for corruption and prosecution of several other senior government officials make the dictum that there are no sacred cows, believable. It very much agrees with the Singaporean model which insists that if you want to fight corruption, punish people at the top and not at the bottom. This is because “the fish gets rotten from the head”. Once a leader begins to chase the little people while ignoring the big people, the war against corruption is as good as lost. I hope someone is listening!

Fourthly, when it comes to corruption there is no small one. He who stole $800 would as well steal $8million if he had access to it. This is the lesson that Chakwera was teaching when he refused to overlook the seemingly small amount stolen by Kandodo. The takeaway, therefore, is that you should hit the thief that stole with the same big stick as others, even if what he managed to steal was small. Another important lesson to learn is that returning what one stole does not exonerate one from the offence. That Kandodo took the money in the first place is the offence, returning it is either an afterthought or an action taken simply to avoid facing the consequences. Therefore, while plea bargains remain acceptable in law, in Chakwera’s Malawi, one will still face the consequences of his offence.

There is the concept of “time value of money”, which was amply highlighted by Chakwera in his speech and his action. He rightly pointed out that pilfering money from the public till denies the people the service that it was meant for at the appropriate time. That’s what President Chakwera meant when he said that “even though the minister has since returned the money, his usage of the funds means that the money was unavailable for its intended purpose when it was needed most”.

Chakwera demonstrated that leadership is more about signaling rather than mere rhetoric. Action, as they say, speaks louder than words. A war against corruption is better fought with deeds rather than speech. What better way to take action than the way Chakwera summarily dealt with offenders without fear or favour? The message immediately sank in that the man meant business, as was seen from the response from the former Labour Minister, which was that of shock and disbelief. It is doubtful that if he had a second chance, he would behave the same way.

The 8th and final lesson is that value and culture are central to successful leadership. When people don’t have clarity about the culture that leadership wants to build, response would be mixed. The action of the President has defined acceptable values and people are expected to comply. Any culture that leadership wants to promote must be seen and understood to benefit the people with clear consequences for infraction. It is also important that communication should be clear and effective.

We believe that Chakwera is an inspiration to a new crop of leadership in Africa. He holds the light of probity and progress for all others to emulate and help in the struggle to bring Africa out of the morass of underdevelopment and decadence. We call on others to follow suit and make the 21st Century, truly the African Century.

Certainly, the news from Malawi is a welcome breath of fresh air. We hope the President continues with his reforms without getting distracted. We also hope that Malawians and the entire world will continue to support him. Finally, we pray that he is allowed to complete his term of office and his sojourn on this earth.

Otti, a consummate banker and former Managing Director of a leading bank in Nigeria has turned to politics. He was a former governorship candidate in Abia State.

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