Talking Blues: Of Greene’s 48 Laws of Power and Malawi


“When a powerful leader passes, a wise citizen bows deeply and silently farts.” Ethiopian proverb

A couple of weeks ago, I made a strong case that Machiavellianism is the current leadership’s standard operating procedures (SOP).

In case you missed that write-up, let me recap. Machiavellianism describes unethical behaviour characterised by manipulation, lies, broken promises, cunningness, narcissistic (incredibly selfish) behaviour, manipulativeness, and indifference to morality.

At their worst, Machiavellians are addicted to power, money, and control and will say or do anything to gain or retain all three. Those wishing to delve deeper should read The Prince by Machiavelli.

Today, I want to recommend another book which, in my opinion, is the current leadership’s supplement to Machiavellian SOPs. This is Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power.

Worry not if you haven’t read it; I have your back. If you’ve read it but are yet to decipher its relevance to us, hang on.

Unlike Machiavelli’s The Prince, where deviousness is undisguised, The 48 Laws of Power is subtle. Reading casually, you could think you’ve been doing things all wrong. But if you read and ponder, it all fits.

To make this point, I have extracted some “Laws” and used events and patterns in the incumbent president’s style to demonstrate how many of the 48 laws are being put to good use.

For whose benefit, your guess is as good as mine.

Law No. 2 discourages trusting friends too much for fear of betrayal. Hire former enemies. They’ll be loyal.

If you recall, a sizeable population in or that joined MCP and helped rebrand during the 2013 renaissance are now in the wilderness.
Even the incumbent’s prominent presidential debate coaches and funders have since fallen out of favour. I don’t need to drop names. Instead, it is political nomads calling the shots. That is Law No. 2 at work.

Laws No. 3 and 17 counsel holding one’s cards close to the chest to keep people guessing. Cultivating an air of unpredictability to intimidate is also peddled as imperative.

Many well-meaning people who have met or attempted to meet the leadership to offer advice on many current challenges can bear witness to this being their experience. Either they were not welcome or received no feedback, or their wise counsel ended up like the Biblical seed that fell on rocky places.

A perfect example is the Vice President. He is living in a state of perpetual guessing. As for his famous but still secret “Chilima Report”, only God knows.

The inexplicable time lag between any announcement of a Cabinet reshuffle and the actual reshuffle is another. Keep them guessing, and they will stay in line is the name of the game.

Law No. 4 encourages speaking only when necessary and, when doing so, being deliberately vague.

Remember the smuggled bill, the Sattar mess, the alleged missing MK30 billion, and the stolen Covid19 billions? First, recall the time it took the president to address the nation on these matters and then assess if whatever directions he made were implemented in a manner that resolved the issues. That was a result of deliberate vagueness despite the long-winded speeches.

Law No. 5 highlights the importance of reputation, which must be jealously guarded because it is the currency of power, and one can win with reputation alone.

If truth be told, the current president was elected solely on the strength of his reputation, courtesy of his former career.

The question is: is his reputation getting better or depreciating?

Laws No. 6, 25, 34 and 37 reinforce each other. No. 6 states that appearances matter, the more colourful, the better. No. 25 emphasises the value of a strong brand. No. 34 spices up No. 6 and No. 25: “Act like a king to be treated like one”. No. 37 enhances Nos. 6, 25 and 34 and is very direct: “Create compelling spectacles” with striking imagery and symbolic gestures. In short: dazzle by appearance.

This must resonate with you all. In case it doesn’t, let me help you with a hint. Remember the military garb we like sporting these days? That’s the why.

Laws No. 7 and 26 are double-edged swords. If played well, one wins both ways. Let others do the heavy lifting.

When things go well, the credit is yours. But should something go awry, e.g. the botched fertiliser deal, the smuggled bill, the fuel and forex crisis, the NOCMA Acting CEO mess, you have a fall guy.

Law No. 10 recommends associating only with the happy and fortunate and avoiding the unhappy and the unlucky for fear of “infection”. Hence the desolate rank-and-file MCP grassroots who, as we speak, wonder what happened to the leader who used to be close to them.

Law No. 11 advocates against teaching people to fish lest they become independent. Make or leave them poor and dependent, and they will do your bidding.

This explains the zero effort to:

(a) eradicate poverty,
(b) improve the dwindling education standards,
(c) the inaction on mass youth unemployment, and
(d) wean Malawians off AIP.

Keep them poor and dependent!

Law No. 12 hurts me the most. It promotes (a) using honesty and generosity to gain people’s confidence then (b) deceiving them big time. Use one sincere gimmick to cover up, say, looting in billions.

Why does this one hurt? Because we swallowed this scam hook, line, and sinker and today, we are paying dearly.

Law No. 13 advises appealing to people’s self-interest and promising the moon and reinforces No. 12 above. In short: we have conmen at work.

Law No. 15 recommends crushing your enemy totally, in body and spirit. No half measures. Sounds like the fate of UTM, doesn’t it?

Law No. 16 advises creating “value through scarcity”. Be inaccessible to increase respect and honour because familiarity breeds contempt.

This is being manifested by how some senior government and party officials are waiting in vain for an audience with HE. It will soon be three years of waiting in vain.

Law No. 18, if read superficially, seems to contradict No. 16. But it does not. No. 18 states isolation is dangerous. The leader is best shielded from enemies when in a crowd. Hence the inner circle and lots of hangers-on always ringfence the principal.

Law No. 19 advises against offending the wrong person.

Do you know why mountains had to be moved for the unpopular former SPC to be let go and for the NOCMA Acting CEO to be “fired” while the former Attorney General was fired without much ado? It is because there was no reason to fear the former AG.

The same cannot be said of the former SPC and the reluctantly fired NOCMA Ag. CEO. These two are kamikaze drones waiting to explode.

Law No. 20 encourages playing people against one another. The outcome of this is the dysfunctional government we have.

Law No. 21 recommends disguise. Don’t be stupid, but make people believe you are dumb when you are not. This is self-evident. I will leave this at that.

Law No. 27 encourages playing with peoples’ minds. Give them something to believe in so that they follow you like a cult leader. Offer them a cause, a new future. The vaguer it is, the better.

Sort of like: Tsogolo labwino, lowala! Chakwera Super Hi5! Catchy but empty.

Law No. 42 is nearly Biblical. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter”. Trouble, it is noted, is usually traceable to a single individual. Such people are dangerous: banish them.

This is manifested by the recent mishaps of one Joshua Chisa Mbele Esq.

Law No. 45 exhorts preaching the need for change but not effecting any change.

This explains why despite the Sermon of the Rubble, despite the Chilima Report, despite “Mind-set Change Lectures”, nothing worth writing home about has transpired reform-wise.

What should we make of all this?

It is my studied view that the current leadership offerings – on both sides – offer no hope. When one recalls the Democratic Progressive Party’s reign, Machiavelli’s footprint was also all over the place, and so were these 48 laws.

How about we start doing things differently to get a different result next time? How long can Malawians, especially the youth, survive by bowing deeply while silently vitiating the air?


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