Sunday, June 03, 2012

To Inspire a Nation in Reboot: Considering President Joyce Banda's Cabinet

Some Malawians have expressed surprise at the early criticism the new cabinet announced by President Joyce Banda on Thursday April 26th is already receiving. There are sections of Malawian society that have not hidden their great disappointment with the individuals chosen. The number of politicians who have been recycled from the last Mutharika cabinet, and from previous cabinets, is astounding. Out of 21 full ministers (minus the president and her VP), 14 ministers are making a comeback, seven of them from the last cabinet hired by the late Mutharika in September 2012 (Ken Lipenga, Ephrain Chiume, Peter Mwanza, Sidik Mia, John Bande, Daniel Liwimbi, Reen Kachere). 

Six are from recent previous cabinets (Ritchie Muheya, Ken Kandodo), but some of them go back to the Muluzi era before 2004 (Eunice Kazembe, Cassim Chilumpha, Henry Phoya, Uladi Mussa). Ken Lipenga has the distinction of being the only one surviving from Mutharika’s last cabinet, but also going back to the Muluzi era.

The staggering number of recycled ministers is raising the question as to what else these ministers can offer a Malawi that is envisaging itself as a nation in reboot mode. With the exception of a handful, the majority of them were unimpressive in their previous cabinet tenures, so what makes President Joyce Banda think that this time around they can perform? One possible explanation, something Amayi may have thought of, is that of experience. But another explanation could be something I have argued before: the president sets the limits and the atmosphere for ministers’ effectiveness. 

The president determines how vibrant and imaginative, or how dull and insignificant the cabinet can become. To date, none of the presidents the country has been blessed or cursed with, from Kamuzu Banda to Bakili Muluzi to Bingu wa Mutharika, seemed to give their cabinet ministers much leverage in terms of creativity and fresh thinking.

A recent case in point was when it became evident that the ongoing fuel crisis was becoming the norm. The Nation newspaper published a story on 10th June 2011 in which they quoted then Minister of Energy and Mining, Hon. Grain Malunga, telling Malawians to “get used to the fuel crisis.” A lot of people were angered by those remarks, seeing them as government giving up on a problem that needed an urgent solution. Some called for the minister’s resignation, or even firing. But some observed that it would not make a difference which minister was in the energy portfolio.

In August 2011 Mutharika dissolved his cabinet, and went for three weeks before announcing a new cabinet. Grain Malunga did not retain his portfolio, which instead went to Goodall Gondwe, highly regarded as having engineered Malawi’s record-breaking economic growth rates in Mutharika’s first term.
Nothing improved; if anything, things got worse and showed no signs of abating. As president, Mutharika made clear what his policies were, and left no room for individual ministers to articulate their own visions and strategies for how the country would solve the myriad problems Malawians were grappling with. 

Mutharika had set the limits on how his cabinet ministers would perform. It was the case with Muluzi, and Kamuzu before him. Will Amayi be the first president to break the mould and allow cabinet ministers to showcase their intellectual prowess and visionary acumen? Malawians will not take her word for it; they will judge her based on her deeds.

In their last cabinet assessment in February this year, The Sunday Times gave Madam Joyce Banda a 1 out of 10, the lowest score. The Sunday Times explained that having been expelled from the DPP, she was not performing any Vice Presidential duties, and should have resigned. That is water under the bridge now. 

What would be even more welcome from the Sunday Times would be not only a cabinet assessment after the first six months in office, but also detailed biographical profiles of each minister, as they commence their cabinet tenure. A few of them are well known personalities, but a great many of these ministers have never been profiled in the Malawian media, despite serving as cabinet ministers for several years now. The nation has no clue who they are, what their backgrounds are, what their visions for the country are, and what they hope to accomplish.

Watipaso Mkandawire has suggested on his blog that the ministers “sign a ‘contract’ with Malawians.” He writes: “Ministers should be accountable to Malawians and they should sign a pact that makes them accountable to Malawians. They should tell us what their Ministries will achieve (outcomes and not outputs).” He goes further to suggest that rather than the ubiquitous familiarization tours that ministers start with, they should undergo special training at the Malawi Institute of Management on what being a cabinet minister entails.

If I can add to Wati’s call, the training they undergo should be of high calibre and intellectual rigour, bringing them up to speed on what it means to provide leadership in the 21st century. They should be required to develop well-researched papers in which they outline what in their informed, considered opinion are the root causes of Malawi’s problems. They should identify the strengths and greatness of Malawi as a nation, and outline how they plan to overcome obstacles in pursuit of the “outcomes” Wati is calling for.  Even more important, they should act on those plans by inspiring Malawians and ensuring greater participation in the nation’s civic life.

It has been claimed in the print media that President Joyce Banda’s cabinet scores highly on “inclusivity” and “reconciliation”. This claim sounds strange as there has been little to no explanation as to the kinds of consultations that were made with the parties from whose ranks some of the ministers have been drawn. The DPP has claimed that they were not approached on having some of their members chosen as cabinet members. 

The UDF says it knew some of its members were going to be included in the cabinet, but no further details have been provided. Dr. Cassim Chilumpha has actually resigned from the UDF, and has joined the People’s Party, as has Henry Phoya, from the MCP. Uladi Mussa has dissolved his entire party and joined in with the People’s Party as well. People are asking what will become of Atupele Muluzi’s presidential ambitions, having accepted a crucial cabinet position. These ministers have been roped in as individuals, rather than as part of a broader agreement with their respective parties.

It may be an inclusive cabinet, but can it be said to promote reconciliation, when there has been no consultation with the party hierarchies? When there are fears that the opposition will be weakened beyond its current morbid state? Both inclusivity and reconciliation are virtues the country solely needs at this juncture. But it will be the capacity of the ministers to inspire the nation and instill a sense of pride in being Malawian, once and for all, that this cabinet should be most closely monitored for.