Bad & Deceitful Counsel: Malawi’s unutilised advisers

YouthDevelopment2

There’s an old Ghanaian proverb that says When a King has good counsellors, his reign is peaceful.

This proverb essentially means a leader is defined by the circumstances and people around him. If a King is surrounded by good and honest people, wise men and women of good repute, truly knowledgeable and full of wisdom and grace, it is highly likely that they will provide sound advice to him; it is also highly likely that they will foresee potentially troublesome situations well in advance.

The result will be that the King will make good decisions, and fewer mistakes; the advisers will shine a torch for him, to see where the potholes are, all of which will benefit the people of the land he rules.

On the other hand, if a King’s advisers are unwise, evil or plain bad, if they are more interested in accumulating wives, wealth and personal possessions, and power, their advice is unlikely to be sound or helpful. They are more likely to give that King the wrong kind of advice, and if he listens or implements such bad advice, it is likely that his reign will be disastrous. Indeed many mistakes will be made, and the people of the land will be the ones who will suffer most.

The assumption implicit in these scenarios are that the King does listen to his advisers, since it is possible to have a wise King who happens to have a few bad advisers amongst the majority good ones, but who is strong enough (mentally) to filter out the bad advice he receives, selecting only that which is progressive and helpful for the realm, leaving out the crap.

There are too many examples of sayings or scenarios similar to this proverb throughout history, although a few are worth a mention.

In Genesis chapter 26 verse 26, we are told that Abimelech, the Philistine King went to Beersheba to see Isaac from Gerar with his adviser Ahuzzath and Phicol the commander of his army. This is one of the earliest mention of the presence of an adviser in the Bible and some scholars say Ahuzzath may have been a  ‘friend’ or ‘minister’ to Abimelech. But whichever way, if you read the story in full, you will see that throughout the period Abimelech lived at peace with Abraham’s son, save for a few minor scuffles between their herdsmen. It’s quite possible that this peaceful co-existence was largely due to the advice the Philistine leader received from his advisers. Indeed many stories in the old testament testify of the eventual downfall of Kings primarily because they listened to the wrong type of advice, ignored the right kind of advice, or sought no advice at all.

For those who disbelieve the Bible, dismissing it as a collection of fairly tales, maybe the influence of Piers Gaveston on Edward II of England will convince you. He was an adviser to Edward II and according to one account here

 Piers Gaveston was a knight’s son who had been Edward’s friend since boyhood. When Edward, still a prince, feuded with important officials in his father’s court, Gaveston was seen as the cause, and was sent to exile. Summoning him home was Edward II’s first royal act. Gaveston was made Earl of Cornwall, but his political fights with the existing nobility would define the rest of his life, which didn’t last long. The nobility, without whose money and prestige and feudal armies Edward could not run the country, forced Gaveston into exile twice more in the next five years. He was never openly attacked for his sexuality, but instead was hated because he gave advice to the king that was no good, and the king should be taking the real nobility’s advice, anyway. In 1311 a committee of aristocrats and bishops imposed a series of Ordinances on the king, which declared that “through bad and deceitful counsel, our lord the king and all his men have everywhere been dishonoured.”

Bad and deceitful counsel. It’s one of many stories but it always ends pretty much the same way.

Although it doesn’t mean that even wise counsellors don’t get it wrong sometimes. In Daniel chapter 2 verse 24, we have Daniel pleading with  the executioner Arioch, who King Nebuchadnezzar had appointed to execute the wise men of Babylon (after they failed to interpret his dream) “Do not execute the wise men of Babylon. Take me to the king, and I will interpret his dream for him.”

More recently, during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, despite a somewhat positive and respectable legacy, the US government was involved in so many controversies many of which were the result of bad counsel perpetrated by more than just a few dodgy advisers. Reagan’s White House aide Michael Deaver and national security adviser Robert McFarlane were convicted of various offenses. MacFarlane pleaded guilty in 1988 to four misdemeanors of withholding information from Congress and was sentenced, but later pardoned by George H.W. Bush. Deaver was convicted of perjury for congressional testimony he submitted to a congressional subcommittee and federal grand jury investigating his lobbying activities with administration officials. Then there was Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger who was indicted but later also pardoned by Bush? The question is why didn’t Reagan refuse to authorise all these botched schemes?

At this point let us consider the well-known English idiom Birds of the same feather, flock together, and ask the question under what circumstances will a sensible leader allow people who are unlike him to influence him in some material way in terms of making decisions that have particularly far-reaching implications? After all what do crows (akhwangwala) know about hawks? Isn’t one bird a cowardly scavenger ever pursuing after leftovers, whereas the other is a bird of prey that is not only an able hunter, but belongs to the same group from which the King of the birds come. Shouldn’t there be an exercise of judgement?

But what has all this got to do with Malawi?

Well, these days as I talk to Malawians from all over the world, and read what other progressives are writing about in terms of development and the general climate on the ground in Malawi, I’m left surprised by the sheer number of good ideas they have. From the writing by one Malawian originally from Salima,  to those of another (who is not from Salima, but is nevertheless inspiring), I feel these kinds of ideas should be listened to? In any case, just because someone opposed a certain thing doesn’t mean that what they are advocating is not valid.

On this blog, I’ve purposely chosen to echo some of such views not because I’m sunk in an illusory world of familiar opinion. Instead, I believe that in the right hands, with the right leadership and mechanisms of oversight, with driven effectors, those same ideas these people advocate can help transform our country positively.

I mean take a look at the recent news headlines coming out of Malawi, can you see anything that you can point that has a chance of transforming a country with 14 million people? The Banning of Satchets? Breaking up Escom? Tobacco Sales (the country’s largest source of export revenue) in Lilongwe Suspended again

The news that populates the airwaves is not that of innovative ways of helping young people, or of increased Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as a result of a clean and conducive investment climate. Something which Paul Kagame in Rwanda has strived and just about achieved. No, the news on Malawi news channels is filled with accounts of dubious court cases (some on prosecution of embezzled funds by government officials, and another – a recent one –  in which it is alleged the president is suing a well-known UK-based activist); you hear of a presidential aide who is said to have bought a PhD from some serial con-artist – brilliantly seared here by one Pasteni Mauka (himself said to be a DPP insider in concert with other disgruntled DPP insiders, now turned against the clique running the show at Capital Hill);

As if this is not enough, then you read of charities pitying Malawians and sending them token gestures. And celebrities – all of which also serves to remind us all just how terrible the country’s situation is. Every single day I get about 3 different stories in my inbox, on various charitable efforts happening in Malawi. That’s over a thousand a year! What concrete progress has those efforts achieved all these years, especially in terms of sustainability and ensuring that the recipients stand on their own feet?

Here please allow me to digress: when was the last time you heard that some famous star had gone to Mauritius or to Malaysia to give alms? When did a wife of a billionaire wear a sari, mingling with the women who live in the slums of Mumbai? There are poor people in these countries – just as there are poor people in America, and in England. But such places are not ‘headline grabbing’. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but the fact is you rarely hear of such charitable visits…Instead it’s always a poor African country at the receiving end of do-gooders (most of whom I doub’t know these facts). Most recently it’s increasingly becoming fashionable to go do something charitable in Malawi. Malawi is fast becoming the Oxfam of the continent, if it hasn’t already done so.

It seems it’s easier to give Malawians fish, instead of a fishing rod. Because if you give them a fishing rod, you probably won’t be able to go back in 2 years time and pose for carricatured photos demonstrating your charitable kindness. Photos which you can then put up on Instagram and twitter for all the world to marvel at your fantastic heart.

Then there’s the regionalistic hatred (‘Ntumbuka’ uyu, ‘Mbwenu Mbwenu’…azipita kwawo) spewed shamelessly on the comments of these news sources I refer to … which frankly speaking shouldn’t be authorised on any news site; there are stories of police beating up innocent people – over some lame vendetta. And oh, I almost forgot – a presidential press secretary who writes a memo encouraging government ministries to advertise on a radio station with links to the presidency. And then accuses the radio station of forgery???

And in most of these things one must wonder where Peter Mutharika or his advisers are. Fine, you can’t expect a leader to hold everyone to a leash, but there has to be some ground rules, some responsibility, some direction. And when people screw up at government level -be they advisers or otherwise, they need to face the music. That’s the only way to restore public trust in politics.

So then, next time you meet a King or a leader, remember When a King has good counsellors, his reign is peaceful.

Leadership for the Africa we Want – Kigali, May 2014

Sponsored by the African Development Bank.

Shorter version focussing on points made by Thabo Mbeki and Benjamin Mkapa:-

My Comments

  • Education has not been a priority for most countries across Africa. As a consequence, Africa doesn’t have enough high quality and decisive leaders and effectors capable of transforming not only their own countries, but the continent. Thus, Africa needs to develop and entrust young people with the knowledge that will empower them to be agents of change. Agents of change capable of prioritising what the continent needs.
  • Further, African people are disunited. Most African people have been divided on political lines such that they often fail to distinguish when our economies are failing because of external influences (or external cause) – which calls for supporting the leadership – and when a national leader’s policies are failing – which calls for criticism.
  • The Neo-liberal Institutions such as the IMF have fed African governments a crippling poison of conditionalities that work for them and their backers but that has made it extremely difficult for sustainable progress to be made across Africa. Before countries like Great Britain, the US, Canada and New Zealand had market based economies operating under market forces, there were long periods of a planned economy in these countries. In fact in Britain, it was only beginning the 70’s and 80’s that state-owned companies were privatised. Before that most infrastructure (not only in Britain) from Railways, Hospitals, Factories, Utilities (Energy companies, Water companies and Gas companies), Mining, Telecommunication companies belonged to the state (or the state was a large and active player in such industries). And that ownership provided employment, tax revenues and dividends to the State. Yet when the likes of the IMF and World Bank came to Africa, they told African leaders that the state must not own anything. The reasons they gave was that it was inefficient for the state to be in business. They were right to an extent but only because the inefficiencies came as a result of the inherent limitations which those state companies possessed. Specifically, these parastatals were not run efficiently as profit-making businesses in a business sense:- you had the wrong kind of leadership calling the shots (not innovators of the calibre and ingenuity of say Lord Alan Sugar, Sir Richard Branson or Sir Philip Green). So how do you expect an organisation to be profitable and innovate if it’s run by the wrong people? Secondly, there was little investment in employee training – so lifelong and transferable skills in tune with technology were not being passed down. To see understand this anomaly consider this: What percentage of over 60’s who were civil servants in the 70’s and 80’s or who were working in government institutions at the time of the privatisations of major UK industry were comfortable with using computers and other technology at the time or even today? Most were not, and even now only a small percentage is conversant with technology. The reason :- Because when they were working for  these government-owned businesses, there was little or no investment into their skills development. In other words when technology was changing, they didn’t have the skills to keep up. Further, there was little competition between these companies and other independent companies so not enough incentive for innovation. No surprises then that parastatals were inefficient and didn’t perform particularly well. But since we now know all these things, as I clearly articulated here, I don’t believe that its impossible to run a government-owned company profitably in this day and age.
  • Ageism is a real problem in Africa. So is Regionalism and Tribalism. Until we begin to entrust people with responsibility on a merit-based criteria (and not by how old they are or from which region they come from, or what religion they are) we’ll struggle to find an edge.
  • Advanced Business Training If Steve Jobs had a business school which he run, what kind of graduates would the school produce? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think formidable ones. Africa needs to train its young people to be formidable in business…
  • Capital Without money Africa can’t advance, because where will the tools of development come from? Financial Investment in young people (and I’m not talking minute $1000 – $2000 type business loans) is a necessary tool to development.