Friday, December 19, 2008

Aleke Banda: His Seven Lessons of Leadership

The first time I spoke with Aleke Banda was in August, 2007. I called him from Chancellor College in Zomba and expressed my fears that not so much of our history is being written.

In a minute, he was telling me his worries, too, and he graciously did so, knowing pretty well that I meant that his history too is fading with time and may be reclaimed but never reconstructed which is what most people with historical concern worry about.

Aleke, as he is popularly known, has been in politics from 1953 at the age of 14. Months before presidential and parliamentary elections on May 19, 2009, I think there is much that Aleke can teach political leaders in Malawi and beyond, and of course, all of us. I have thought of what you are about to read as Aleke’s Rules of Leadership and they are assembled together from his speeches, leadership and life—which has been and continues to be a struggle to make Malawi a better place.

If this story makes you want to know more about Aleke, then wait a bit more because his biography, belated though, will come out someday, according to Aleke himself. My speculation is that it may come out next year.

No. 1

Childhood lessons matter

Aleke is a politician who has proved that leadership does not really depend on age. He started politics in 1953, at a tender age of 14, as secretary of the Kwe Kwe branch of the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) when the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was imposed by the British Government. How did such a boy handle a political job that needed competence and speed in communication?

"When asked who has inspired and influenced me in life I was ready with an answer," he says. "First and foremost Mr. James Mayendesa Dick Manyika and the Rev. Kenneth Maltus Smith, my headmasters at primary and secondary schools respectively."

The story is interesting. While in primary school, Mr Manyika asked Aleke’s parents for permission to live with the young boy. Here, recalls Aleke, he worked from dawn to early night—and remember that he was just a primary school boy! Mr Manyika gave Aleke a lot of work that people thought his father was careless by allowing the little boy suffer at the hands of his headmaster.

But in the course of that hard work and organised life, Aleke developed attributes that will never cease to amaze people who know his work ethic and love for decorum.

He remains a hard worker, people in every ministry he has headed say so. He was once Minister of Health and worked from 5 am to 9 pm in his office at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre where he spent days studying the ministry. "His work culture puzzled most of us," says Dr Lughano Kalongolera. "As students we learned a lot just by watching him from a distance."

Every ministry he has headed made a difference in his days. While Minister of Finance, Aleke introduced Cash Budget System. And finally in Agriculture, he started agricultural production investment programme (Apip), which was the starting point of bumper harvests after years of poor harvests.

It is this hard work culture that made Aleke a reasonably successful politician and businessman. He still commands a lot of respect which has almost doubled following his retirement in a country where politicians never retire.

"Working with Kamuzu was challenging and [an experience of] character building," says Aleke. "He taught me discipline, organisation, thoroughness and leadership. The whole experience broadened my vision, maturity and outlook."

All true. But Kamuzu worked with hundreds and some are lazy. The life of Aleke confirms that childhood lessons matter so much.

No. 2

Nothing replaces education

Aleke’s education life was just like of any other child of his time, yet different. He grew up in Zimbabwe where he started primary school and was fortunate to have a good headmaster who saw potential in him and taught him hard work, discipline and the love of books and also instilled in him leadership skills.

"When I went to Inyati, my secondary school, I was active in school activities and had the opportunity to develop myself in many ways. I was a prefect, secretary of the Debating Society, a Sunday school teacher, editor of the school magazine and secretary-general of the Southern Rhodesia African Students Association which I helped found," recalls Aleke.

But it is his story from prison that puts this rule in perspective. At Inyati, Aleke organised students from Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia into a political team disguised as the Bwafano (Unity) Photographic Club. Soon after the State of Emergency was declared in Nyasaland in March 1959, Aleke was detained at Khami Prison in Bulawayo. "I was the youngest detainee at 19 and the only student," he says.

Here, at Khami, he met men from Nyasaland; these were prominent Nyasas: Orton Chirwa, David Rubadiri, Willie Chokani, Augustine Bwanausi, Dr. Harry Bwanausi and Vincent Gondwe.

The men, as Rubadiri recalls, were in different rooms and knocking on walls was a means of communication. One night, there was a knock on Rubadiri’s door and he was surprised what message would come at such an odd hour, if at all prisons have odd hours. "Here is a young man, a student, for you," said a prison officer. "You are teachers, set up a school for him."

"That is how I prepared for my secondary school examinations [in prison not at home]," recalls Aleke.

Secondary school done, Aleke was deep into politics and did not go on for university education. In 1961, he accompanied Dr. Kamuzu Banda to Harvard University in the United States of America.

The professors at Harvard, including Prof. Robert Rotberg, offered Aleke a full scholarship to study any discipline of his choice "because they believed that I was suitable material for university education." But Dr Banda refused to let him go because the founding father and founder of Malawi felt that he could not afford to lose Aleke’s services at such a critical stage of nationalism.

"The scholarship was left open for me for four years but each time Dr. Banda would not release me. I, therefore, sacrificed my education in the interest of the liberation of our country," says Aleke.

The choice of the word sacrifice is not by accident. It means letting up something go, not out of will but for the sake of something else of equal importance. For Dr Banda, independence was important and he needed all the brilliant young people like Aleke. For Aleke, independence was crucial that, for the sake of the greater good of Malawi, he sacrificed his education which was also for the greater good of Malawi.

His use of the word sacrifice shows it was a question of time, not importance. If it were any other time apart from the climax of nationalism, Aleke would have gone to Harvard University to become, perhaps, the first Malawian to study there.

This feeling of sacrifice that haunts Aleke confirms his deeper conviction that education is all important and should only be missed for legitimate reasons. It is also important to note that rich as he is—Aleke is a multi-millionaire—he still misses university education, feeling it as an opportunity lost, the way the tongue feels space where a tooth has been removed.

No. 3

Every storm—no matter how strong—is temporary

After independence in 1964, Aleke rose steadily until the 1970s when he became almost Dr Banda’s number two.

The mistake was to be seen as such by people to the extent that in 1973, a Zambian newspaper, in Aleke’s words, "dared to report that I was a likely successor to Kamuzu." He was expelled from the party and sent to his home village in Tukombo, Nkhata Bay, where he spent a whole year out of circulation, to use media vocabulary.

But this was temporary because during the out-of-circulation period, he planned his future, hence he spent six years in business later. He was appointed to head Press Holdings Ltd, which has now grown into Press Corporation Ltd, the biggest conglomerate in Malawi.

These years of success were followed by detention without trial. He was at the usual suspected camp, Mikuyu. "Looking back," Aleke says, "I see how my training in early life served and saved me. At the time when I was arrested and put into detention, my conscience was clear. Having worked honestly and with integrity there was nothing negative that could be pinned on me."

The 12-and-a-half years in detention were a heavy storm but, as always, temporary. When Aleke got back his freedom, he rose again politically, becoming the first Finance Minister in the multiparty administration of Bakili Muluzi and going back into business, owning Nation Publications Limited (NPL) which has become the country’s number one print media house.

His success has now overshadowed the storms that could have drowned him. He is now a happy family man, a successful businessman and a retired politician.

"When asked about my attitude towards problems and adversaries I say that life is full of ups and downs and the character of a person is determined by his or her ability to survive in the face of adversity. I have been able to overcome all that has come my way because of the resilience developed over the years," he says.

No 4

Always aim high

How has Aleke been able to overcome storms in his life? And the storms seem to be in plenty. "My motto," he says, "comes from my early mentor, Mr Manyika: always aim high (AAH) and from a lesson that he taught me about humility and modesty."

This great teacher in Zimbabwe taught Aleke that the Zambezi River lies low, down in the valley, yet all rivers from the mountain flow into Zambezi making it the biggest among many.

Beyond the education from Mr Manyika, years in detention at Mikuyu and Mpyupyu strengthened his faith in God. The idea of sending people to detention was to break them, but Aleke took the attitude that there is God, and believed that no matter how long it takes, he would come out. "I never broke down, I never got despondent," he says.

"In those twelve-and-a-half-years, I got the opportunity to read the Bible thoroughly and to think about life," says Aleke. "It made me more resilient. The period was difficult but useful. With God’s grace, I came out of prison healthy—in spirit, mind and body. I came out with no bitterness."

He ended up joining the United Democratic Front (UDF) which he helped in its formative years, became its first vice president and once in government first Finance Minister after the 1994 general elections.

But the most visible AAH was his setting of NPL at a time the market was full of newspapers that had carved their place. Three people came together: Aleke Banda, his daughter Mbumba Achuthan and journalist Ken Lipenga and discussed the idea of a newspaper. Big things, as NPL confirms, start from ideas, not money. What we lack are ideas not money, because ideas bring money while money does not necessarily bring ideas.

Later, Lipenga brought in Alfred Ntonga from Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL). Achuthan roped in Billy Mphande, NPL’s Area Manager for the Centre who retired mid 2008. Alfred Ntaula joined the team. He was from The UDF news. Bertha Masiku, the MP for Blantyre City West was heading the Advertising Department. Mphande brought Masauko Chiomba, NPL’s former business manager for Mzuzu Bureau. Finally, a messenger was employed.

It was a team of seven people, excluding Aleke, of course, who became chair of NPL. Humble resources too: a family car, a typewriter, a computer, some furniture. Lipenga brought his personal computer. Just like that. And a journey started with the first step. Yet Aleke aimed high and hired the best editors: Lipenga, Ntonga, Jika Nkolokosa and Jonathan Kuntambira. If anyone doubts that names sell, the early years of NPL are evidence.

Now NPL is a giant employing over 200 people with about 50 university products. It is easy to forget that it was a small company of seven people. "NPL grew from an idea—a seed," recalls chief executive officer Achuthan. "An idea to come up with a paper that would disseminate truthful information at a time when information was a highly sought-after commodity."

Thus the genesis of NPL was like a small seed, a mustard seed perhaps, too small to make an impact on anything yet when it germinates, it grows big and offers shelter to people and animals. That was AAH at its best.

No. 5

Greatness is not fixed

There is a tendency—and a wrong one—in the media to classify political parties with some being called briefcase type, meaning they do not command large following.

Aleke was in UDF, a party that had majority support in Malawi. Here he grew and became a successful politician but one who lost in his constituency two times. Yet this was hidden by his success at national level until when Muluzi became a visible dictator. Aleke was once again in for rocky times with a President and had to re-develop a thick skin (yet again) to "weather all the ups and downs leading to my resignation in March, 2003."

The next step was that he joined PPM where he became party president. This is one of the parties journalists describe as the briefcase type. But Aleke has demonstrated that greatness is not fixed; his success was not fixed in UDF because he won Nkhata Bay South constituency on PPM ticket.

He was not in the Cabinet. He was not Leader of Opposition in Parliament as this position was for John Tembo, president of the Malawi Congress, a party that had majority in Parliament after the 2004 elections. Yet Aleke offered excellent contribution from the opposition benches at a time Parliament was rocked with trivia. During the most part of the budget talk in 2008, Aleke was in South Africa for treatment and people yearned for his sober voice when Parliament didn’t seem to make progress.

"If Aleke were here," said Devi Chitenje, "some of the stupid things would not have been happening in Parliament."

When he announced his retirement towards the end of this year, there was a lot of praise on him in the media. Greatness has followed Aleke everywhere. It is not static. Greatness is mobile.

No. 6

Appearances matter, substance too

Aleke, as all testify, is a smart man both in style and substance. He is the type that wakes up, takes a shower and puts on a suit and sit at home or do the day’s job.

He seems to understand that appearances matter. Of course, he is a Tonga and they are known for smartness. But I know some Tongas who are not as smart as Aleke. He is in a class of his own. He demonstrates that smartness of the body, the outward looks, represent the smartness of the mind. In the years I have followed his life, he has never appeared in public with unpleasant dressing, unshaven beard or uncombed hair.

But he also understands that substance matters. Aleke has been a man of substance everywhere. In Parliament, he was one of the few who were listened to with respect.

In fact, we can count people who command respect in Parliament: Louis Chimango, Goodall Gondwe and Aleke who has a rare kind of balance between style and substance which is what today’s politicians should learn.

No. 7

Quitting is leading too

In the history of Malawi, there have been only a handful of MPs who willingly stood down from office. Aleke is determined to set an example, a precedent for all to follow.

The Letters to the Editor that came after the retirement announcement were testimony that quitting is leading too. Honour does not come from being in office only, it also comes from leaving office at the best possible time. There are those who believe Aleke has not served this country to his best because he was supposed to be President of Malawi.

That is understandable. He, too, wanted to have influence from the presidency of vice presidency, hence he was Gwanda Chakuamba’s running mate in 2004.

But having failed to get the vice presidency because Chakuamba did not win, he served the country well by making meaningful contributions in Parliament. Now he has retired—and with honour. "I look forward to working on new projects, far away from hardcore politics, and [I] hope that I will have your support just like I have always had. I feel that after 50 solid years of public service, I have the experience to now put my hand to something different and give some of what I have been blessed with."

Ultimately, the key to understanding Aleke is the years he spent in prison. One question I wanted to ask Aleke was how different is the Aleke who started politics at 13 from the Aleke who retires at 69 after over 50 years in public service? But I need not ask the question because the answer is clear from his writings.

"In those twelve-and-a-half-years, I got the opportunity to read the Bible thoroughly and to think about life," says Aleke. "It made me more resilient. The period was difficult but useful. With God’s grace, I came out of prison healthy—in spirit, mind and body. I came out with no bitterness."

There is nothing so rare—or so valuable—for Malawi and the world, as a healthy person. Happy retirement Aleke.

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