The price of egotism

President Bingu wa Mutharika’s recent move to assure University of Malawi lecturers and students their academic freedom without derogation, as is provided for by the Malawi Constitution, comes with a heavy price and irremediable losses.

The President termed his decision "a win-win situation", but it has to be aptly put that the students, who have gone over 100 days without attending classes, are the biggest losers as their academic calendar has been grossly and needlessly disturbed.

In the first place, it beats one’s imagination why it took the President close to four months, during which the parties involved incurred costs in legal battles and engaged in avoidable verbal tirade, to make a U-turn.

Mutharika, who happens to be Chancellor of the University of Malawi (Unima) and a beneficiary of tertiary education, should have known better what it means for university students to have their academic calendar disturbed, even for just a week. Surely, the least that was expected of him was to urgently fix the problem than to allow it grow roots. Worse still, the President went public to side with the Police Inspector General Peter Mukhito.

It was easy to judge the Malawi Polytechnic and Chancellor College closure by the President on April 1 over the stand-off between the lecturers and the authorities was out of sheer pride and muscle-flexing, with total disregard to the consequences.

Voices of reason from all manner of people were unfortunately submerged by egoism on the part of the President, who appeared not to care how long the stand-off was going to take, or worse still, how long the students were to stay out of class, and arrogantly, went on to form a commission of enquiry to enquire on something that the Malawi Constitution states clearly.

No wonder, most people that commented on the impasse felt this was a simple issue for authorities to resolve and that the students were the losers.

When Mukhito summoned Chancellor College associate professor Dr Blessings Chinsinga on February 12 over an example he gave in a public policy class on causes of uprisings such as the ones that led to toppling governments of Tunisia and Egypt, all the lecturers demanded was an apology from the IG and an assurance of their academic freedom.

The lecturers were seemingly ready for dialogue to resolve the matter, but the President put off the rail chances for negotiations when he publicly declared the IG was not going to apologise to anyone. The President had heard the case and delivered a judgement that favoured the IG, and went on to demand that, in fact, the lecturers were the ones to apologise.

To apologise is, essentially, a sign of strength, not weakness as others would want people to believe. The President avoided the apology issue in his address where he spoke of reopening the colleges. But whether he did that deliberately or otherwise, this is an issue he should have dealt with, being one of the issues the lecturers raised.

It cannot make one a lesser mortal to apologise, and if it be repeated, it is not a sign of weakness, but strength.

A couple of months ago, the British Prime Minister David Cameron told the British citizenry: "What I would say to those people is I am extremely sorry because we wanted to do everything we can to help them leave. It is a very difficult picture in Libya. This is not an easy situation."

Cameron, who repeated the unsolicited apology in his speech for delays by Britain to evacuate its citizens from Libya when bombings began to force Libyan leader Muarmar Gadaffi to surrender power, went on to assure the British citizenry that lessons were drawn for the future.

The youthful Cameron apparently knew an apology alone, issued with no assurance that his government would do better next time, would be empty.

Just recently, Ghanaian President John Evans Atta Mills apologised for his failure to recognise former President John Kufuor and Chief Justice Georgina Woode in Parliament when he delivered a State of the Nation Address to Parliament.

The President acknowledged the presence of Speaker of Parliament Joyce Bamford Addo and others, but forgot the two. He later made a public apology, saying it was not intentional but an oversight.

The world’s all-powerful US President Barrack Obama, just eight weeks into the presidency in March 2009, made a mistake when he talked about life in the White House. He said he had been practising his bowling in the residence’s bowling alley and had scored 129 out of a possible 300.

Obama went on to say it was an improvement on the embarrassing 37 he had managed during a stop on the presidential campaign trail in 2008 and remarked: "It’s like, it was like Special Olympics or something."

Before the interview was even aired, the president telephoned the Special Olympics chairperson Tim Shriver from Air Force One to apologise and invite some of the association’s bowlers to the White House to show him how it was done.

From the home soil, our own Dr Kamuzu Banda immediately after he lost presidential elections to Bakili Muluzi in 1994, declared in his speech: "During my term of office, I selflessly dedicated myself to the good cause of Mother Malawi in the fight against poverty, ignorance and disease among many other issues; but if within the process, those who worked in my government or through false pretence in my name or indeed unknowingly by me, pain and suffering was caused to anybody in this country in the name of nationhood, I offer my sincere apologies. I also appeal for a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness among us all."

The list is too long, but there’s just one more example. A police chief in Dallas, equal to our own Peter Mukhito, in early March apologised to a 55-year-old-woman arrested on her front balcony and thrown in the drunk tank for six hours for public drunkenness, acknowledging the woman actually is a stroke patient with slurred speech.

The police regretted they did not recognise Dianne Irons’ medical condition, and the police chief David Brown said in a statement that the officers involved in the arrest were going to attend a week-long "crisis intervention training course".

The police chief, who ordered dismissal of the charge, followed it with a visit to Irons’ home to personally apologise.

This is how police elsewhere operate, and if Malawi were Dallas, the Police IG, in the same way he burned fuel to Zomba to interrogate Chinsinga, would have hit the road again to Zomba to apologise to the lecturers.

So, while the President has addressed the issue and ordered that the two institutions must open on July 4, he should also have addressed some of the issues surrounding the closure of the two colleges to ensure that come the opening date, the lecturers and students will go back to class with confidence.

Already, the lecturers feel that the President may short-change them with his call on them to remove all the injunctions they obtained in court, yet among these injunctions there is one protecting jobs of the four lecturers that the Unima Council fired.

Ideal procedure on the matter was the dialogue the President initiated where issues could have been put in clear context and assurances made.

But when you form a commission of enquiry when the matter is in court, and before results from the commission, students’ representatives are summoned to a round-table discussion, and the meeting ends with no clear results, and you call the lecturers’ representatives, but put pre-conditions that those that were fired should not come is a clear divide-and-rule philosophy, come July 4, don’t call me a prophet of doom if the two institutions remain closed.

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