Peter Mutharika
Malawi President Dr. Peter Mutharika

Was it the fact of Peter Mutharika being a blood brother to late Bingu wa Mutharika that banished our initial thoughts of the limits of his leadership background?

Ben Phiri
Ben Phiri

Early in Peter’s political career, Mutharika was happy to criticize his brother’s intractability and give an impression that he was more prepared to listen to opinions of others other than have headstrong convictions about his own ideas as his brother was. This boded well with the DPP insiders and they saw him as a mellowed down, more sensitive edition of the autocratic Bingu. Later, when trying to convince people that his presidential candidacy was what the party needed, he placed high hopes on his meetings with almost anyone who wanted to meet him, regardless of the fact that Ben Phiri, his gatekeeper at the time, had other ideas as to whom should be allowed to meet the “important man”.

I realize now how people were led on by these hints; I was led on myself by the hope that Peter might make a more listening, less autocratic leader, and that his academic background would make him more open to debate, suggestion and advice.  As a matter of fact, never did I feel it more strongly than after my first meeting with Peter Mutharika, then aspiring candidate for a parliamentary seat in Thyolo, sometime 2009, when he was meeting strategists and listening to views on the then upcoming election.

From around 6 P.M. until around 10 P.M. on a chilly night, we sat at his operational office in the accountant general’s building in Blantyre and discussed the forthcoming campaign.  There were criticisms of how things were being done, and criticisms of his brother’s approach to the handling of various issues. “The president must control, from his first moment in the new term, the influence of the Mulakho wa Alomwe so that it does not become a political influence but remains essentially a cultural issue,” Said Peter. “He must avoid the ancient practice of having only one strongman control all his moves. He should be more accommodating of diverse opinions and have and have a policy think tank just like the way it is done in the states. And he must constantly search for ways to make the people in government feel that he was looking over their shoulders day after day, encouraging, inspecting, reproving, an ever-present focus for loyalty and healthy fear.”

This is the kind of thinking we need in our leaders, I remember telling myself in my exhilaration that night. Government and the executive is not the place for Mulakho officials and political party strongmen to be prancing about giving orders and thinking they are the ones running the country. Perhaps this is the kind of thinking that will finally put an end to days of Inspector generals and MRA commissioners general fearing for their jobs because they have crossed Party regional chairmen and secretary generals.

I told my friends then that Peter seemed to have the potential to leave the government forever changed by his presence: Perhaps not by implementing an expansive economic development agenda, but by helping restructure and reform the country’s corrupt governance framework. Peter radiated confidence, or the illusion of confidence, to a nation ready and eager to be reassured. Peter Mutharika—so I thought—might be able to point out a new political direction to a nation all too ready to be led. Yes. The way Peter came across that night, I was convinced he would stay one step ahead of staff jealousies, information blockages and the monopolization of our politics.

Perhaps this list is a testament to nothing more than my own naivete; but here and there among the items the reader may recognize a signal that he also picked up from listening to Mutharika speak, especially after the death of Bingu and when he took over the DPP leadership and embarked on a campaign to wrestle the presidency from Joyce Banda.  Those memories may be refreshed by looking back to Mutharika’s speech at the funeral of Bingu, where he demonstrated not only his poise under pressure and grief but also his ability to make contact, to communicate, to lead with determination.

But by the time the anniversary of his first 100 days in office came around, most of the original hopes had well withered and died. Those of us that were close to the innerworkings of the system discovered very quickly that Peter Mutharika’s leadership by and large consisted of delegating all his responsibilities to Ben Phiri, his then presidential assistant, and that Phiri was using this newfound power to his benefit, to oppress his perceived enemies, real and imaginary, and to enrich himself and his cronies. The leader we all thought was his own man had somehow become a figurehead and a puppet.

The first jarring note was struck after two months in office, when the appointment of Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet was made at the instigation of Phiri and the president’s task was simply to sign it off.   Many other such appointments to important government positions followed.  The control that we all had hoped for with baited breath never came. The Molakho wa Alomwe grew more and more powerful and influential, and appointments made on tribal and political party affiliation basis remained the order of business just as it had been all the years before him. There was no change of any kind except for the worse.

The signs that Mutharika was not alert to bureaucratic perils caused by the over-influential assistant were everywhere. If there is any constant in the literature of presidential performance, it is that the President must husband his time and be in control. In a word, lead. If he is distracted from the big choices by the torrent of the conflicting interests of assistants and advisors, the big choices will not be made—or will be resolved by their own internal logic, not by the wishes of those who have been elected to lead. Mutharika seemed to have come into office without any clarity as to how to be in charge. This may be because in his previous world as a professor and an academic, he was never the leader and the decision maker with the final say except perhaps when giving grades to his students. Otherwise, there were always other people in the university administration above him making the big decisions. Thus, on reflection, Mutharika was never in practice the detail-man capable of running his own warehouse, nor the perfectionist accustomed to thinking that to do a job right you must do it yourself.

It often seemed to me that “history,” for Mutharika and those closest to him, consisted only of the Joyce Banda presidency; if they could avoid the errors, as commonly understood, of Joyce Banda, then they would score well. No devaluation of the Kwacha, no obvious Cashgate Scandal, no giving chickens and cows to families in exchange for votes.

But just like Joyce Banda, Mutharika fell prey to having his major decisions made by someone else, and allowing someone else pick the people that surrounded him and who soon became his confidants and sounding boards.

The result of this kind of leadership should be clear to anyone. If you surround yourself with dull paranoid people bent on enriching themselves rather than serving the country, you soon begin to think exactly like them.

(To be continued…)

Allan Ntata
Z Allan Ntata

Allan Ntata’s Column can be read every Sunday on the Maravi Post