|Malawians lining up to vote on 20th May, 2014|
There is one statement in Professor Peter
Mutharika’s inaugural speech that will be the ultimate test on which his term
of office will be evaluated. Taking over the reins of power at the Kamuzu
Stadium in Blantyre on 2nd June, the president said: “Today, we are
launching a government that must be accountable to the people. The central
principle of democracy is that everyone must be accountable to someone else.” The
president promised a “bottom-up approach” and “people-centred economic growth”.
This has never happened in Malawi before.
Despite pronouncements and proclamations to follow the will of the people, we
have never had a government that was truly accountable to the people. That
President Mutharika chose this particular language in his inaugural address is
nothing short of radical. And it should be a shock to those holding decision-making
positions in a public sector that was accountable only to itself and ruling
The toughest choice facing newly-elected
president Prof. Arthur Peter Mutharika is how he can steer the country in a new
direction with the people who helped him win the May 20 elections. Malawians
are ready for the “new beginning” Mutharika has promised. But can he deliver
this “new beginning” with the same faces that delivered victory? How President
Mutharika manages that feat will fore-shadow what his term of office is going
to look like.
It is not an easy dilemma. No one needs to be
reminded how the majority of Malawians viewed the individuals who formed the
inner circle of the DPP until April 5, 2012. But the reality is that they are
the same people who have engineered the DPP victory in 2014. They did not work pro
bono. They are pregnant with expectation for political and economic
rewards. Can Mutharika afford to give Malawi a “new beginning” without
having to dispense patronage and appeasement?
Their hearts are pounding with excitement at the
prospects of cabinet positions, embassy postings, seats on boards and numerous
other political appointments at the president’s disposal, as a token of
appreciation. Yet it is those very positions that Malawians are keenly awaiting
to scrutinise for the slightest hint of patronage, appeasement and a
perpetuation of the old DPP.
For the second time in as many years Malawi is yet
again presented with a ‘reset’ button. Going by the tone struck by the
newly-elected president in his inaugural speech, it could be the moment we have
been waiting for. But great speeches
cannot be a substitute for tangible
There is a clear starting point for President
Mutharika to make good on his promise to be accountable to Malawians. It is
still not clear to many of us what caused the mess that happened on election day
and during the counting of votes. It is understandable that many people want to
move on and let bygones be bygones. But there cannot be peace without truth and
justice. The truth of what happened with the election, even if it does not
change the outcome, is of paramount importance.
There is a legion of voices joining calls for a
thorough investigation of what exactly happened. In the words of Kizito
Tenthani, Executive Director of the Centre for Multiparty Democracy, quoted in
the Nation on Sunday of 8th
June, “. . . it will be a great injustice to ourselves if we do not pursue and
get to the bottom of what really happened so that we should avoid a repeat of
the mess that was created.”
Dr. Garton Kamchedzera of Chancellor College in
the University of Malawi adds that parties claiming they had evidence of rigging
“should have pursued the truth, justice and righteousness for the sake of the
nation, even if that could not have changed the results” (Nation on Sunday, 8th June). He is not alone. Another
Chancellor College scholar, Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, says MEC itself indicated
there were serious problems with the entire process.
Several MEC commissioners officially wrote a
letter expressing deep reservations with the results. Dr. Chinsinga rues the
eventuality that we may “never know for sure whether the electoral outcome
reflected the genuine will of the people of the will of the courts.” (Sunday Times, 8th June). He
adds that the conduct of the election raises a “serious question about the
legitimacy of the new administration.”
Herein lies the perfect place to start
demonstrating the accountability President Mutharika has promised. Not only
would a process to establish the truth of what happened strengthen his legitimacy,
it would also give him a genuine mandate and a clear conscience. If it turns
out that it was the losing parties that connived to “hold the nation at ransom”
for those ten days, to quote Seodi White, Malawians need to know the losing
parties for what they are.
Fortunately or unfortunately for Mutharika,
Malawians have taken note of his pledge of accountability, and have already
started mobilising on how to hold his government to account. Siku Nkhoma, a
social activist and researcher, has developed a monitoring tool drawn from the
central tenets of the DPP manifesto. She has assembled a voluntary team of
experts who will periodically provide empirical evidence on how the DPP-led
government is doing in fulfilling or failing to fulfil its promises. The
evidence will be there for all to see.
One innovation that will be interesting to watch
is that of community colleges. Prof. Mutharika first talked about this idea
towards the end of 2010 when he was Minister of Education. Community colleges have transformed access to
higher education in the US.
They offer an affordable education to non-traditional students who dropped out
before finishing secondary school, or want to learn a new trade. They cost
about $2,500 per year, compared to $7,000 in a public university, and $26,000
in a private university. More than 40 percent of America’s higher education student
enrolment is in community colleges.
If properly contextualised and adapted to the
Malawian situation, community colleges could decisively end the severe
challenges of access to higher education. We have more than 4 million students
in primary schools, but at the secondary school level this number drastically
drops to less than 300,000. More than 3 million youths slip through the gaping
chasm between primary and secondary school in any given cycle. The total
enrolment in tertiary education, combining university, technical and vocational
colleges, is just above 10,000 but no more than 15,000.
More than 70 percent of Malawians do not have a
secondary school education, according to the Malawi Demographic and Health
Survey of 2010. As a matter of developing human capital, these numbers portray
a national disaster in the making. Lack of opportunities for education has led
many Malawians to view intelligence as innate, fixed and immutable, rather than
flexible and contingent on environment and opportunities.
And our policies have taken their cue from such
beliefs. Our public universities offer an automatic government scholarship to
all selected students regardless of whether the student has the need for a
scholarship or not. As a result, we have the highest per student expenditure in
all of Africa, at 2,000 percent the average in
the SADC region. Thankfully, MUST has pioneered a different approach.
If higher education is going to be of central
importance in the new administration, it must start with the seat of
is the only major capital city that I know of that does not have a public
university. Public lectures and academic symposia are held in expensive hotels
owing to the absence of a prominent university campus. The Lilongwe University
of Agriculture and Natural Resources does not have a presence in the city,
depriving policy-makers, government officials, civil society and the citizenry
at large an intellectual atmosphere to generate new knowledge and ideas.
While Malawi needs more universities as
the DPP manifesto promises, there is a need for whole universities that offer
the full gamut of intellectual discourse to include the sciences, the liberal
arts, and the social sciences. It does not make sense to have a university of
fish here, a university of rice there, a university of cotton at that other
place, as Prof. Thandika Mkandawire jokingly advised in a public lecture in 2013.
Professor Mkandawire is the one who gave us the
now famous line about what happens to some of Africa’s best intellectuals when
they enter politics. He had seen some of these leading intellectuals become,
wrote the professor, “unfathomable fools.” As a fellow internationally
recognised and leading intellectual in his field, Professor Mutharika will have
to work hard to dispel that damning spell.
Experience has taught us that all presidents
come in genuinely wanting to change things for the better. Then politics sets
in. Power changes people. But when the public takes up its duties and
responsibilities, perhaps it might be the end of “business as usual” as the President
himself has promised.
Labels: 20th May 2014, accountability, Blessings Chinsinga, Democratic Progressive Party, Garton Kamchedzera, Kizito Tenthani, Malawi, President Peter Mutharika, Seodi White, Thandika Mkandawire