Break the pattern, Mr. President

It should have been the boos by the graduating students at the University of Malawi graduation recently. It may even be the July 20 petition. Or it could have been the persuasive rhetoric of recently appointed Minister of Education, Science and Technology George Chaponda.

It might even signal the dawn of a new beginning but whatever it was, it finally brought the curtain down on the Chancellor College academic freedom saga that had become tedious and threatened to destroy the political career of one and create another.

On Tuesday, President Bingu wa Mutharika owned up to the mess created in the wake of the visit by Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito on Associate Professor Blessings Chinsinga, deemed to have been teaching subversive content to students in his political science lecture at the college.

In his statement, Mutharika, who is also the chancellor of the University of Malawi, said he was "gravely concerned that he had prevented innocent students from pursuing their education at the institution" and hence, he ordered the reinstatement of the four 'renegade' lecturers — three of whom were leaders of the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union, including its iconic president, Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula.

There are a few mundane matters you could point out in his statement of contrition. There are small things like a breach of communication protocols, with the reinstatement originating from the wrong office. It was the University Council, not the president, which fired the lecturers, and it should have been them reinstating the lecturers, not the OPC.

But then, President Mutharika has just confirmed it was him, not the council, who fired the lecturers. Had it been it was the council, as we were meant to believe, the president, I'm certain, would have kept his distance or he would have intervened earlier for the sake of 'innocent students' (and perhaps the 39 babies who would be products of the standoff?). But, Mutharika, as chancellor of the University of Malawi, occupies largely a ceremonial, rather than an executive, position; so, where does he derive the powers to meddle in the affairs of the university to hire and fire?

Another trivia I find interesting in his statement is that for those who think this matter is over, they should think again. Mutharika does not believe in academic freedom, at least in its present guise, and he has appointed a high level commission of inquiry, membership unknown, to "thoroughly examine all factors that led to the disagreements, conduct wide consultations with a view to agreeing on a common definition of academic freedom, the rights of students to education, the general conditions of service and how harmonious working relationships can be maintained at the college."

Now, tell me if those are the thoughts of a convert to another system of thought. He has his standards which should define academic freedom which the current parameters do not capture.

My biggest problem with the issue is the manner in which it has been concluded — partially at least — for is that it has confirmed a pattern, which could have been avoided in this issue had he let the University Council do its work. The pattern goes as follows: offend, refuse to apologise (even when everyone else think you should get off you high horse) and when you have been cornered with your back against the wall, release a statement of contrition. Statesmen are not made around that formula.

A few weeks ago, Mutharika was apologetic — almost — to Zambia President Michael Sata who was declared 'prohibited immigrant' in 2007; just as he was to the UK over the expulsion of the British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet. Not that there was anything wrong with it but the pattern is a statement of character at odds with a man who would be statesman!

Now, what about the first lady's salary?

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