Malawians woke up to some surprising news last Wednesday. Mulanje West MP Patricia Kaliati, popularly known as Akweni, was relieved of her post as minister of Civic Education and Community Development and immediately replaced by Blantyre North legislator Cecilia Chazama. From a gender perspective it was a like for like change, but the two ladies could not be more different in both personality and stature.
Now, this is not the first time for President Peter Mutharika to drop someone from his Cabinet. He has done it a few times, albeit not to the satisfaction of his critics. But not many saw this firing coming and it got people talking. There was growing belief in the country that the President is too loyal to some people he would never touch them.
The sacred cows of his government were mainly those with whom he spent some days in the cooler on charges of plotting against the ascension to power of the then vice president Joyce Banda, following the death of Mutharika’s brother Bingu. Kaliati was the main speaker in the now infamous midnight press conference where, in the company of five colleagues, she told the nation that the president was still alive. As we all know, that was proven to be inaccurate.
When DPP returned to power in 2014 all the “victims” who made it back to Parliament found themselves in Cabinet and Nicholas Dausi, the only casualty from the group in the Tripartite elections, was appointed boss of the National Intelligence Bureau until recently when he joined his colleagues in the Cabinet.
There have been suggestions that the six would be permanent fixtures because of their loyalty. Have we not heard statements like: “You don’t abandon those that stood by you during your darkest hour”? So what could have happened for Kaliati to fall out so spectacularly? Would a mere bitter exchange of words with her party secretary general really lead to this as has been suggested by some quarters? I don’t buy it.
Unless I am told that Kaliati insulted the person of the President it does not make sense that a near brawl between the two ladies was all it took for Mutharika to throw Akweni’s loyalty away. Not after he has resisted firing other minsters for more serious crimes. If indeed this was the incident that led to the decision, then it means it was only a convenient reason for something that was already decided some time back for another deeper reason.
From where I am sitting, Kaliati must have come out of the hall of the untouchables way before the Mulanje incident, if it took place at all. I get the impression that her loyalty is no longer beyond reproach. The grapevine has been awash with news of intense infighting within the Democratic Progressive Party inner circle and the firing could only indicate that Akweni has lost the battle of giants for the President’s affection.
With elections only two years away, the DPP cracks that have been speculated on are now coming to the surface. Most likely the President has calculated the political cost of dispensing with Kaliati, if any, and has found this decision the best way forward in the circumstances. It will be very interesting to watch what will happen next because this might not be the last throw of the dice.
It must be recalled that this is not the first time for Kaliati to be removed from Cabinet. When it happened last time under Bingu wa Mutharika in August 2009, she proved to be loyal to the President and was reinstated exactly a year and a month later. I am not sure if that will be the case again this time because I sense that the circumstances are very different.
That said, there are lessons from this whole story. A cabinet position is one of the most insecure jobs on the land. You sustain your tenure at the pleasure of the appointing authority and unlike other jobs where you can seek judicial review or at least an explanation when you are fired, here you can hear the announcement via the media and that is it. We are often reminded that cabinet appointments are the prerogative of the President.
The fact that the President is not obliged to inform the person, let alone the public, the reasons for hiring or firing the ministers makes the appointing authority too powerful and the appointed too vulnerable. That is why although merit is mentioned as the main qualification for one to get the ministerial Toyota Prado, the reality is that the personal relationship with the leader is the key factor and one cannot always control that.
You may be an excellent performer according to the demands of the job, but once your loyalty to the President – not the country – is questioned, you stand no chance of staying on. Instead of serving the country, therefore, cabinet ministers are forced to serve the individual that appointed them. It looks fairly in order, but the preoccupation with being in good books with the boss can actually negatively affect service to the people whom both the appointing authority and the appointed official are supposed to be accountable to.
Because the primary interest of cabinet ministers is to remain in the job with all its trappings, both official and unofficial, focus is hardly on the job. And because there is little or no effectiveness where it counts – in the office or on the ground – cabinet positions are an unnecessary drain on our scarce resources because they are only there to reward the loyalty of sycophants and not for service to the public.
Cabinet positions will, in my view, only become relevant and necessary if official performance were the determining factor for one to be appointed or fired. Actually, if that were the case, leaders would not have to hide behind the veil of prerogative. They would be able to face the public, who are key stakeholders to what happens in government, and tell them why someone has been appointed or fired.