Keeping it in the family: Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwere slips up in the nepotism stakes

Keeping it in the family: Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwere slips up in the nepotism stakes
Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland on 1 November 2021. (Photo: Yves Herman-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The awarding of the African of the Year 2021 to Lazarus Chakwera is at odds with his history of making nepotistic appointments in his administration.

On 12 January 2022, African Leadership Magazine (ALM) announced Lazarus Chakwera, president of Malawi since June 2020, as the African of the Year 2021. The poll that determines the recipient of the award, and which forms one procedural element of what the publication describes as Africa’s “premium, annual vote-based awards”, drew more than 10,000 votes on the magazine’s website and more than 5,000 on email, ostensibly from Africans on the continent and in the diaspora.  

“African of the Year” is one of seven titles the magazine awards annually. The 10th African Leadership Magazine Persons of the year 2021 nominees were unveiled mid-December 2021. According to the magazine’s website, the nominees were decided only on submissions made by Africans living on the continent.

The criteria for “African of the Year read: “This recognition is open to an African whose actions have greatly impacted the continent positively in the year under review and helped shape his or her immediate society and continues to inspire globally.” The two other nominees were Macky Sall, president of Senegal, and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The quality of political leadership in Africa

From an authentic leadership perspective, Chakwera’s winning of the award suggests Africa’s pool of contemporary political leaders is of substandard quality. It also suggests that those who nominated and voted for Chakwera either view nepotism as an acceptable leadership practice and therefore have lower expectations of Africa’s political leaders, or failed to properly appraise Chakwera’s track record as president of Malawi.

Substandard political leadership and the failure of followers or citizens to embrace appropriate leadership attributes when supporting and electing their leaders, or to discern the quality of political leadership properly, is by no means a uniquely African problem. However, this author is a concerned African, and an African award for leadership prompted this piece. Furthermore, this author refers to political leaders in particular because this is what Chakwera and his fellow nominees are. In other words, only political leaders were nominated for African of the Year 2021, despite there being a separate award for African Political Leader of the Year.  

The history of the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership supports the argument that quality African political leaders, particularly heads of state and government, are hard to come by in the contemporary era. This prize is awarded to a former executive head of state or government who, among other criteria, have “under challenging circumstances… developed their countries and strengthened democracy and human rights for the shared benefit of their people, paving the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity”.

In its 14-year existence, the Ibrahim Prize has only been awarded six times. In 2017, John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that “for some observers, the inability of the [Ibrahim Prize] committee to find each year suitable laureates is a condemnation of the overall quality of African presidential leadership”.

The latest recipient of the prize, in 2020, was Mahamadou Issoufou, Niger’s president from 2011 to 2021. Associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, Sebastian Elischer, has written that Issoufou “failed to strengthen fundamental democratic rights such as free and fair elections, freedom of association, and freedom of speech”. He continues: “If anything, the Issoufou era is a textbook case of democratic backsliding.”

Is Chakwera’s award worth celebrating?

As with Issoufou, questions remain around the quality and authenticity of Chakwera’s political leadership. Had it not been so, this author would gladly have shared in celebrations around the Malawian president’s award, precisely because of his Christian faith.

In 2020, this author published a piece highlighting “the incongruence between the large numbers of professing Christians in Africa [including 15 heads of state or government at the time] and the challenges of governance experienced in many parts of the continent”. The argument about incongruence assumes that Christians, because they claim, implicitly or otherwise, to live according to biblical standards, should make better citizens and better statesmen and stateswomen. By “better” this author means that, at the very least, Christians should be more honest, transparent and service-oriented in their citizenship and their leadership, political or otherwise.    

Chakwera’s political leadership, however, has left this African, who happens to share his faith, uninspired, if only because of an interview on the BBC’s HARDtalk in July 2021. Chakwera’s discussion with Sarah Montague made it apparent that he lacks authenticity as a leader. At the time of the interview, Chakwera and his entourage were in the UK for a global education summit. Montague asked him questions across several issues, including job creation, the Malawian government’s handling of Covid-19, the state of the country’s economy, and a point of particular interest to this piece – nepotism.

Authentic leadership

Good leadership, the kind of leadership one ought to look out for when deciding on the African of the Year, is made up of both character and competence. Authentic leadership is one element of character-based leadership. Authentic leadership theory is concerned with “whether leadership is genuine and ‘real’.”

In light of the present era, which is characterised by an increasing distrust in political leaders, a growing mistrust in democracy, an increase in corporate scandals, and an increase in systemic risk in a globalised world that raises the premium on certainty (think Covid-19), authentic leadership presents itself as a particularly valuable construct. Authentic leadership consists of four core components: self-awareness, internalised moral perspective, balanced processing, and relational transparency.

Self-awareness entails recognising one’s strengths and weaknesses and being aware of how one’s behaviour affects others. Possessing an internalised moral perspective means the leader has a moral capacity that allows her to distinguish easily between her values and group or organisational values, as well as societal pressures, and engage in ethical and transparent decision-making and behaviour consistent with these values. Balanced processing involves a leader’s objective analysis of all relevant information and the willingness to solicit challenging views from others before making a decision. Relational transparency essentially refers to honesty. It involves presenting one’s real self to others, openly sharing information, and appropriately expressing one’s true thoughts and feelings. Significantly, scholars rely on authentic leadership to understand how leaders can and should prevent and avoid nepotism – a practice that has brought Chakwera’s leadership into disrepute, notwithstanding his recent award.         

The definition and universality of nepotism

One definition of nepotism is “the practice of showing favouritism to family members during the hiring process or… promotion deliberations”. Another defines the practice as “unfair displays of favouritism by a leadership source (i.e. an individual leader, a group, or an organisation) that are based on kinship”.

Like substandard political leadership, nepotism is not a uniquely African problem nor confined to the contemporary era. Nevertheless, Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation contends that “the system [of governance] many African leaders have preferred thrives on corruption and nepotism”. Joel Savage, a Ghanaian-Belgian journalist and author, writes that “nepotism is… deeply rooted in all African governments”.

Why nepotism is a problem

Scholars, including this one, have contributed towards a growing sense of concern over the quality and ethics of political leadership at the national, regional and global levels. Nepotism is one example of unethical leadership practice. This is especially so in a democracy, as is the case with Malawi.

Nepotism has been found to have several adverse effects on the work environment. These can contribute to distrust among employees and, more importantly, between employees and employers or organisational leaders. Nepotism can negatively affect any organisation, but to the degree that nepotistic leadership has implications for a nation, whether directly or indirectly, immediately or incrementally, is the extent to which it can jeopardise national security.

For democracy to bear the fruits that democratic theory claims it can, its elected leaders must determine to serve the people. Having been elected to power by the people to serve the people’s collective interests, a democratically elected president is morally obliged to appoint to positions of power and authority individuals who possess both the character and the competence necessary to serve citizens’ best interests.

Irrespective of whether a government is democratic or not, nepotism has and will always risk jeopardising the effectiveness and competence of leaders and the organisations they lead because it involves appointing family members who are less qualified or not qualified at all to positions of influence and responsibility.

In short, nepotism hurts leadership effectiveness. By implication, nepotism is detrimental to everything that falls within the ambit of a leader’s responsibility.

Nepotism under Chakwera’s presidency

The HARDtalk interview of 28 July 2021 encourages questions around Chakwera’s authenticity as a leader. The period in the interview that Montague devoted to Chakwera’s family appointments particularly reveals a political leader who lacks authenticity.

Montague broached the issue of nepotism, although she didn’t explicitly use the term, by first citing passages from Chakwera’s inaugural address as president of Malawi in July 2020: “I challenge those in parliament to act professionally, to set a good example. The time of giving free handouts is past.”

Montague asked Chakwera whether his appointment of his daughter, Violet, as a diplomat to Brussels was a good example. Chakwera denied this was true but failed to clarify the matter. Earlier in the month of the interview, several Malawian news publications, among them those citing the president’s presssSecretary, Brian Banda, reported otherwise (see here, here and here).

Whatever the case regarding Violet’s alleged appointment to a post in Brussels, the BBC released a story in early January 2022 confirming that Chakwera’s daughter had been appointed at the Malawi High Commission in London as the first secretary responsible for investments. It seems that even if Violet was “not going as a third secretary to a mission in Belgium” at the time of the HARDtalk interview, she was always going to be taking up a diplomatic position somewhere.  

Banda denied that Violet’s appointment as diplomat to Brussels was nepotism “because she is qualified” and had undergone diplomatic orientation. When the procedures followed during employment or promotion are objective, the focus is on the competence and qualification of a family member rather than kinship, and the credentials of the family member outweigh those of other candidates; nepotism need not necessarily be at play.

However, even if this kind of objectivity characterised the appointment of Chakwera’s daughter as a diplomat (this is doubtful), the perception of nepotism either among government employees or in public, and particularly in a democratic dispensation, is enough to have the same consequences for leadership effectiveness as actual nepotism.

Defending himself during the HARDtalk interview against Montague’s assertion, concerning Malawi’s foreign service, that Chakwera was engaging in the same nepotism for which he had criticised the previous government, Chakwera repeated what he had communicated in an interview with Malawi’s Daily Times newspaper: these appointments are not his to make – he is “only responsible for appointing ambassadors and deputy ambassadors”.

However, had Chakwera been sincere in his criticism of Malawi’s previous government, serious about fulfilling the commitments he made during his inaugural address as Malawi’s president, and serious about building trust among Malawians in his government and leadership, he would not have allowed the appointment of his daughter to such a post, no matter how qualified she may or may not have been.

The fact that Chakwera had with him in London during the time of the HARDtalk interview a delegation of nine other people (all at British taxpayers’ expense) – including his wife, daughter and son-law – while Malawi’s foreign minister remained at home, only serves to fuel perceptions and allegations of nepotism against him, which is precisely why Montague challenged him on this.

Chakwera’s failure to be an authentic leader

Using the BBC HARDtalk interview as an entry point for comparing what Chakwera committed to before and upon becoming president of Malawi and what has prevailed in his leadership behaviour after that, it becomes apparent that the ALM’s African of the Year 2021 lacks authenticity.  

Is it possible that Chakwera does not recognise the likely impact of his and his government’s nepotism on those working in government and the Malawian citizenry more broadly? Is it possible that he lacks self-awareness? His rhetoric before and upon becoming president suggests that he would recognise the consequences of his nepotistic behaviour – if only that it would rightly upset Malawians and detract from his support base.

The alternative is that he is aware but because he is now in power and because of short-term self-interest, family interest and elite interest, he does not care enough or possess the determination and courage to change course from his predecessors. This raises the question of whether Chakwera keeps an internalised moral perspective that allows him to deny societal pressures and engage in ethical and transparent decision-making and behaviour that is consistent with the values he professes.

Appointing his son-in-law as his executive assistant, his daughter as a personal assistant to the first lady and allowing her appointment later as an unqualified diplomat to a foreign country, suggests he did not engage in an objective analysis of all relevant information before he did so. Put simply, he failed to engage in balanced processing of information and subsequently failed to make the right decisions.

Of the four core components of authentic leadership, Chakwera’s poor responses to the questions set before him during the HARDtalk interview highlights most prominently the absence of relational transparency in his leadership. Because relational transparency promotes trust it is the absence thereof that is likely to have done the most damage to his reputation among Malawians, and it will be one of the factors underlying the protests and demonstrations that broke out across the country in late 2021 and have continued into the new year.     

Recommendations for a turnaround

A Chinese proverb reads: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” Chakwera has failed to be an authentic leader. This does not necessarily mean it is too late for him to make amends and restore a semblance of trust in his government, his presidency and his leadership.

For Chakwera to turn around negative perceptions of his leadership and his government more broadly, and repair the damage he has done, is not impossible, but it will take courage and determination.

A good start will be acknowledging where nepotism has taken hold in his government, the nepotism he is guilty of, the dishonesty and inconsistency he has displayed, and the consequences of these leadership and ethical failures. He will do well to apologise for these failures and the embarrassment he caused the Malawian people and his political colleagues during his interview on HARDtalk.

Beyond giving recognition and apologies where these are due, Chakwera will need to engage in restorative justice, without which his admissions and apologies will carry little value. In this case, restorative justice could and should take the form of recalling those government officials appointed to their posts because of family ties and replacing them with persons who have completed objective and merit-based promotion and appointment procedures. Could Chakwera’s recent dissolution of Malawi’s entire cabinet over corruption allegations be the first step on such a journey? 

In following the steps above, Chakwera might add to the ALM African of the Year award some of the credibility it is presently lacking. He might also be spared from having to follow through with a commitment he made as a presidential contender during a New Year’s message in 2019: “And within the first two years of being president, I will change everything in the way that we run things. If I don’t change everything in two years, I will resign.” DM

Craig Bailie holds a Master’s degree in International Studies from Rhodes University and a certificate in Thought Leadership for Africa’s Renewal from the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He is presently studying towards a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership through Regent University in the US. The views expressed are his own. An extended version of this article can be found here.

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