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God’s man in State House

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In an exclusive interview with New African, Malawi’s new President, Lazarus Chakwera, outlines his intention to replace the ‘old Machiavellian politics’ with more ethical governance and says he still believes he can honour his election pledge of creating a million jobs.

By New African Magazine

Like his Biblical namesake, Malawi’s President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera metaphorically came back from the dead. He won Malawi’s re-run Presidential elections, held on 23 June this year when he defeated Peter Mutharika, the former President.

This election followed the cancellation of the 2019 poll when Mutharika, standing against Lazarus Chakwera, was declared the winner by gaining 38% of the votes to Chakwera’s 35%.

Chakwera, a former church leader said he wanted to ‘clear the rubble’ of corruption that has blighted this Southern African country for decades and to be a unifying figure.

Can ‘the man of God’ deliver where so many of his more secular predecessors have failed? Will he be able to reconcile his deeply-held religious ethics with the worldly demands of political expediency? Will Chakwera, as many across Africa hope, set a new bar for Presidential behaviour while in office?

To find answers to these and other questions, New African‘s Omar Ben Yedder and Baffour Ankomah interviewed Malawi’s new President. 

What does your election victory and the way it came about say about democracy and the legal system in Malawi?

I think it does speak volumes in terms of the independence of the judiciary as well as the resilience of the people in demanding that their rights be not trampled upon.

What we saw was a sustained voice, not just in court but on the streets, for the consolidation of democracy. Malawi has set a very good example on the continent and in the world at large, that we are capable of doing what is in line with the demands of the people. 

We held elections without any international observers. It was just our citizens observing and saying: “We will do what is right.” People didn’t give us the chance, but here we are today. It is almost like truly coming back from the dead.

How much influence do you think your previous life as a Church leader will have on the way you run the country?

I cannot divorce myself from what my life is all about.  However, I also understand that one has to use the principles that one lives by.

One of those principles is service. I used it as part of my campaign, to say we need to serve people. Leadership that serves, not leadership that is served. This has resonated well with the Malawian people because we have seen of late political leaders who just wanted to be served rather than serve.

What are the critical leadership traits that you see as being important to running a country successfully?

I believe that what I just said about serving people is needed. Also, a leader must value unity because you can’t have each tribe pulling their own way. In this context, you have to have a certain level of unity in order to achieve your goals and vision.

You need the value of honesty, no corruption; the value of abiding by the law, wanting to make sure that you have an environment in which people can prosper – not just one individual but everybody, [all being] given a chance. I think these are values that really help in the long term.

You spoke of ethics in politics, what do you mean exactly? And how do you build an ethical civil service?

What you are talking about, for example, is a work ethic that says: I want to be honest, whether I’m in office or out of office; I want to be honest in public as well as in private; I want to work hard; I want to work smart; I want to be effective and I want to be efficient.

These are ethics that any life would benefit from. If people live by such honesty, even in politics, I believe that people can be served much better that way.

People say that politics is a very dirty game and you need to do things that are not compatible with the Church. Can you be both a politician and a true servant of God?

After I had won the Presidency, one reporter asked me: ‘They say politics is dirty, what you will do when it comes to tough decisions and so forth?’

I told him it is people who make politics dirty. When you are talking about politics in terms of creating an environment in which you follow policies and what makes the common good possible, and it is about leadership and good governance, you don’t really have to dirty your hands in order to succeed.

The old Machiavellian philosophy needs to be challenged. People who say politics is dirty are probably the ones who are dirty. We need to follow examples of good governance that people, even from the Church background, can espouse because in the end we are talking about leadership.

What are going to be your key policies over the next five years?

We have to make sure that there is food security and sufficiency. We have to move from subsistence thinking and living to affluence – to be able to say we have sufficient food to feed Malawians for even five years if it doesn’t rain.

We have to make sure that irrigation is there. We have to make sure we use the resources right. We have to make sure we use our taxes right, and services in health and education are done right.

Agriculture will come first and foremost, but we also have other resources that we can use, mining and energy for example. We want to create jobs and add value to what we produce, and export the same. We want to become a productive society because this country is so rich, but [also] just mismanaged.

What is your economic ideology? Are you a capitalist?

I just believe in a developmental state that can sometimes intervene, so it’s not capitalism in terms of how capitalism is defined traditionally. It is a combination of all the things that will make sure Malawians get better served.

That is my hope and that is really what I’m banking on changing the fortunes of Malawians.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted on Malawi?

At this time, probably we have not felt the full impact, which is yet to be assessed. But we are working around the clock to bring the pandemic under control. I have reconstituted the Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19 and increased its financing, but have also established a Covid-19 office within my office with a designated coordinator to stay on top of our efforts. Additionally, I have committed to increasing public trust in our efforts to stem the spread of the pandemic by giving a transparent Covid-19 status report every two weeks.

Are you foreseeing an imminent food crisis in your country?

We are facing a food crisis in terms of the fact that people scavenge for food on a daily basis. In the villages if people do not have a crop or yield that would take them throughout the year, it means that we will have problems with food prices across the country.

Our buying agencies will buy maize, the main staple, from farmers and stock supplies so that we can provide them to the people when the times of hardship come, so no one starves.

How are you going to achieve your target of creating one million jobs in the current global economic climate?

With Covid-19 and everything slowing down, we will see how we can still face that challenge because that is possible with more industry being created and so forth.

We will have to explain to people the context of what we are able to do and what we are not able to do.

I still believe that we can [do it], and we can have all these young people employed in some fashion or they can employ themselves in some fashion.

We will make sure we have the financial wherewithal so that everyone is truly given a chance to do something. We feel that not only is this a possibility, this is doable.

Would you like to add anything else for our readers all over the world?

I am greatly privileged to be able to speak with you all and to take these questions. It will make us think about how we could operationalise some of the things that we have talked about in terms of general principles, so that the Malawian people are served much better.

The abject poverty in this country really makes me feel sad and we want to bridge that gap so that we can establish the kind of climate where small-scale enterprises begin to multiply and flourish; so that we bridge the gap between the rich who, sometimes through fraudulent means become filthy-rich, and the poor who are so poor that you can’t believe this is the 21st century.

It’s like time froze and we are back in the ’50s and early ’60s. I believe we can change that scenario and this is what I’m working on. 

This is an abridged version of our interview with President Chakwera. The full version, with more details of the President’s economic and human rights policies, plans for infrastructure and Christian outlook is available in the August-September issue of New African magazine, on sale now.

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