Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Search for Power

The study of the story and history of power can be illuminating. What is power like and how do politicians use it?

On a warm May Monday afternoon in 2004, former president Bakili Muluzi witnessed the swearing-in of President Bingu wa Mutharika.

Parts of the country were witnessing violence in the aftermath of the elections because some people who considered themselves in majority, led by some members of the clergy, wanted Gwanda Chakuamba to win. Thus the victory of Mutharika was bad news, especially in Blantyre where a trigger-happy Police Mobile Service man killed a 10-year-old girl, Epiphania Bonjesi. The country was divided. It needed a uniting power.

At Chichiri Stadium, Muluzi spoke first. Typical of him, he was overjoyed, telling off opposition leaders to accept results because the clergy prayed to God, asking for a leader, and God answered by providing Mutharika.

Then Muluzi handed over power to Mutharika who, minutes earlier, had taken oath of office, ending with "So help me God."

Just then, a country that had one president, welcomed a President and a living ex-president. First President Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda died in 1997 and left Muluzi without an ex-president.

Even in 1994, Muluzi had an ex-president from a different party, one the UDF and its supporters opposed and pushed out of power.

It was reasonably easy for people, especially government departments, to understand that Kamuzu had lost power and Muluzi was at the State House. This was partly because Kamuzu understood that he was no longer in power; instead, someone else, Muluzi, was in control.

The 2004 case was different. Mutharika had an ex-president who had become his party’s national chairman and it did not take long for trouble to appear.

He handed over power to Mutharika but out of Chichiri Stadium, Muluzi rode with the new Mutharika in the presidential, open Land Rover which for UDF supporters was love: an ex-president taking a new President to State House. But for students of power, it was the ex-president’s failure to appreciate his new status, that his name had attained the prefix "ex".

Weeks later, Muluzi, as national chairperson of the UDF was on a journey to thank people for voting for Mutharika. The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) was in a dilemma, whether or not to cover him live. Who was in power?

Power, as was the case in Malawi, can be understood in terms of command and control. "It is either the capacity to make others do as you wish (the command function) or to reorder the environment around you (the control function)," says a scholar of power, Jon Meacham.

Muluzi’s clinging to power showed that he was doing the command type because even after the State House, he wanted to enjoy some visible privileges exclusive to a President.

The command and control concepts of power became extremes. Mutharika was trying to reorder the environment around him (Malawi). There was a difference in the two people’s pursuit of power. Muluzi’s pursuit of power was for domination while Mutharika, it seemed, wanted to use power to make possible a journey towards paradise.

Some thoughts, as a result, became true. Decades ago, Machiavelli wrote: "It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things."

It was difficult for Muluzi to carry out or initiate a new order of things after taking over from Kamuzu because such work requires leadership lessons which, it now appears in retrospect, Muluzi did not learn. He replaced the MCP Youth League with UDF’s Young Democrats who beat up people in full presence of a helpless Police.

Mutharika, on his part, attempted to do what Machiavelli called difficult and doubtful: change and initiate a new order of the state of affairs in Malawi.

Constructive evaluation of Mutharika and his DPP must consider the world in which he started his rule and formed his party. The DPP, in the thoughts of Machiavelli, is a party attempting to do what is "more difficult to carry out…more doubtful of success [and] more dangerous to handle", a point analysts miss.

This does not mean Mutharika is perfect. He is a visionary leader, good mostly, but with one strong weakness: he is running an administration without a reverse gear. It is a government that does not look back to reflect on what has gone wrong and take responsibility, a leader whose vocabulary does not contain the word "but" which in the study of power is a reverse gear.

The subsidised fertiliser programme cannot be 100 percent correct. Food security does not mean universal food availability of the staple. Reports show that some houses, and they are in thousands, do not have maize.

Information about hunger and scarcity of maize is everywhere yet this is one thing. It is another for Mutharika to accept reality and be proactive by defining hunger and famine, instead of reacting to shortage reports and refuting starvation.

He is failing to say "but", a reverse gear, to appreciate that the subsidised fertiliser programme and nature’s kindness that brings rains, but accept that some things went wrong somewhere and indeed hunger is biting hard some parts of the country.

Mutharika is yet to work on his communication strategy, which is largely a failure even in the presence of visible success. He fails to construct reality for people to accept.

Still, that May Monday afternoon, when Muluzi and Mutharika spoke at Chichiri Stadium, politician’s use of power for good or worse became visible.

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