In the business world and in general, Germans are known as straight shooters and not the most diplomatic lot. This tendency can sometimes come off as downright rude, especially in a culture like ours, where there is a stronger emphasis on indirect communication, where we couch the truth in parables, metaphors and fake smiles.
Germans are like this because they tend to be very goal-oriented in their interaction. They want to get right to the point, and not beat around the bush. Germany also doesn’t have as big a small-talk culture as, say, the United States, where it is much more common to talk to strangers on the street.
The upside of this tendency is that there isn’t that much to decode. A yes is a yes and a no is a no. It’s not meant as an affront or insult but merely serves to state the actual conviction of the speaker.
And so, this week, Malawi had a taste of the typical German straight-talking character. German ambassador to Malawi, Peter Woeste, said he gets annoyed when donors are asked “like headmasters” about what they think after Parliament presentation of budgets – on which they normally comment diplomatically for the sake of being seen as speaking positives.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing on social media. One Malawian angrily wrote: ‘I find the remarks by the ambassador rude and arrogant. As ambassadors from developed nations, we expect to learn from them as we play catch-up. They have been there and have the experience to deal with challenges the likes of which we currently face. Is it a bad thing to ask for advice? Yes, there are sometimes lazy reporters who ask silly questions, but that should not be interpreted to mean that all Malawians are stupid.’
While Malawians have every right to react in a manner of their choosing, there is a risk that the essence of what the ambassador said could be lost in translation. At any rate, his blunt talk is what our country needs to develop. In urban American English, we could say the ambassador has run out of fucks to give.
Let us look at key parts of his speech, as lifted from the Daily Times:
‘Well-wishers, my British colleague recently said in an article, sometimes can be a misnomer for shady cartels and self-enrichment. State security is sometimes also used to cover dubious deals. Today we know that there hasn’t been just one Cashgate, but many. There is room to look more intensively into those other Cashgates. In this respect, we find it important to finally guarantee the full independence of the National Audit Office.’
The fight against corruption is the sorriest story of our country right now. Take the Muluzi case, for instance. Justice is being raped right in front of our eyes, led by the government of President Peter Mutharika. We also know that the K577 billion Cashgate has been thrown into the dust bin. We should not think donors are fools to believe Mutharika the next time he stands on the podium and talks big about efforts to fight corruption. What Ambassador Woeste said here is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The so-called well-wishers have caused this country the most grievous harm. They thoroughly corrupt each sitting president so that they can harvest onerous business deals at the expense of poor Malawians.
It is for this reason that in America, almost all gifts given to their president are sent to the National Archives. As the gifts that U.S. presidents received started to become more extravagant, a rule was enacted to ensure there was no impression of impropriety. The Foreign Gifts and Declarations Act of 1966 was prompted in part by the expensive gifts some Arab kings would bring on their visits, like luxury cars and fine horses. In political culture, perception becomes reality. It did not look good to have the president accept something that flashy as a ‘gift’, after all there is no such thing as free lunch. The rule, therefore, put a limit to the value of a gift a president could accept, with most gifts going directly to the National Archives after being presented. The limit is currently set at $375.
Here at home, presidents get away with murder. Chartered aeroplane from well-wishers? Check. Cars from well-wishers? Check. Huge sums of cash from well-wishers? Check.
And indeed security expenditure is mostly a by-word for thieving at the highest level. Why, then, should the ambassador couch the truth in poetry when its sharpest edges hurt us every day?
On inept institutions and paralysis caused by a culture of entitlement
‘I hear that bills are taking their endless cycles in yet another committee. I hear that memos are going back and forth between the ACB [Anti-Corruption Bureau] and the Speaker, for example. I would like to hear more about adoption of decisions and less about allowances. And some of these allowances, take fuel allowance, are totally bizarre.’
When I worked in government, it was impossible to get things done unless allowances were involved. At that time, Finance Minister, Matthews Chikaonda, had banned unnecessary conferences at the lake. Sometimes, however, people did not bother to go to the lake at all. They carried out the business right there in Lilongwe and pocketed allowances regardless. Chikaonda set the minimum distance from the office for allowances to be granted. It had either to be at Nathenje or Mponela, and business for these two places spiked at once.
This culture of entitlement is killing us. MPs choose to be absent from Parliament on many days, but they pocket allowances for hundred per cent of the sitting. Some government officials are given an entitlement of fuel so huge that it is not realistic that they can use it per month, so they secretly go to filling stations to exchange the coupons for cash.
We, as Malawians, may want to feel good, to have our egos massaged by being told we are doing well when, in fact, we are not. All countries around us are developing and we are truly lagging behind. So, bring it on, Mr Ambassador. Only the truth shall set us free.