By Karen Mwendera
Early last year, at the inception of the Covid-19 pandemic, Malawi was also battling for democracy. When Lazarus Chakwera became President in June, his win was hailed as a victory for democracy and justice. Born in Lilongwe to a subsistence farmer, the philosophy and theology graduate leads a nine-party coalition, the Tonse Alliance. He spoke to FORBES AFRICA in this exclusive interview about taking on the reins during the pandemic and his plans for the country’s future.
Q. What has changed in the few months you have been in office in the midst of a pandemic?
A. My first week when I came into office was to change the direction of our country. Ours had been a country deeply entrenched in systematic corruption, greed, nepotism, executive arrogance, and economic atrocities committed by a huge cartel of state criminals. That’s why we are talking of changing direction for this sinking ship. That change of direction is embedded in my administration’s Super Hi5 Agenda, which is a blueprint for the plan to transform our country’s approach to governance. The tenets of this agenda are servant leadership, uniting Malawians, prospering together, ending corruption, and the rule of law. To execute this agenda, we have put together a formidable team of cabinet members committed to the renewal of Malawi, close to 40% of who are women.
Q. How have you managed to deal with the health and economic ramifications of the pandemic so soon into your new role?
A. The Covid-19 pandemic is such a colossal challenge that requires a complex cocktail of both domestic and international interventions. At a local level, we have focused on supporting our fragile health system in its provision of care for Covid-19 patients, campaigning vigorously with messages for preventive behaviors across our society, monitoring the inflow of travelers across our points of entry from Covid-hit countries, setting up a robust nationwide infrastructure for testing suspected cases, and curating innovative ways to support economic activity and income security for the most vulnerable of our people. At an international level, we have worked relentlessly to forge partnerships with other nations and international corporations to scale up and fast-track our access to and mobilization of funds, expertise, and medical supplies for our fight against Covid-19. In my capacity as President, I have also used my addresses at various global fora to call for a wide range of interventions for countries like mine, including debt cancellation and favorable terms for the movement of supplies and goods we need to sustain our fight and our economy.
Q. What initiatives do you plan to undertake in your first year in office?
A. We have no time to waste, which is why we hit the ground
running. We have embarked on reforms in all the departments of government, a high priority initiative housed within the Presidency through the Office of the Vice President. Secondly, we have engaged to stimulate our economy towards both our job creation and economic productivity agendas, including the passing of a budget that delivers on our key economic promises. Thirdly, we have implemented the Affordable Inputs Program that will revolutionize the agricultural sector and guarantee food security for our rural masses. Fourthly, we have strengthened both the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies with sufficient funding and autonomy to uphold the rule of law without political interference, which now makes Malawi a stable environment for foreign direct investments. Fifthly, I have rolled out an ambitious and necessary Climate Change Agenda, which includes the inauguration of a National Clean-Up Day.
Q. Africa is one of the youngest continents, how do you plan on involving more youth in government?
A. Malawi’s population now stands at 17.5 million, of which 75% are youth and 51% are women. This means that empowering youth and women is the key to unlocking the economic potential of Malawi as a whole. To achieve this, my administration is launching the National Youth Service which I promised before taking office. In the short term though, we are training youth in business, vocational, livelihood, and technical skills. We are providing startup tools and equipment and linking the youth to financial lending institutions to commodify their innovations.
We have also embarked on a nationwide project to rehabilitate existing youth centers, build new sports centers, including the National Netball Complex and a Sports Academy. Principally, my administration intends to ensure that services rendered to young people are designed with input from young people, which is why within the first two months of my administration, I held a Youth Summit to get the best ideas from young people for implementation at the highest level.
Q. What are your plans in turning Malawi into an economic hub like South Africa or Nigeria?
A. The success of Malawi’s economy, going forward, will be anchored on a solid institutional foundation, a thriving private sector, and an environment that is conducive to foreign investment, youth and women empowerment, and zero tolerance to corruption. We will continuously carry out public sector reforms in order to achieve these goals.
Q. You have put the fight against corruption at the top of the agenda. How are you dealing with it?
A. In the first place, my administration is equipping and resourcing the arms and institutions leading the fight against corruption to ensure their autonomy, including the Anti-Corruption Bureau, the judiciary, the police service, and others. You will see that reflected in the recent funding allocations in the national budget that we presented and approved by the National Assembly. To complement these institutional efforts, I have made it my business to position my administration to lead by example in the handling of public resources, demanding that all members of my cabinet declare their assets.
Q. How will you ensure that individuals who plundered government resources are prosecuted?
A. By promoting the independence of bodies constitutionally mandated to prosecute suspects of corruption and holding those at the helm of those bodies to public scrutiny and account.
Q. There are so many expectations by Malawians that your presidency will solve almost all challenges. This could be a tall order. How do you plan not to lose the trust of the citizens?
A. Public trust is lost through lack of integrity, lack of service, lack of empathy, and lack of accountability. I plan to stay in front of these landmines by avoiding and removing anything that has the potential to foster such.
Q. What initiatives or changes will you bring to the health system of Malawi and when do you expect them to be implemented?
A. My administration’s vision for the health sector is to give all Malawians access to quality, equitable, and affordable healthcare through the Universal Health Coverage. The following key interventions will be of focus in our approach: Scaling up the provision of sexual and reproductive health services, we have a goal to eliminate AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. My administration is implementing a National Strategic Plan for the HIV response, which aims at 95-95-95 coverage targets for diagnosis, treatment, and viral suppression by 2025. We are eradicating all forms of malnutrition and as a step towards that, 76 nutritionists across the country have been trained and employed to lead the efforts. Another one of my administration’s most daring goals is the eradication of Malaria, and we will soon be launching the ‘Zero Malaria Campaign’’ to support community awareness. We are strengthening Community Health Infrastructure by constructing more health posts as we work towards our long- term goal to put health services within walking distance of every Malawian.
Q. What final message would you have for Malawians and Africans across the world?
A. We can achieve more together than apart, but to work together, we must have the courage to see the things that unite us, not the things that divide us.