Independent journalist Violet Gonda speaks with former Malawi President Peter Mutharika on the Hot Seat programme. His party has a case before the courts, that could nullify last year’s elections – if he wins. Is Malawi able to withstand being in perpetual electoral mode? Does this case demonstrate a failure by political leaders to accept defeat?
Violet: Hello and welcome to the Hot Heat with me Violet Gonda. We are working on a leadership series on this platform in which we will invite leaders from government, civil society and the private sector who are dealing with contemporary life questions of economic development, political development, human rights and all kinds of issues that leaders deal with on a daily basis in Africa.
So my first guest in this series is His Excellency Peter Mutharika (HEM) the former President of Malawi. Professor Mutharika was President of Malawi from 2014 until recently in 2020. He currently has a case before the courts which, if he wins, this could nullify this last election. I would really like to give His Excellency a chance to reflect on his time in power with the lessons learnt and his views on African leadership. Interviewing a former president gives us the opportunity to understand the past, the present and the future, not just of Malawi but of leadership on the African continent. Welcome, President!
HEM: Thank you. I’m pleased to be here.
Violet: So let me start with this question: Do you have lessons that you reflect on in terms of how you rose to power and how you left power?
HEM: That’s a very very long story because I started politics when I was 13 years old. In fact at the time I was arrested demonstrating against plantation owners in Thyolo district tea growing areas. Secondly, when I was in secondary school during the State of Emergency I was the only student attending secondary school that was arrested in 1959, and then I went out of the country into exile in opposition to the dictatorship of Dr Hastings Banda who ruled the country for 31 years. So I spent most of my time in the United States of America where I taught at several universities but spent most of the time at the law school of Washington University. I came back to Malawi in 2007 to assist my brother who was the President then. I thought I would stay for only 1 year, I was his advisor but I stayed on because people asked me to run for parliament. So I did. I won and then became Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, then Minister of Education, Science and Technology then finally Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was when I was Minister of Foreign Affairs that my brother suddenly died. I then went into Opposition and was fired. A few months later I was arrested and charged with treason. I then got the nomination of my party in 2013 and in 2014 I ran for President and won my first election. The second one, five years later in 2019 I won also and that’s when that was nullified, I think you know the story. So 2020 it was nullified and then I’m in opposition now. I’m semi-retired now but I’m leading the former ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) until 2023 and then I’ll step down. So that’s pretty much my journey. It has been a long political journey.
Violet: At the time of leaving power you were voted out and there was a re-run as you said and you didn’t contest further although you had tried to fire the Chief Justice before the re-run but you finally gave up. Was this out of your magnanimity or it was because there was no other way out?
HEM: First of all we never tried to fire the Chief Justice at all. The Chief Justice had accumulated more than 6 months of leave days, and the practice is if you’ve accumulated so many days you are not paid but you go on leave pending retirement. Two former Chief Justices went on leave 6 months before their retirement so as to use up their holidays and 3 other judges. It happens all the time. It was a purely administrative decision by the Chief Secretary to ask the Chief Justice to go on leave so he could use up his leave days. He wasn’t fired at all.
Violet: So have you made peace with losing power because your critics in Malawi say you never actually conceded but that you just vanished. Was that the case?
HEM: (chuckles) That’s not true. I think when I was at Sanjika Palace two days after the election I did say at my last press conference as President that I wished the incumbent and my successor well. I did say that and that I would support him so it’s not true that I did not concede, no. On the issue of the election it was a very complicated matter. You probably have read in the newspapers and I’m sure you have read the article by one of the lawyers – Koni, a member of the Ghana bar and also of the British English bar that it was a very questionable decision by the courts. What happened was that we had the election and I was declared the winner. I had the largest number of votes over the other candidates, and we have in this country is first past the post. I got a significant percentage of votes, about 40%, that’s what I got in 2014, 2019 and 2020, and my successor got about 35% and the other one 20% so I was declared the winner. But the court decided two things: 1, that this time the majority must be 50 percent plus 1 which is not in the law. It has always been simple majority – the one with the largest number of votes is always declared the winner – the same as they do in the United States or United Kingdom. So that’s what happened.
Now there were two issues before the court: 1, that the election was rigged and 2, that there were irregularities. The court concluded that 1, the election was not rigged and 2, that there were some irregularities, as happens in every election elsewhere but that the irregularities do not affect the outcome of the election. In spite of that, they went ahead and declared and nullified the election. It was very strange and a lot of lawyers like Koni wrote in papers challenging the decision of the court. I decided not to go to the African court because I thought the country had gone through one year of violent demonstrations and it was better for me to leave the scene and let somebody else take over. So that’s what happened. I left peacefully and it’s not true that I did not concede the election. I did, in fact, congratulate my successor at a press conference on June 25th at Sanjika Palace – that I wished him well and that I was leaving happily, coming here to my retirement home by the lake. And that’s the story. So it’s not true that I did not concede. I did, in fact.
Violet: So related to this issue what is this case before the courts then because reports say if you win it could nullify the last elections? What is this about and are you keen to bounce back if this is the case?
HEM: This case is about the composition of the Election Commission, that they were supposed to have a minimum of six members for the commission and apparently they were only four (inaudible) …therefore it was not possible to declare Mr. Chakwera the winner and therefore should be nullified and go back to the status quo ante of 2019. Now you asked me if I’m keen? Not necessarily. You know I was elected for a 5 year term, 2019 – 2024, I served only one year into my second term and there was the nullification. So if it should be nullified this time and I’m asked to go back to complete my term I will be glad to do so and serve my country, and then I’ll retire after that.
Violet: Your critics fear that this case will result in another long and costly legal battle. Can Malawi afford this?
HEM: Well, law is always very expensive but the reality is that in a democracy, democracy is very expensive, these things happen and obviously it will be long and costly but we will have to deal with it because we have to follow the law and the constitution. If they conclude that, according to the constitution, my successor was not properly elected then we need to go on with the process until it is concluded. It will be expensive, yes, but democracy is always expensive and we have to be willing to pay for it.
Violet: But doesn’t this demonstrate the failure by political leaders to accept electoral defeat?
HEM: Not necessarily. I think it’s the decision of political leaders to uphold the law. The law must be followed. I think the law must be above politics and therefore if the law has been violated then it must be corrected. Don’t you think so?
Violet: Well I think I can respond to your question with a question in the sense that many believe that once leaders taste power they do not want to let go, and you are part of a dynasty, as you said your brother Bingu wa Mutharika was the president, he died and you took over after the struggle with President Joyce Banda. So what are your views on dominant families in Africa that believe that the state belongs to them?
HEM: No it’s not true, they certainly don’t believe that the state belongs to them and it happens elsewhere, even in your own country the United Kingdom where you find members of the same family have been in politics or prime ministers. In the United States you have the Bushes for example, father and son succeeding each other, South Korea and Canada the Trudors, all sorts of places it happens, North Korea. It happens elsewhere. It’s name recognition. I think what happens is if a family is in politics then it has name recognition so if a member of that family starts with an advantage in terms of politics because people are familiar with the name and then they get elected. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, after all, that people decide to vote for whether it’s Bush, or Mutharika, or Trudor or if it’s somebody else, they decide to vote for that person. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad. I think it’s a question of service and some families want to serve and that’s what happened in this particular case. I left a very senior, lucrative endowed professorship at one of the top universities in America. I left one of the best professorships because I wanted to come here and serve this country. It was service, that’s all, nothing else.
Violet: …given the examples that you’ve just given, some will say just because it happens in other countries doesn’t necessarily mean it should happen in your country. I’m from Zimbabwe, by the way, although I live in the UK, but I get your point. Do you have a reflection on peaceful transitions and peaceful transfer of power?
HEM: Yah. I think I’m ours is a good example. Malawi is a good example. I think it was quite peaceful transition… there was no violence and it has continued that way from the time of Kamuzu Banda, there was a peaceful transition to Bakili Muluzi, then from there to Bingu wa Mutharika, then from there to Joyce Banda to myself then Lazarus Chakwera. It has been a peaceful transfer of power and that’s the way it should be.
Violet: So what could you have done differently then, to avoid an election loss?
HEM: We didn’t lose the election. We lost the government which is a very different matter. There is no way we could have won the election when the court decided that they are going to change the rules of the game in the middle and say now the majority means 50 plus 1 rather than simple majority. Once they did that it was obvious that I could not win because I got the same percent of votes in 2014, 2019 and 2020 so there is nothing I could have done. And then of course there was another element that 9 political parties joined into an alliance against my party and therefore it was very difficult. So together they were able to get 51% against my 40% so that’s what happened. I don’t think there is much I could have done to really change the situation. It was the way the thing was structured that it was impossible for us to win.
Violet: So if you win this case what are the chances of a coalition government being formed in Malawi? Do you think that’s where Malawi is heading next?
HEM: I think so. I think in a way it is because with the 50 plus 1, because apparently that’s the new law now, it’s going to be extremely difficult for any party to get 50 plus 1 alone and therefore it is going to be coalition. Now the present president was able to get 51% because he went into a coalition with Dr Saulos Chilima of United Transformation Movement (UTM) .So together they got 51%. He got 32-33%, Chilima got 20% and I got 40% so the 2 of them together combined they got 51%. So you are right, from now onwards it is going to be extremely difficult for one party to win alone. I think we are moving to an era of coalitions. It will have to be regional. Our political parties are regionally based. My party is mostly in the south and east, then my Malawi Congress Party is in the centre, and the other parties in the north. The parties are clearly regionally based so it will have to be 2 regions or 3 combined in order to get 50 plus 1 or 51% so we are moving towards coalition governments, I think for a long time in the future.
Violet: What does this mean for democracy and also is this what the people of Malawi want?
HEM: Well for democracy I think that’s fine because if 2 parties win and combine, they would have been elected, it reflects the will of the people, that will be fine. For democracy it will be alright because we will end up with a series of coalitions in government. We see it happening in Germany and to see extent in Canada. That happens in countries where no single party is dominant in the whole country that you end up with these kinds of coalitions, and we are ready for that. My party is ready to operate under the new conditions that have been set by the courts.
Violet: Talking about your party, how is it actually faring? Are you grooming a successor because you said you hope to retire in a couple of years time?
HEM: No I’m not because this is a democracy and not a monarchy. If I try to groom somebody I’ll be accused of creating a monarchy or a dynasty or whatever. So there are a number of candidates, so far they are about 4 or 5. The current candidates are ready for the convention in 2023. I think they are probably more and whoever emerges legitimately I will support that person. But I think it would be wrong for me to pick somebody because that would not be democratic, in my view. At the moment I have no preference. It’s an open field. I have told all the candidates that they are free to compete, go to the people, and whoever wins, I’ll support that person.
Violet: Let’s talk a bit about your domestic policy when you were President. First of all I just wanted to touch on the issue of corruption. There are cases of corruption that have been levelled against you and some of your previous staff members. What are your views on these cases?
HEM: No cases of corruption have been levelled against me. I think what happened was some of my assistants working with traders ordered 1.4 million bags of cement and used my tax-free privileges to import that cement without my knowledge. I did not know anything about it, and that’s what happened. So it’s not a corruption, it’s more of a tax evasion, and evasion of duty and the 3 individuals have been indicted and I have not been indicted. So I have not been accused of any corruption. It’s simply that my tax-free number was used without my knowledge, apparently, by these individuals, including a businessman, to import 1.4 million bags of cement, which is a huge amount of cement.
Violet: How could a whole President not know that this was happening because this happened under your watch?
HEM: It’s obvious. The Presidency is a big office. You do so many things and you delegate. There is no way you can know what your assistant is doing next door, even in the same office. There is no way I can know what all my assistants are doing because these jobs are delegated. Now the question of, for example, applying for a tax exemption, is not something that a President does. It’s done by people in the office, the finance people. Those are the people who were doing this. There is no way I could have known what was going on, that we are importing this and that and use my tax-free status. There is no way I could have known, it’s not possible.
Violet: So what do you see as your legacy in Malawi?
HEM: Well I think I can say a number of things. First of all, I was able to stabilise the economy. You have heard of ‘Cashgate’ under President Banda – when the economy was completely destroyed because money was stolen by civil servants and other suppliers from the government. When I got in, the donors had left. The donors were providing 40% of the budget and they had left. I was the first President to operate without donor budget support. We struggled but we were able to stabilise the economy, reduce inflation from 30% to about 6 or 8%, reduce interest rates from about 40% to 18%, and also improve the exchange rate and the economy began to grow at about 5%, so I stabilised the economy. That’s one.
Secondly I tried to enforce democracy. No single person was arrested for political reasons and no single journalist was imprisoned and I’m very very proud of that. And of course I’m also very proud that I brought in skills training. By the time I left I had built close to 20 community technical colleges where young people who had no jobs were trained in carpentry, welding, brick laying, computer technology, tailoring, and so forth in the service skills area and most of them now have their own businesses and are self-sufficient. I’m very very proud of that.
And finally the infrastructure. I did extensive infrastructure – roads, railway lines and so forth without which no country can develop. Connecting rural areas to the towns so people can bring their produce from the rural areas to the cities. I did that. So I’m very proud of what we did during the 6 years. I had planned to do much more. I had planned to change this country if I had completed my term but of course I did not. But I think that will be my legacy – democracy, peace, economic development and economic stability. That’s my legacy and I think everyone in Malawi would agree that I did have those achievements and I think they were very remarkable.
Violet: Amnesty International says one of the things that happened during your tenure is that Malawi saw a spike in the killings, abductions and cases of discrimination of persons with albinism and there was a struggle to contain this violence. So when you look at all this, how did you tackle your social policy and could you have done anything more?
HEM: It was a very bizarre situation, the whole albino thing. I started by sending the Inspector General of the Police and others – I sent them to Tanzania and also to Rwanda, to learn how the problem was managed in Tanzania but also in Rwanda, and they came back and we started a policy of protecting albino people in groups. And then I also appointed a commission on albinism which reportedly found the causes of albinism. And what happens where there is, for example, a market somewhere for albino bones or parts are marketed, they found no market. We introduced new laws and stiffer sentences for people found with bones or people accused of attacking people with albinism, or people desecrating graves of people with albinism. We did that and a lot of people were arrested, some were imprisoned, and the problem still continues, and in some cases it’s even getting worse. We’ve had 2 very gruesome cases about a month ago. So it’s a very very difficult situation. It’s difficult to understand how anybody could think that by having bones of someone with albinism somehow they will become rich. I think it’s stupid and inhumane but we tried to fight it, and I know the present government continues to try and find ways of dealing with this. We tried to build secure houses for people with albinism. We tried to do that and tried to move them into secure neighbourhoods in the urban areas. We did all sorts of things but the problem still continues. It stopped a little bit half way through my tenure in 2018-2019, it had pretty much gone down but it started again this past year. We really don’t know what the cause is and how to really stop it but we continue to protect them and I’m sure the present government will continue with my policy of building houses, protecting them, giving them equipment so that they can protect themselves and all sorts of things but it’s an extremely difficult issue – not only here but in other countries. It’s not only in Malawi but it’s also neighbouring countries, they have the same problem.
Violet: It is a serious regional problem in Southern Africa and as you said indeed laws were passed to block the sale of body parts of persons with albinism and there was a national plan of action to tackle the root causes of discrimination. But it was during your tenure that there were cases of Mark Masambuka involving the police, and a case involving one of your cabinet ministers or advisors and some of these cases, your critics say, have never been concluded which then goes to show a number of cases of criminal justice failings and social protection failings during your time – as some believe that you failed to contain the cross border crimes which led to the marketing of people with albinism. What are your thoughts on this?
HEM: First of all, I think the allegations against one of my advisors are completely false. This gentleman whom in fact I appointed to chair the committee had been my domestic advisor on communal albinism and this was an allegation made by political opponents that people were involved in taking bodies of albinos, put them in a machine and then money would come out, this is complete nonsense and these allegations are completely false. The commission found no such a thing. The commission chaired by a retired judge of the Supreme Court found that these were totally false allegations. They were political and malicious and had no basis whatsoever. So that one you can dismiss. But coming back to the issue, how do you stop it and how do you control the borders? It’s extremely difficult. We have porous borders, we are surrounded by 3 countries as you know, it’s very difficult to prevent people from coming in or getting out of the country, it’s extremely difficult. So I suppose this will continue because apparently some of the bones and body parts are taken to countries outside of Malawi, apparently that’s where the market is. I’m sure the leaders in those countries have actually not found a market. So nobody knows what this whole thing is. I think the idea that traditional healers convince somebody that if you have albino body parts you become rich is so nonsensical. They themselves are not even rich, the people who encourage this kind of terrible behaviour. So it’s something that’s very sad that’s why I’m urging Malawians not to politicise this tragic situation. Because to politicise it is just not right, it’s wrong. It’s a tragic situation and the thing to do is to educate people that you cannot get bones of albino people, dry them in a machine and money will come out of it. It’s the most stupid thing that anybody can do but there are people who believe that and the thing is how to get rid of that ignorance. I think it is the role of education and if we could convince people that nobody has ever gotten rich by having albino parts then this kind of foolishness can stop because it is certainly and properly foolish and based on ignorance really.
Violet: So what are you views now on the state of Malawi and the performance of the incumbent President Chakwera so far:
HEM: So far, as I said before, it’s now one year and there’s not much he has done so it’s very difficult for me to judge him. At the moment he has inspected a number of road projects that I started and that’s all. So I cannot judge him because there is not much he has done so far but with time I will probably be able to find something he has been able to do that I can judge him on. But at the moment I don’t have anything to judge him on because there is nothing he has yet done in one year.
Violet: Is there anything in particular that you think he should have at least done by now in his first year?
HEM: Well, he promised 1 million jobs, he should have at least done that. You saw him on HardTalk that program on BBC. He promised 1 million jobs and that has not happened and all the things that he promised, employment and others, so far have not happened yet. The economy continues to get worse and worse, people are complaining everywhere and some of the things he promised such as to reduce the cost of fertiliser input programmes actually have gone up. So those are some of the things that he should have done that he promised through the campaign and so far he has not been able to do them yet. But I’m sure with time he will be able to do so.
Violet: We are in the middle of a pandemic. Vaccinations have been one of the biggest crisis points. Reports say more than 55% have been immunised in the global north but only 1% vaccinated in the global south. Any lessons for countries like Malawi on how they are tackling Covid 19?
HEM: It’s an economic problem; health, but also a leadership problem. First of all we need leadership at a national level and at local level. We need traditional leaders and leaders of the faith community all working together with programmes. People should understand the health implications and the economic implications of this. Proper testing – we don’t have enough testing. Most of our people, 90% of our people live in rural areas where there is not much testing so when we do the statistics they are based mostly on people in urban areas so it’s very hard to know the extent of the infection, the extent of death and also the extent of cure, the number of people who have recovered. It will take a whole lot of things, of course, you correctly mentioned like vaccination. At the moment we are depending on donations from the north – Europe, Britain and the United States and to some extent China and India. I saw somewhere that there is an arrangement for Africa to start producing its own vaccine. If we can do that it would help but it’s a real challenge because it’s also an economic problem. And the presence of Covid19 in our vulnerable economies has had a devastating effect on an economy like Malawi where many people lost jobs, factories have closed and so on and so forth. So it is a difficult problem but I’m hoping that as the government has said, by this time next year they are hoping to have vaccinated 60%. I hope that’s achievable. The question is really if we’ll be able to get that amount of vaccine to vaccinate 60% of the population, we don’t know. Like I said, it is a challenge, facing everybody, it crosses boundaries, it sees no national boundaries or barriers, it’s affecting everybody and a collective action must be encouraged. So we appreciate the Covax facility, for example, that has been done but it’s not enough. We are getting some donations (inaudible) President Biden has said the USA will provide billions in vaccines. That’s commendable and that will help. And some other countries such as China and maybe also India help us here and there but in the end we have to find a way of developing our own vaccines so that we are not dependent on donations.
Violet: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you. What does this mean about leadership in Africa where we are relying on donations when we have the resources and we have the expertise so why haven’t we produced our own?
HEM: Exactly, I was watching the gentleman who is the head of the African Centre for Disease Control, Dr Nkengasong from Cameroon, I understand he’s just been appointed now to be Biden’s Chief Aide, I’ve seen him on Focus on Africa and I was very impressed by what he is saying. He is saying, basically, that we need to develop a vaccine from our own centre, collectively, pool our resources together and establish in two or three of our countries centres where we can start manufacturing our own vaccine. I think that’s the answer. I think we can manage to find resources, if we use our resources properly, we get proper prices for our commodities including minerals and others, we can earn enough income to finance our own production facilities. And that’s where we should be going. I was very impressed by what he said and I think the African Union is also talking about that, which I think is very commendable and that is the direction we need to be going but we need to move fast. We keep on talking and talking forever. We need to take action now, find resources and be in manufacturing as soon as possible. Avoid that tendency we have of talking and talking forever. I think this time we need to act.
Violet: Definitely, there are so many talk shops in Africa while people are dying, they are waiting to see action and there’s not much that people are seeing in terms of relief. And one of the challenges facing the SADC region, especially, is the disappointment citizens have in the regional economic community, especially it’s inability to provide transformative leadership that deals with social, economic, political conditions of the region – from wars, to poverty, migration, corruption, and all these challenges we have seen in Southern Africa. Look at Mozambique, for example, SADC intervened much later after Rwanda had already gone in there to help restore peace. And so my question to you is what is wrong with the regional integration model of SADC which seems to be an integration of heads of states as a ‘club of dictators’ rather than an integration of people through solidarity and harmonising economies and socio- cultural richness that this region has? What can you say about this?
HEM: No, I don’t agree with you that SADC is a club of dictators. I think most of the leaders now in SADC now are quite democratic. I think you will agree that most of the leaders in SADC are there through fair elections. So I don’t agree with that. But having said that, you are right in a bid to integrate our economies. It’s a very difficult thing. The trouble is when you integrate an economy, for example you also need to lower customs duties and tariffs and for most countries like Malawi tariffs and custom duties are the major source of revenue, as opposed to income tax, domestic tax. We don’t have enough industries that are capable of paying taxes. So the problem is we want a common market that means zero duties that means you lose out on income. This is what I was saying at a panel in London at the UK-Africa Conference Summit – where I said it’s fine to have an African common market and I support it, it’s great, but for you to use that economy you must have something to sell to that market. If you have nothing to sell then the market is useless. So the key there is production, industrialisation first in our countries. Once we industrialise and start producing goods then we can begin exporting to external markets. But without production, without goods to export then integration doesn’t help you that much. So I think that’s the problem we have now, that there is minimal trade within COMESA, within SADC and now within the African common market. It is so because we are not industrialised, we are not producing things. We should become producing and exporting countries instead of being consuming and importing countries. We need to do that. So when you go to the basics we need to industrialise, once we do that then we can talk about regional integration that will be meaningful, otherwise it will be completely meaningless.
Violet: You say you disagree with that description about SADC that it’s a club of dictators or they have this brotherhood mentality as ruling parties in this region – but some in the opposition and civil society in the region will disagree with you because they say, for example, the SADC organ on Defence, Politics and Security is always accused of only meeting with ruling parties in many of the countries in the region. So wouldn’t you say that there is an unfair practice that we see with the SADC heads of states?
HEM: I’m not quite clear, I want to understand. You mean in terms of what? You mentioned civil society and opposition parties.
Violet: For example in a country like Zimbabwe whenever there is a conflict and the regional body intervenes – the opposition and civil society always complain that they are never involved in the discussions in terms of trying to deal with the issues that affect a country like Zimbabwe so this is why many people have no faith in the regional body.
HEM: That’s a good point. We need in fact to bring into discussions oppositions and civil society. The trouble we have with some of the civil societies is that they see themselves as enemies of the government and the government sees them as enemies. And governing parties see oppositions as enemies and vice versa. So you see each other not as opponents but as enemies preventing dialogue between political parties which is a real problem in the region. Opposition parties need to understand that they are also part of the governance of the country, and civil societies also should understand that, and governments need to understand that we need to give room to each other but we have become too confrontational and I think that’s the problem. You find a lot of conflict between government and opposition parties, real conflict. You saw what happened here with those violent demonstrations for a year. It was civil society and the two opposition parties who are now in government engaging in violent demonstrations all over the country, destruction of property and so forth, just because they said the chairperson of the Electoral Commission should resign. It was totally unfounded. I found she was a very competent person. She has worked as my Attorney General when I was Minister of Justice and I know she was very competent, she did not mess up the election so I refused to dismiss her. And we had those violent demonstrations in the country, regions completely destroyed, people killed, wounded and so forth. That’s the problem, that’s the attitude we have in this country with opposition parties and civil society and that kind of mindset has got to change.
Violet: Don’t you think this change of mindset should happen both ways, not only civil society and opposition but also the mindset of the ruling parties, the leaders because you find that if they [ruling party leaders] allowed themselves to also hear opinions of the opposition or civil society or just talk to the other side maybe that would help diffuse tensions. So with this in mind, now that you are no longer in government and are looking at issues from outside, do you have any reflections that you can tell your colleagues whether in the SADC region or those in your country in terms of lessons learnt when you were in power or things that you see now that you are outside?
HEM: In our context the opposition and the civil society behaved very irresponsibly. It was impossible to talk to them. We tried to talk to them and various diplomatic missions tried to bring us together and it did not work. So we were not able to talk to them because they were so bent on removing the government that they did not want to have any kind of dialogue with us. So as I reflect on it, in future what we need to do is to talk to each other and not at each other. So I think that’s what happened in this country, the demonstrations, the cases, and all the other things that had no basis that happened in this country. I think both sides must mature and change their mindset but the opposition should not see the government as oppressors and the government must not see the opposition as rebels but as colleagues who are trying to work together to govern the country. We are learning in Africa. The tendency in this country of persecuting former leaders is also something that happens elsewhere. I tried to stop this in the case of former President Joyce Banda. I decided that in spite of people trying to get me to persecute her, I decided I was not going to do it because I wanted to stop this kind of tradition. Now as you have heard they have already started persecuting me. That’s political immaturity that we need to grow from and move on as mature leaders and mature institutions. We are not there yet but we have somewhere to go.
Violet: What are your thoughts on the recent election in Zambia?
HEM: That was very interesting, in a way almost like Malawi though. It’s very very similar. President Lungu served for 6 years, I served for 6 years. It’s very similar to what happened in this country that the opposition came in and made promises about jobs and so forth and that appealed to the unemployed youth and they made the same promise of jobs like the opposition here made, and of course here they are not able to fulfill this. I hope the new President will be able to fulfill these promises because I think that’s the main reason the youth, in huge numbers voted for him because he promised them that their lives would improve through job creation. So it was a very interesting election almost like the election in this country.
Violet: How have you found life outside of the presidency and is there anything you would do differently given a second chance?
HEM: It’s very exciting outside. I’m doing a lot of reading, writing, and research. As you know, I spent about 40 years teaching at various universities in Africa, Europe and the United States. So I’m doing a lot of reading, writing, and reflecting on my story. There are a number of things I want to talk about governance in Africa using Malawi as a case study so I’ll work on that and work on what I collected from my speeches that I’ve made over the years. So I’m quite busy.
And no, I would not do anything differently at all. I think we were on the right path in terms of the policies we introduced in this country both economic, infrastructure, skills training and stabilising the economy. If I were to do it again I would do it exactly the way I did it because I think we were on the right path and the new government is following every policy that I left. They are continuing with it which means that they were solid policies for this country.
Violet: If you were to reflect on the theme of leadership for the continent what would be your theme? What are your major lessons on transformational leadership and do you see a place for young people in politics today?
HEM: Oh yes indeed. Let me answer the second one first. There is a lot of room for young people. In my cabinet over 50% of the ministers were 40 years old or under. Some key positions like health, foreign affairs and education are held by young people so there is a lot of room for them both in the government and in the party. Yesterday we had a meeting of the Central Committee of the party and one of the things we were talking about was to increase women and the youth in various governance positions in the party.
Now on the question of leadership transformation, each country is different so I cannot give a broad picture for the whole of Africa. Each country has its own history and its own problems. It is difficult to be a leader in Africa because of limited resources, it’s very hard to satisfy people because people are expecting the government to deliver but you have limited resources. You have got to decide whether the little cake that you have should go to health and education, and if you do that maybe you deny the security services or another section of government. So that makes it extremely difficult to meet the expectations of the people because of resource challenges. Another issue is of course to improve the lives of the people, get people out of poverty, and to balance poverty reduction and growth is extremely difficult when you are operating in a situation where you have limited resources. We need more education. Literacy rate is about 60%, we need more skills education so that we have artisans and technical people who are really key in any society if it’s to develop. So those are things if you do will begin to transform Africa. I think we are beginning to do so slowly and the present government has continued every one of my initiatives as well as skills training education, infrastructure, foreign investment and that’s commendable and I think that’s the way to go.
Violet: You say limited resources but some would disagree that that is one of the problems that we face in Africa because we have a wealth of resources and so people will say it’s a leadership crisis; corruption; and also making bad decisions such as selling resources or allowing foreigners to exploit Africa’s resources and some say it’s like another ‘scramble for Africa’ this time including China – that some leaders are not really doing good business with the Chinese. What are your thoughts on this?
HEM: You are right that we have lots of resources, both human and physical resources. The question is how to translate these resources into capital and that’s where the problem is, how to create wealth. With respect to foreign investment I’m aware of what is being said about China. It has always been that way, people have always complained about foreign investments because foreign investors are coming in to make money. They are not charitable organizations. Governments must balance that, we must make sure that the country gets enough from the investments in terms of taxes or whatever – you structure it. And that’s where we have failed in Africa, that we are not able to negotiate proper deals especially in the mining area, exploitation of oil and so forth. That’s why we have some oil producing countries among the poorest in Africa because they have not been able to structure agreements that benefit them. So that’s an area that we need to address and if we do that foreign investment can complement us because almost every country that has developed in the world developed because of foreign investments. Investments from the United States, Britain, Netherlands, China, India etc, has benefitted from foreign investments but you must do it properly so that that investment is not exploiting the country, and that the local economy is benefitting. That’s where the challenge is.
Violet: People listening to you will be asking what went wrong then. Why were you not able to do some of these things that you are saying should be done, especially in your country and also in Africa, whether the dealings with other countries like China or even the use of our own natural resources? How would you respond to that?
HEM: In the 6 years that I was in power we did quite a lot in terms of foreign investment. We brought investment into key sectors of the economy like agriculture, rural development, and infrastructure. Obviously we had a long way to go. We came up with a master transportation plan and also a vision 2063 and for the first time we created a national planning commission which is projecting us to 2063 in line with the Africa we want. We did those things in 6 years, and there were a lot of other things I wanted to do with the remaining 4 years of the presidency but of course I never got an opportunity to do that. But we did a lot and I think the country is moving in the right direction.
Violet: And that’s all we have on this episode of this series with me your host Violet Gonda. We hope to encourage better understanding of the challenges being faced on the continent and sensitising communities and international stakeholders. Thank you President Peter Mutharika, for talking to us on the programme Hot Seat.