Malawi and its Ageing Leaders
When I saw a news story about Robert Mugabe turning 85 this morning – 22nd February 2009 – I had a dejavu moment: I remembered an e-mail conversation I had with one of my aunties after the death of the then Zambian president, Levy Mwanawasa. Somehow, she found it bizarre that Zambian people had elected 71 year-old Rupiah Banda as a successor to Mwanawasa. I pointed it out to her that this was a common trend in African politics. In fact, I continued, Rupiah Banda might turn out to be one of the young presidents in Southern Africa
Whilst contemplating the conversation it transpired to me that I was somewhat right, especially if are looking at Malawi as an example. Two main presidential hopefuls for the next May’s general elections are in their mid seventies, Mutharika will be 75 on the 24th of February and John Tembo will be 77 on 14th of September. I have discounted Bakili Muluzi, who will be turning 66 on 17th of March, on the grounds that his candidature is questionable, as he is trying to bounce back after completing two consecutive terms as a state president already. It might not be legally wrong (I am not sure), but my opinion is that it is morally wrong and he should not be competing.
However, what fascinated me most were the ages of the presidential pretenders. If Mutharika was to win he will be 81 years old by the time he finishes his second term and Tembo would be 87 if he was to win this time and then succeed again in 2014. I found this totally bizarre and somewhat hypocritical. High court judges in Malawi have to retire when they reach the age of 65 years and yet politicians have no sell-by date? Is this to say that the leadership positions, such as that of a president, is less challenging than that of a judge? It would be interesting to know the criteria that are used to arrive at these decisions.
I am not a parent yet, hopefully, I will be one day, but I am not certain if I will be able to tell any of my kids that they are leaders of tomorrow, as our elders repeatedly told us, albeit Kamuzu Banda’s clung to power. I am sure the children of tomorrow, or indeed of today will not accept any of this ‘leaders of tomorrow’ nonsense. Not with ex-presidents who wont go away and grey haired men (it’s always men) in their eighties who cannot even contemplate a retirement. I am still waiting for my tomorrow, by the way. I not sure if it will ever come, especially with statistics telling us that life expectancy is now 37 years in Malawi. While I am aware that these figures are a mere generalised quantitative figures, but they do give a picture, which is meant to help us plan for the direction of the country.
In his inauguration speech on 20th of January 2009, Barak Obama told Americans that: “the world has changed and we must change it.” Malawi is facing similar situation, with life expectancy dropping, it is not time to create dictators again, whether at national or party level. Rather, it is time to start moulding younger generation for leadership roles. I also think it would be a very good idea to have a retirement age for our leaders, again at both national and party levels. This would entice younger generation, which is the future, to aspire for leadership positions. We cannot change the past, that is a fact, but we have opportunity to shape the future. What kind of Malawi would we want our children to leave? How will they judge us?
In 1964, one of the Cuban Revolution heroes, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1928 – 1967), addressed a group students in Havana. These were his most quotable words: “we have been given the responsibility for leading a country during very difficult time and all that ages you, naturally it takes it’s toll… But our work would not be complete if we did not know when to step down at the right time. One of our duties is to create the people to replace us.” I am in full agreement with Che, this is how any mature and purposeful leadership should be. No one is immortal; we need to think of the day when we cease to exist!