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Modecai Msisha SC debacle, silly mistake, or something more pervasive?

Malawi’s renown lawyer Mordecai Msiska

Written by Danwood M Chirwa

The Modecai Msisha SC debacle is not just a silly mistake; it strikes at the core of the problem in Malawian politics, especially in the understanding of the powers of the presidency. By all accounts, it appears that the senior counsel wasn’t informed beforehand about his pending appointment, wasn’t given time to think about the offer and, upon accepting it, to think about when he turns up at the Ministry of Justice. He was treated as a means to an end — an instrument.

This is something that no other credible employer would do, especially for senior positions like that. Just ask what it takes to appoint a chief executive of a company, a judge, dean, vice chancellor or even any academic appointment elsewhere.

Danwood M Chirwa

Everything is wrong with the Malawian ministerial appointment practice. One, it assumes that everyone who does something to advance democracy and the rule of law, or supports a cause championed by a political party, is interested in a ministerial post. Many are but not all.

Two, the practice encourages the most desperate — and often dubious — individuals to take up critical appointments like this, with disastrous consequences. Credible people will always have responsibilities they cannot walk away from at the beckon of a President. Take Msisha as an example. He is an accomplished lawyer who has satisfied all his material needs. He is in no need of power. He has long-standing clients to whom he owes duties. Even if he were interested in public service, it would take some time for him wind up his affairs.

Critical appointments like this ought to be made following a credible vetting process that involves the submission and careful consideration of CVs, security checks, credit checks, criminal record checks, integrity checks, and evaluation of competence and vision. Candidates ought also to be given an opportunity to interrogate the appointing authority on some issues. I personally would be interested in knowing the vision of the appointing authority, their working methods and expectations, an assurance about independence and debate within cabinet, etc.

When ministerial appointments are made on the spur of the moment as we have seen, the relationship between the appointing authority and the appointee is turned into that of master and servant, from that of peers.

The appointee is expected to accept whatever terms are imposed on the appointment. He is expected to jump when told to, bend on his knees when approached, or laugh even when a bad joke has been told.

That very first act reduces the appointee to the status of a sycophant who must worry day and night for her job security, and must hence follow the President to every lousy presidential function or congratulate the President for every achievement, no matter how obscure or ridiculous.

It is not just the un-procedural and chaotic appointing process that is a problem; the firing process is also notorious irrational. While ministerial appointments are at the whim of the appointing authority, Malawi probably holds the record in the regularity of cabinet reshuffles. This gives undue power to the presidency, with the consequence that ministers can be said to be in bondage.

Ministerial appointments are the most important public positions after the presidency and vice presidency. Appointees must be men and women who have distinguished themselves in their career and have the capabilities to serve the country with distinction.

Possessed with these qualities, the appointing authority has a duty to treat them with respect and recognize their sacrifice to the nation. Once appointed they have to be accorded the independence and respect deserving of the office and time within which to fulfill their vision.

Only then can we have ministers who are free to concentrate on their respective portfolios rather than on contriving endless appeasement gimmicks; ministers who take risks and bold actions; ministers who can speak freely; and ministers who have dignity, respect themselves and serve Malawians — not the master.

It is sad that we shall never have Minister Modecai Msisha. The debacle surrounding his appointment brings to light a fundamental problem in the understanding of presidential powers and the abuse that attends this misunderstanding.

The new government must start to do things differently in every way possible, not repeat the same old malpractices.

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