The drama that engulfed Malawi’s electoral politics between May 2019 and June 2020 was largely catalyzed by the quest for change, not only by the politicians but also by the electorate. While many thought the change of government was an endpoint, the opposite has been true.
As Lazarus Chakwera, Malawi’s sixth president was clocking his first year in office in June 2021, the word ‘change’ was perhaps the loudest in his ears. His first 12 months in office has barely demonstrated the expected change and the electorates are slowly losing confidence in his leadership. He, however, still has an opportunity to turn around things.
It is important to highlight that the much-needed change in Malawi is two-pronged: what the people want and what Chakwera and his Tonse Alliance promised the voters. Rationally, I can argue that the campaign promises have overshadowed what the people wanted and now when they talk about their wants, they are talking about the campaign promises.
Thus, one can barely analyze Chakwera’s first year in office without focusing on the Tonse Alliance promises in general, and I shall tell you why shortly.
Interestingly, the list of the promises made towards the 2019 and 2020 elections is too long to reproduce in this short piece. For this reason, I will only focus on key ones. Nevertheless, before going deep into this, it is important to mention that we need to be considerate when holding Chakwera and his government accountable.
I say this because he walked into State House, not as an individual victor as has been the case with previous administrations, but as a representative of an alliance made up of nine political parties. It is the plain truth that Chakwera won with votes casts for his Malawi Congress Party (MCP), main alliance partner UTM, and seven other political parties in the alliance.
Thus, the voters of the nine political parties in the alliance that defeated the incumbent President Peter Mutharika and his Democratic Progress Party (DPP) expect their interests to be covered by his administration. What a tall order!
As argued earlier, of course, many Malawians wanted change, but the campaign promises added hope to the envisioned new future led by Chakwera. Putting everything in one basket, I would single out nine major promises that helped the Chakwera-led alliance to win the June 2020 elections.
These are the highly touted Hi-5 principle; infrastructure development, rule of law, fighting corruption, clearing the rubble, ending nepotism, promoting merit-based recruitment in government, reducing presidential powers, eradicating hunger, and creating one million jobs during the first year.
Sadly, when Chakwera appeared on the BBC flagship programme ‘Hard Talk’ hosted by Sarah Montague on July 28, 2021, he struggled to shine on his promises and prove to the world that he is one of Africa’s leaders to watch out for.
His recent political speeches at the funerals of presidents John Magufuli and Kenneth Kaunda sent a strong message to the world that there is a new leader in Africa with a different tongue and sense of the world. It was not surprising to see figures like celebrated Kenyan scholar, Prof Patrick Lumumba booking an appointment to meet Chakwera in Lilongwe in April this year.
They say all days are not Sundays, appearing on the BBC interview, Chakwera looked unprepared and struggled to give clear answers to pertinent and predictable questions. In some instances, he sounded too emotional and reactive. Of course, these are the common characters most interviewees expose in this programme may be because of how it’s structured.
Nepotism in government appointments
Interestingly, the issues haunting Chakwera today begun during the first days of his tenure when most Malawians were expecting to see real changes and an end to nepotism. His first 31-member cabinet which had family members and activists, most of whom were part of the struggle to defeat Mutharika, left Malawians wondering whether the change they anticipated was anywhere within.
About 70% of the cabinet members were appointed from one region with nine ministers coming from Lilongwe, a region and district where the president comes from. What shocked many was that Chakwera vehemently condemned Mutharika for appointing people from one region and he pledged to end this nepotistic culture in politics.
As if this was not enough, Chakwera also appointed his son-in-law Sean Kampondeni as his executive assistant and director of communications. Minister of Information Gospel Kazako revealed in a July 28, 2021, press statement that Chakwera’s daughter, Violet, was serving as the personal assistant to Chakwera’s wife, Monica. This was also not the first time Violet’s name made headlines in Malawi discourse. A few weeks ago, she was named one of the individuals headed for a diplomatic posting, but Chakwera dismissed this as not true in the BBC’s Hard Talk interview.
Fight against corruption
Another low point in Chakwera’s one year in office is the fight against corruption. Just a few months in power, his government was implicated in a corruption scandal. An audit report which he commissioned exposed that about US$7.95million intended for the country’s Covid-19 response was mismanaged with government officials pocketing hefty allowances, some for no work done.
When everyone thought the audit report would force Chakwera to commission another audit for the US$ 21.3 million allocated for the Covid-19 fight, the president has refused to corporate with anyone to conduct the audit. I would speculate that the president is avoiding another embarrassment.
Human rights situation
Respect for rule of law and human rights is another crucial promise made by Chakwera’s government. However, while his government has tried to popularize the rule of law rhetoric, it has performed badly in human rights issues. It continues to arrest people for petty issues including Facebook posts.
His government has also tried to block the right to protest. For instance, in April this year, he threatened the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) to suspend their strike for a Covid-19 allowance or else his government would stop collecting teachers’ contributions on its behalf.
TUM relies on these contributions for its operations and the government knew that making that decision would kill the union which is the only powerful voice for the teachers in Malawi. Later, the government took to parliament a Bill that limits the number of days workers can hold a strike to three days. The Bill also empowers employers not to pay staff who are on strike and the Bill is still in contestation.
The signature promise, however, is the creation of a million jobs in one year. During the BBC Hard Talk interview, the President failed to give convincing answers on how many jobs they have created in the first year in office. He argued that through the affordable Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), a transformative idea of the late President Bingu Wa Mutharika, his government created thousands of jobs for young people with 3.5 million people accessing the affordable farm inputs.”
However, this raises the question of whether the one million jobs can be achieved through temporary employment. Again, Fisp has been around, and it can be misleading to say all are new jobs. The right context is that there is a ‘top-up to seasonal jobs’. In Malawi, farming is a seasonal activity and Fisp is distributed once a year.
Chakwera also pointed out that his government is giving out loans to youths. However, his failure to give accurate figures on how many jobs each of these initiatives have created played him a disadvantage. Interestingly, he was able to say with precision that 600,000 jobs had been lost since Covid-19 hit the country.
It is evident that despite the lack of data, his government has failed to meet this promise. Unfortunately, in a country with a youthful population like Malawi, such a promise will haunt him until the next election in 2025.
The creation of new public universities and the mushrooming of private universities over the last decade has seen the country graduating hundreds of degree holders every year. Malawi’s civil service is one of the smallest in southern Africa and has failed to create new jobs and even fill the various vacancies in different ministries. With Covid-19 sitting on the economy, we can confidently expect less during Chakwera’s second year in office.
Reduced presidential powers
Chakwera has also contrasted himself by going against his own pledge to reduce the presidential powers. In his first year, he has not denounced (or institute legislation that will reduce) any of the powers given to him. He promised to detach himself from universities by allowing institutions to appoint chancellors, but as his first year was coming to an end, he had been installed as chancellor of various public universities and also presided over graduation ceremonies in that capacity.
He also promised to cut down the presidential motorcade. However, when the former president Mutharika joked against Chakwera’s visit to his private home in Mangochi by saying it was like ‘an invasion to his place’ because of the 45-people-motorcade, it sounded rude, but the ‘bad joke’ contextualized the issue that Chakwera is not living to promises.
Development of infrastructure
Malawians are also waiting to see new infrastructures across the country. In his one year in office, both Chakwera and his deputy Saulosi Chilima have only been busy touring developmental projects commissioned by his predecessor.
While this signals that Chakwera is yet to initiate his own projects, others have described this as developmental because other presidents have abandoned projects started by their predecessors. For instance, Joyce Banda abandoned the completion of the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) during her two years in power.
The wait for a functional and very efficient civil service as touted during the campaign period is ongoing. While many thought Chakwera would have an easy road to implement the needed reforms of the civil service because he is deputized by Chilima who has championed the initiative since his good days with former president Peter Mutharika, the opposite is true.
Chakwera is skeptical. There was hope when he tasked Chilima to come up with a report on improving the efficiency of the civil service, but it is now six months since the report was submitted in February 2021. The president has not said anything on the report, and everyone is wondering why.
How does Chakwera salvage his record?
Based on how Chakwera has started his term and performed in his first 12 months, it is evident that his eyes, ears, and mind were greeted by a strange reality he barely anticipated the day he walked into the State House. Unfortunately, he is slowly costing himself an opportunity to gain public trust by demonstrating to the world that he is afraid of making bold decisions. Although he has done well in some areas, the weaknesses are outweighing the strides.
A good leader should take risks, and this should be a priority during his second year. The US$ 21.3 million Covid-19 fund audit should not be delayed, the civil service efficiency report should be released to the public and implemented, the hiring of relatives no matter how qualified they are should be avoided for ethical reasons.
A clear roadmap for creating a million jobs should be revisited, publicized, and implemented. Serious development project ideas such as a dual-carriage road from Nsanje to Chitipa should be revived together with air and rail transport.
Malawi is still enrolling less than half of its qualified students into public universities and a signature university to his name cannot be more timely than now. He also needs to focus on managing the economy. The worsening inflation rate and the falling currency are signs of a sinking ship.
Certainly, Chakwera’s trip to take Malawi to the promised land of Canaan has begun, but whether he will succeed or not, is the question everyone will live with for now.
The writer is a lecturer at The University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Image Courtesy of State House, Malawi