Over the past two consecutive weekends, former Legal Counselor to the President of Malawi, Z Allan Ntata, published two articles with part 1 and part 2 through his weekly column in the Sunday Times, “Uncommon Sense.” The articles were entitled, “The Fall of Peter Mutharika and the End of DPP.” As usual, the articles were also published online through Maravi Post, and also Nyasa Times.
In the first article, published on 29th of October, Ntata talked about the political and governance challenges that have prevailed and marred the presidency of Peter Mutharika and put the DPP in danger of losing government in the 2019 Elections. In the second article, as he had promised, Ntata suggested solutions that President Mutharika and the DPP must consider to at least stand a chance of winning the elections.
Of the suggestions that Ntata gave for DPP to redeem itself from a very obvious defeat in less than 24 months ahead, was that DPP must consider replacing the ever growing unpopular Mutharika with another candidate. He also suggested disbanding cultural groups in order to discourage tribalism and nepotism that Mutharika and DPP have nursed to maturity since the time of Bingu.
I would like to share my views on both suggestions by the brilliant lawyer whom I like and respect a lot.
First, let me comment on the issue of tribalism, nepotism and cultural groups.
I agree with Ntata and everyone else that tribalism can be a bad thing, though I strongly hold that even by its definition, tribalism is not bad in itself. Of course, on the evil side, it is a hindrance to national unity, good governance and economic development of a country. In fact, it is because of tribalism that thousands of Kenyans have killed each other in the past and continue to kill each other today through post-election violence in a power struggle mainly between two rivalrous tribes of the Kikuyus and Luos.
It was tribalism that led to the historic ethnic violence in Burundi and the Genocide in Rwanda. It was some form of tribalism (racism) that led to the bloody apartheid in South Africa, and the list is endless including the Sudanese civil wars and the Darfur crisis. The evils of tribalism and other “isms” that are ethnocentric is not an African problem alone, as it is also a source of social and political conflicts in Asia, the USA and other parts of the world.
But on the positive side, there is a reason why tribalism and nepotism and the other ethnocentric “isms” refuse to die even after regrettable crises. It is because politics feeds on these “isms”. Overt tribalism and nepotism have endured in Malawi since independence especially since the 1964 Cabinet Crisis and throughout the 30 years of MCP and Dr Banda’s single-party dictatorship, until today. We would be expecting a little too much from our country if we expect that Malawi will quit tribalism and disband cultural groupings and festivals like Mlakho wa Alhomwe, the Chewa Heritage, Umtheto and similar groups.
Positively, cultural groups and their related festivals are inherently a good thing. They are a means to instill cultural values that define a people and make them understand themselves and pass on the values to their children. The cultural groups and festivals give a people a sense of identity, belonging and pride about themselves.
Cultural groups are also a means of uniting people of particular tribes together and giving them a platform to share ideas and even establish business connections to develop themselves. In this regard, tribal groupings are not only a means to socio-economic development but also a means of unifying people in diversity which is ultimate idea of democracy.
Politically, tribalism and tribal groups are an asset that every politician in Africa utilizes to consolidate power and establish political stronghold. Without tribalism, a political party cannot survive and a presidential candidate cannot win because every party and every candidate needs “loyal voters.” Tribalism helps politicians and parties to secure the loyal votes and only campaign mainly to secure the “swinging votes.”
Even in politics beyond Africa, tribalism and other ethnocentric “isms” are used by politicians to build political base and attract votes. Their campaign strategies and messages are among other aspects built around ethnicity because that’s where winning or losing elections is determined.
Even in the United States which is the largest democracy in the world, politicians and parties manipulate races to secure votes. For example, the racial card was played by Democrats in the case of Obama to secure votes from minority African Americans in 2008 and the same was used by Donald Trump last year to secure votes from the majority Whites. The only difference is how strategists want to play the racial card to their political advantage with regards to the stakes in that particular campaign.
Therefore, since tribalism and cultural groupings work for consolidation of political power, unity in diversity and socio-economic development, what should Malawians do to contain tribalism and cultural groupings to avoid extremities like ethnic violence, genocides and other governance malpractices?
The answer is to ensure that we have strong governance institutions and a political system that ensures that tentacles of tribalism do not spread into the government machinery with nepotism and cronyism. Such systems would ensure transparency and accountability, law and order, equal employment opportunities and equal distribution of government resources and development to all districts and regions.
Now, coming back to Mutharika and the DPP on the road to 2019, I agree that Mutharika must step aside and consult widely to find a potential successor.
This will not be an easy thing to do and leadership succession has a very bad precedence in our country. Mutharika has the advantage of being the unifying factor and major benefactor of the party, which is even the reason why DPP survived the death of Bingu wa Mutharika. If Mutharika steps aside, the party might break just like MCP, UDF, and PP which collapsed due to succession and leadership issues. DPP itself, already experienced such breakups early in 2010 whereby the endorsement of Peter by his brother brought factions in the party.
To mitigate the negative effects of endorsing a successor for 2019 Elections, Mutharika would need to weigh in his influence and financial muscle on the successor to ensure that top officials of the party contain their fear against the successor, and those that support Mutharika whether due to personal friendship or tribal and regional affiliation do not feel betrayed. This would also guarantee security of the loyal votes for DPP. And the candidate would get free and fair votes at the Convention.
If Mutharika steps aside, it does not mean that he failed as a leader. I personally sincerely feel that Mutharika has led Malawi well and he has given Malawians the best he could under the circumstances. I am sure, history will judge him well and be on his side. Yes, his leadership has had some challenges just like all leaders before him. But most of the challenges cannot be blamed on him because they have more to do with the private sector, the economy of Malawi, the politics of our country, mistakes of past leaders, and other factors that have nothing to do with Mutharika as a person or his leadership style.
But he must step aside because he shall be an easy candidate to attack and campaign against. The Opposition has more than enough ammunition to destroy Mutharika’s candidacy and convince Malawians not to vote for him. When fielding a presidential candidate, any party needs to make sure that the candidate is less vulnerable to attacks of opponents and he or she has the potential to get the swinging votes or attract the undecided voters.
Unfortunately, Mutharika might lose for DPP not only the undecided votes, but also a good number of loyal voters as well. And that’s not good for party politics.