A “Gordian knot” is a conundrum denoting a complex or unsolvable problem. The term’s origin is traced to Alexander the Great who, in 333 B.C., marched into the Phrygian capital of Gordium in modern-day Turkey.
Upon arrival, history says he encountered an ancient wagon, its yoke tied with “several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened.”
According to folklore, the wagon had once belonged to Gordius, the father of the celebrated King Midas of the Midas’ Touch fame and an oracle had decreed that whosoever unravelled its elaborate knots would rule entire Asia.
Impetuous Alexander the Great was instantly determined to untie the Gordian knot. He wrestled with it for a while, to no avail.
Not one to take no for an answer or accept failure, he paused, re-strategized, then proclaimed.
“It makes no difference how they are loosed!”
Quickly, he drew his sword and with a single stroke, sliced the knot in half.
Evan Andrews (historian) acknowledges another version where Alexander the Great simply pulled out the lynchpin running through the yoke which loosened the knot enough to unfasten.
Whatever happened, it was agreed that he had solved the ancient puzzle.
A fortiori when that same night Gordium was rocked by a thunder and lightning storm, Alexander and his men interpreted it as a sign that Alexander had pleased the gods. Furthermore, as per the oracle, he conquered Egypt and large swaths of Asia before his death at age 32.
Thus the phrase “Gordian knot” was born.
Now, delivering the moon he promised during the campaign is something President Chakwera is discovering to be a complex and intractable challenge. To borrow from the Greek myth above, Chakwera has found himself face-to-face with a massive Gordian knot.
Luckily for him, Malawi has no shortage of wise men and women.
One such is Professor Garton Kamchedzera who on the twilight of the year 2020 scrutinised the knot vexing Chakwera and suggested some solutions.
The professor’s mini-thesis is over 5,000 words, and I can’t reproduce it in full. I have therefore picked areas which could help Chakwera loosen the Gordian knot.
Kamchedzera set out to explore whether the servant leadership touted by Chakwera would actually put Malawi on a different development trajectory towards a better Malawi, for all.
“By the end of 2020, servant leadership would catalyse Malawi to defeat the power of convenience-preserving public functionaries and public resource-siphoning cliques” is Kamchedzera’s hypothesis.
He outlined his prejudices and assumptions, namely that:
- politics is inherently dirty, and soils whosoever walks into its slime.
- “dyera” is the dominant political ideology in Malawi.
- Bakili’s lost decade successfully killed professionalism and hard work in the civil service and
- Today’s civil service is merely for governmental convenience, easy access to public resources, with service delivery as a matter of charity.
All these have resulted in sleaze, mediocrity, and governmental ineffectiveness, while the masses suffer and sink deeper into poverty and varying degrees of despair.
He then touched on the two judgments in the 2019-2020 presidential election case which he thought signalled “a path of expected duty and accountability-based standards for public functionaries towards the aspirations envisaged in the country’s Constitution”.
His hope, his says, increased when the Electoral Commission followed the judgments, pertinent statutory provisions, and the Constitution to implement fresh elections that made him feel proud as a Malawian.
Come the new national leadership, its “servant leadership” mantra struck a chord in the professor’s mind that this “servant leadership” thing was a potent cure for the “dyera”ideology.
Indeed, to many Malawians, servant leadership, uniting Malawians, prospering together, ending corruption, and the rule of law sounded like what the proverbial doctor had prescribed.
Since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, Kamchedzera set out to observe, at least for five months, whether expectations would be met.
He foresaw a conflict. A battle between servant leadership on the one hand, and governmental convenience and easy access to public economic resources on the other was unavoidable because “servant leadership” is incompatible with the “dyera” ideology.
After observation, listening, and following developments, the professor suggests that the old order has successfully defeated the notion of servant leadership.
The President and the Vice President have been lulled into a comfort and dependency complex that traps, makes them unsure, yet enjoying power.
How? By “kuweta” or “taming” the President through:
- a) imperial comforts, privileges, protocol, and esteem which have made an imperial figure out of the would-be servant leader;
- b) capturing the state of the nation address by making it focus on governmental sectors rather than “Tonse” priority results;
- c) advising the President to have State House politically appointed advisors when under Malawi’s Constitution, the Cabinet is “responsible for advising the President”. As per the professor, State House advisors just enable “family and political cliques easy access to public economic resources and make the President vulnerable and dependent on cliques”; and
- d) ignoring or slowing down critical areas of reform.
On their part, the professor notes that in the battle above, Chakwera and Chilima made four fundamental errors. These are:
- a) naivety in assuming that public institutions would be professional and effective;
- b) ignoring the instrumentality of the contract in perpetuating convenience-based government and easy access to public economic resources;
- c) relying on government-like, even retired and tired public servants under previous regimes, to deliver the Hi-5 and associated Agenda; and
- d) ignoring that Malawi has long had family-based patriarchal and capitalist cliques that have corrupted previous leaders.
What should have been Chakwera’s strategy?
Kamchedzera says a more robust “Kuchotsa” or “Removal” of “rubble as redefined in Chakwera’s speech of 5 November 2020 on the MSCE leakage scandal. Rather than playing to the gallery as he often does, Chakwera should take targeted action on the government machinery wherein the devil lies.
- Clearing old and new rubble at five levels namely the presidential, Cabinet, MDA, community, and national levels and knowing that rubble will not necessarily be removed by controlling officers because some of them are the “rubble” that needs to go! Trash cannot clear trash!
- Making the most of institutions like the Ombudsman, the Anticorruption Bureau etc.
- Doing the needful, i.e. making and effecting hard decisions with the requisite urgency rather than the shilly-shallying approach favoured by Chakwera for which he was admonished by the clergy at Archbishop Ziyaye’s funeral.
Further, clearing the rubble should have been a priority legislative matter so that the new Boards operate with law-based criteria and benchmarks for firing and hiring. Introducing a code of ethics for the civil service would have also helped.
Can “servant leadership” still win the battle?
Kamchedzera is cautiously optimistic. He thinks the likelihood of success still exists. Its however problematic because public roles are regarded as a “national cake” to be shared and exclude others.
Further, this has been exacerbated by Chakwera’s unwitting or intentional infusion of his own rubble through appointments and willingness to be “tamed”.
With five months gone, while Chakwera can now boast of on-the-job experience, the clock is ticking and the masses are asking: does Chakwera have the grit to swiftly draw his sword and with a single stroke, slice the Gordian knot?
One thing is clear: talking will not cut it. Action, action and more action is what will unravel the Gordian knot.
Happy New Year!