By Pemphero Kaonga
In the run up to last year’s presidential election, then-Presidential candidate Lazarus Chakwera based his presidential campaign on meritocracy, thereby promising that people are treated on the basis of what they know, not whom they know. Rightly so in his campaign, he attacked corruption. Rightly so, he addressed the wrongdoings that took place during Peter Mutharika’s administration. For this he was rewarded by being elected President.
And what a nation he inherited indeed. A nation that like the rest of the world had been struck by a global pandemic that resulted in both health and even economic plight. It is therefore confusing that instead of trying to reduce this plight, President Chakwera’s actions seem to be stating that he’s somewhat in favour of increasing it.
As of this moment in time, a deployment committee consisting of Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials chaired by Veronica Chidothe (pending retirement) and supported by Ernest Makawa (pending retirement) and Francis Mphonda to name a few has recalled all of its diplomats in all of its Missions across the globe.
The cost of each recall is expected to reach minimum of $40,000 per diplomat at the level lower than the Ambassador and that of the Ambassador expected at roughly $70,000. Hence in order to recall the ten-person strong Embassy personnel stationed in London, the Government will have to fork out $400,000, if we are to add the High Commissioner Kena Mphonda that will be closer to $500,000. This change is being done as we speak.
Moreover, we’ve also seen the postings of 16 new Malawian Third Secretaries to serve as the Secretary to the Ambassadors at 16 Missions, positions better filled in by local staff that apart from being experienced in the field, understand the terrain and language plus also cost considerably less.
These new Third Secretaries who have already arrived at their new duty stations will benefit from allowances and benefits that reach almost $10,000 per month, thus costing the public purse $160,000 per month or $1.92 million per year.
Local staff on the other hand would cost as low as $2,000 per month, meaning $32,000 for all local secretaries a month = $384,000 a year: offering a better service at a cheaper cost. That is not to mention the higher-level diplomats.
Numerous other positions ranging from Deputy Ambassadors to Counsellors and First Secretaries have been secretly filed to be filled with political cronies, multiplying the amount of money that the government has to fork out on the deployment and recalls.
Ironically, these postings are all taking place during a time when physical contact is at an all-time low as a result of Covid19. Hence, what’s the use of posting all these new staff abroad when they’re working remotely, and all their meetings are taking place online?
Apart from this, who in their right frame of mind wouldn’t recognise that all the right expertise in foreign countries would be needed in order to make sure that our country gets the necessary investment, supplies and vaccines? Who wouldn’t know that these recalls mean a loss of institutional knowledge as those diplomats have an understanding of their jurisdiction having built up networks and contacts and these take time. Who would not understand that the incoming diplomats need time to understand the work and a time where the world is challenged by Covid and work is done via teleworking? Who would not understand that these recalls and deployments affect the sending nation and also makes the receiving nation to look at Malawi with sceptical eyes?
Only one person apparently, maybe two: President Chakwera and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eisenhower Mkaka.
It is thus no wonder that we’re in our current situation: struggling economy; struggling to cope with Covid19 with a vaccine shortage, and with more loved ones gone day by day. It is no wonder why our foreign policy will continue to fail and affect the lives of all Malawians.
Let us not forget, the President did not physically attend the United Nations General Assembly in the USA but rather virtually participated as he has done for numerous other meetings. So what sense in sending a whole cohort of new diplomats? Political appeasement is the answer. Not development.
The recalls of all diplomats will result in Malawi paralysing its foreign policy, possibly leading to the worst foreign policy Malawi has seen. Diplomacy should not be about repaying friends but about marketing the country, attracting the right investments and negotiating at the highest level.
It is expected that the whole diplomatic system is demoralised by this action and they are busy packing to leave despite many of them (minus a few bad eggs) being great assets but falling victim to politics. As the saying goes, when in the middle of a war you do not send a new general, you want your most experienced and best qualified to be at the front, leading by example.
The recalling of diplomats and deployment at the very least should be put on hold while Malawi is struggling to fight a pandemic and a failing economy. Is it really a priority to recall 16 Ambassadors at this point in time, as this Government has done? Total recalls which involve more than 80 diplomats are estimated to cost over $5 million (over 4 billion Malawi Kwacha).
Another thing to consider is the fact that contractual obligations must be respected, as it stands almost all the current Ambassadors are owed contract gratuities of 20% for each term they have served and will have to be paid up upon termination as they have not been paid this as of yet. There is a risk of legal action on the government if they fail to settle the monies owed to their diplomats and this will be a cost to the Malawi taxpayers. This is money that could have been spent elsewhere, including on our health service.
But then again even expecting the obvious has become a long task under this government, as evidenced by the alleged misuse of close to $8 million (6.2 billion Malawi Kwacha) that were supposed to be used to fight Covid and aid front liners in their tasks.
As the Leader of the Opposition stated, this government is accountable to its people. And accountability when it comes to public funds must extend towards all government departments. No public funds must go to waste at the expense of the Malawian taxpayers. It is simply wrong to take a casual approach when dealing with matters surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in the midst of the 2nd wave of the pandemic, with thousands of suffering Malawians.
Rather than fighting Covid, the economy, and making sure that funds are spent properly to combat the challenge of our lifetime, the Government’s priorities seem to lie elsewhere. They seem to lie with rewarding loyalists and removing competent professionals from their posts with personal vendettas.
Seeing such a scenario, would asking the Government to be attentive with spending our money wisely, curbing unemployment and controlling Covid and the economy be too much to ask? Perhaps if the productive professionals weren’t replaced with the unproductive bootlickers, such a task wouldn’t be such a tall order.
***Original post first appeared in Nyasa Times***