TO UNDERSTAND the crisis of public leadership in Malawi, you have to look no further than Grace ‘Obama’ Chiumia, a cabinet minister whose open mouth and shut mind perfectly encapsulate the malaise afflicting Malawi.
In July 2014, the month of our golden jubilee as a nation, this minister urged young sports persons in the country to adopt the names of world-famous superstars as a way of bringing sporting success to Malawi. In the same breath, she mentioned that her adoption of US president, Barack Hussein Obama’s surname had brought her much success in politics. She equated herself to the real Obama!
“If you adopt names of famous tennis players such as Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, you will succeed in this particular sport discipline just like them. Try it!” she advised, with no sense of irony or shame at all.
And, just when one thought Chiumia could not get any dumber, outdo herself and sink even lower to reveal just how much of an airhead she is, another bombshell was dropped this past week with her invoking Malawi’s painful past of the life presidency.
When I wrote about minister Chiumia’s very unfortunate remarks in 2014, I stated how president Peter Mutharika had failed to warn us that in sticking to his campaign promise of a lean cabinet, the same would also be lean on intellectual prowess, as evidenced by the likes of the sports and culture minister.
This is someone who clearly thinks that things can just happen in Malawi without effort or some kind of diligence. She thinks our sports environment can transform if only those involved can change their names. She thinks its ok to invoke a painful history and introduce a sitting president as life president. Further, she also thinks issuing a half-hearted apology can undo the damage caused by her utterances.
“I would like to apologise to the president. Let people castigate me and not the president. He is an innocent person. It was a mistake which everybody can make. Malawians should not take this seriously,” Chiumia is reported to have said in the aftermath.
The fact that she thinks her so-called slip of the tongue is something anyone else can make also reveals her low opinion of the Malawians she is supposed to be in service of. No, minister Chiumia, this was not a mistake any Malawian can make because not everyone is a sycophant and not everyone cares only about their political well-being. In this regard, the apology was, in effect, a non-apology!
52 years into our independence and 22 years into the democratic dispensation, we really have to worry about the quality of political leaders Malawi is thrusting forward. If the likes of Chiumia – open mouths and shut minds – are a reflection of the collective hopes, dreams and aspirations we carry for this nation, then we are doomed! And that’s to put it politely.
To have, in 2016, a whole cabinet minister nursing a dictatorship hangover is not only scandalous but a sign, also, of how low we continue to sink as a country, led by people who carry neither respect nor vision for democratic order in Malawi. We ought to be alarmed at these allegedly frivolous remarks, expressed by such a high level person in government.
Regrettably, we are a nation immune to shock, anger and pain. Such immunity has, since the colonial era, forced us to suspend any reaction to outright provocations and insults at our individual and collective intelligence, citizenship and dignity. This is unacceptable, especially when you consider that there is not – and never will be – any single person or idea bigger than Malawi.
As I’ve said before, this country’s soul has been repeatedly violated, raped and tortured by a governance system which always conspires to undermine the confidence of the people it is meant to serve. This repeated assault on Malawi’s soul, occurring over many years and streamlined through shallow politics and compromised governance systems has swiftly but frighteningly dislodged our sense of alertness as a people.
As a painful result, many of us have ended up without any kind of expectation, idea or intimate association with our citizenship. What does it mean to be Malawian? What duty do we have, the whole lot of us, towards negotiating our scarred past, an utterly confused present and an uncertain future?
For me, personally, the thought of leaving these questions to be answered by someone as shallow, sycophantic and anti-intellectual as Grace Chiumia is too ghastly to contemplate.