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The big-man syndrome as a security threat in Malawi: A critical theory perspective

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Abstract

Socio-political life in Malawi reveals immense security threats stemming from neopatrimonial aspects such as the big-man syndrome. This paper takes a critical theory approach in exploring this phenomenon in Malawi with examples from the university sector and the July 2011 country-wide demonstrations. A critical theory perspective aims at revealing distortions in society in order to effect positive or emancipatory social change. Similarly, in this paper, a critical theory stance is employed to show how the big-man syndrome has in recent years posed as a security threat in Malawi so as to suggest social change. The paper starts by conceptualising the notion of the big-man syndrome and providing recent examples of security threats posed by the syndrome with examples from the university sector and the recent country-wide demonstrations. Finally, the paper proposes a model of social change based on philosophical notions of dialectical reasoning and communicative rationality.
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The Big-Man Syndrome as a Security Threat in Malawi: A
Critical Theory Perspective.
Lester Brian Shawa
Mzuzu University, Malawi
Abstract
Socio-political life in Malawi reveals immense security threats stemming from neopatrimonial aspects
such as the big-man syndrome. This paper takes a critical theory approach in exploring this phenomenon
in Malawi with examples from the university sector and the July 2011 country-wide demonstrations. A
critical theory perspective aims at revealing distortions in society in order to effect positive or
emancipatory social change. Similarly, in this paper, a critical theory stance is employed to show how
the big-man syndrome has in recent years posed as a security threat in Malawi so as to suggest social
change. The paper starts by conceptualising the notion of the big-man syndrome and providing recent
examples of security threats posed by the syndrome with examples from the university sector and the
recent country-wide demonstrations. Finally, the paper proposes a model of social change based on
philosophical notions of dialectical reasoning and communicative rationality.
Introduction
The big-man syndrome is a notion associated with the concept of neopatrimonialism, which has
permeated social-political life in Malawi rendering it anti-democratic in many ways (Booth et al.
2006; 8-13; Shawa 2011: 24). This paper takes a critical theory approach to show how the big-
man syndrome poses as a security threat in Malawi and to suggest ways of containing it. The
paper uses examples from the university sector and the July 2011 country-wide demonstrations.
Neopatrimonialism is also associated with the notions of clientelism, patronage and misuse of
resources for political legitimacy. The big-man syndrome and the related notions are briefly
explained below.
The big-man syndrome or presidentialism refers to the dominance of one individual or group of
individuals who strive to exert or achieve absolute rule or control over others deemed as
‘subjects’ (Bratton and van de Walle 2002: 63). Engel and Erdmann contend that “clientelism
means the exchange or brokerage of specific services and resources for political support, often in
the form of votes. It involves the relationship between unequals, in which the major benefits
accrue to the patron” (Engel and Erdmann 2007: 106-7). Thus, clientelism facilitates personal
favours such as job offers or appointments by the big man to individuals in order for the big man
The Big-Man Syndrome as a Security Threat in Malawi
45
to sustain rule or power (Booth et al. 2006: 8-13). Patronage is a form of clientelism applied to
groups of people such as providing development finance within the logic of patrimony (Engel
and Erdmann 2007: 107).
Without strong reference to notions of clientelism, patronage and misuse of resources for
political legitimacy imbued within the notion of neopatrimonialism, this paper concentrates on
showing how the big-man syndrome poses as a security threat in Malawi. The understanding of a
security threat is a broad one, encompassing policy or decision-making processes including
policy-steerage mechanisms that limit citizens’ rights of expression that have the potential to
incite tension and violence within a country.
It is pertinent to note that events in this paper are discussed within the context of a political
situation in which former President Bingu wa Mutharika, had passed away before finishing his
term of office (scheduled to end by 2014) and during which the then Vice President, Joyce Banda,
assumed office amidst political uncertainty. This situation provides some lenses assisting our
understanding on what was happening at this time in terms of policy changes.
The paper has four sections: The first section conceptualises the notion of the big-man
syndrome. The second locates the syndrome as a normative aspect within the socio-political life
of Malawi. The third uses recent socio-political examples to show how the syndrome has in
recent years been a source of security threats in Malawi. Finally, drawing on a critical theory
perspective, the last section proposes a model of social change that advances aspects of self-
reflexivity and argumentation based on philosophical concepts of dialectical reasoning and
communicative rationality respectively.
Conceptualising the Notion of the Big-Man Syndrome
As noted, the big-man syndrome is a concept associated with the term neopatrimonialism (Engel
and Erdmann 2007: 97). Political scientists have used Max Weber’s notion of the patrimonial
state, which describes pre-industrial states in which the ruler owns all the wealth such that power
operates on a private basis, to explain the notion of neopatrimonialism (97). While under
patrimonialism, power depends on personal relations determined by the ruler and there is no
difference between the private and the public, under neopatrimonialism, power operates in both
private and public domains. Neopatrimonial rule thus combines aspects of patrimonialism and
the modern demands of democratic rule (105). The challenge, however, is that the private and
public domains under neopatrimonialism permeate each other in ways that are mostly anti-
democratic as has been the case in many modern African countries (von Soest 2007: 621-5).
A society that exhibits the big-man syndrome suffers from the dominance of its leaders who
strive for absolute power. In such societies there is usually a lack of democratic decision-making
mechanisms characterised by a lack of transparency, misuse of funds and a concentrated power
structure that depends on the big man (Cammack 2007: 600-1). In this way, the big-man
syndrome facilitates a powerfulless-powerful relationship in society (Shawa 2011: 27).
From a critical theory perspective, the big-man syndrome can be explained using Habermas’
notion of lifeworld (Habermas 1987: 130). Habermas describes the lifeworld as a background to
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behaviour or a cultural and social context in which a shared societal meaning is derived. He
posits that the nature of behaviour and decision-making mechanisms in society are influenced by
the lifeworld. However, the danger is that this shared context in which the nature of behaviour
and decision-making mechanisms are derived could be informed by distortions, such as the big-
man syndrome (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 130). Habermas thus argues for a need to expose the
lifeworld to criticism and deliberation or argumentation to expose distortions in order to effect
social change (Habermas 1984: 70). In this paper, these insights are pertinent in that to contain
the big-man syndrome there is a need to expose it to criticism and argumentation.
The Big-Man Syndrome in the Socio-Political Life of Malawi
Neopatrimonialism in the socio-political life of Malawi has deep roots. In general, the aspect of
the big-man syndrome seems to be posited normatively due to differences in power relations
such as those between the rich and the poor (Booth et al. 2006: 8-13). Gilman posits that since
the social situation in Malawi is highly stratified the poor population is less powerful and is
prone to be susceptible to blind loyalty to the rich and powerful. This results in a reality “in
which the ruling elite controls and owns most of the country’s economic and political resources,
while the majority of the population is hoping to attain any little bit through the goodwill and
generosity of these same people” (Gilman 2001: 46). This powerful/less-powerful behaviour thus
translates deeply at every level of the socio-political life in Malawi in which, for example, the
big men who have power want to exert absolute control over the led or the less powerful (Booth
et al. 2006: 8-13).
The powerful/less-powerful behaviour is exacerbated by the traditional governance system or
rule by chiefs who traditionally exert great authority over their subjects in most of Africa
(Hendricks and Ntsebeza 1999: 99-126). Moreover, in Malawi, the chiefs tend to be susceptible
to the ruling party as such they also get authority over their subjects through the political space.
It follows therefore that the chieftainship can be used as an arena for social control by the
government. As a normative aspect in the Malawian society, this big-man syndrome can be
regarded as part of a lifeworld that determines ways of acting or behaviour in the socio-political
life. It is this normative stance, the taken-for-granted, that requires change in order to avoid
security threats that result from the big-man syndrome.
To give an example from the Malawi Congress Party and the Kamuzu Banda regime (1964-
1994), it is clear that President Banda used ideological leadership to sustain his big-man
syndrome (Chirambo 2004: 148). This was manifested in the way he created a special idolised
image of himself: He was the Father and founder of the Malawi nation; he was the only person
that Malawians wanted to rule the country, and, like Jesus Christ, he was chosen by God before
he was born to save Malawi (148-9). He was thus called, His Excellency, Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu
Banda, the Life President of the Republic of Malawi.
The special image that Banda created about and for himself was reified through folk music and
dance that people performed for their saviour (Chirambo 2001: 206). For example, this big man
The Big-Man Syndrome as a Security Threat in Malawi
47
and saviour was the “biggest” in the whole of Africa as the members of the Women’s League
from Ntcheu district of Malawi portrayed in one of their songs:
Kunoku Malawi kuno
Ngakhale mu Africa
KulibewinapuresidentiwoposaKamuzu
Mbumbazikunyadira
Ife tikunyadira, kulibewinapurezidentiwoposaKamuzu
Here in Malawi
Even in the whole of Africa
There is no president as powerful as Kamuzu
Women are happy
We are happy
There is no president as powerful as Kamuzu
President Kamuzu Banda’s behaviour reflected a one-man show in which everything belonged
to him, the most powerful being. All national policy-steerage in the country depended on the big
man Banda. Thus, normatively, Malawians believed or were meant to believe that Banda was
really chosen by God hence no one would equate to him. It follows that anyone who differed
with Banda was imprisoned or exiled creating fear and tension in the country (Kerr and Mapanje
2002: 79). The following section shows how the big-man syndrome poses as a security threat in
the democratic era in Malawi.
The Big-Man Syndrome as a Security Threat in the Democratic Era in
Malawi
As noted, this paper posits a broad understanding of a security threat, encompassing policy or
decision-making processes including policy-steerage mechanisms that limit citizens’ rights of
expression and have the potential to incite tension and violence within a country.
With the dawn of multiparty democracy in 1994, it was expected that most issues surrounding
governance would change for the better. However, the big-man syndrome has been carried over
to the democratic rule revealing how ingrained it is within the socio-political life of Malawi. For
example, both multi-party presidents: Bakili Muluzi (1994-2004) and Bingu wa Mutharika
(2004-2012 [2014])
1
have in their own ways sustained the big-man syndrome in their rule.
Cammack quotes an informant’s account of when Bingu wa Mutharika was addressing his
ministers:
1
President Binguwa Mutharika passed away before finishing his second term of office which was supposed to
end by 2014
Southern African Peace and Security Studies 1(2)
48
No one should question. He has reached the point that the cabinet has to clap hands and sing. The
same songs we sang for Kamuzu, we sing for him. This is a human being living in different era and
this era is not good for him because it requires that you have to listen and compromise…when he
makes a statement in cabinet, everyone has to agree. When you do not, you are seen as a barrier
(Cammack 2007: 6).
As per the above sentiments, the big-man syndrome facilitates misuse of power at the expense
of democratic tenets within a society or a nation. In the recent past, some of the activities of the
Malawi Government and the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) under president Binguwa
Mutharika have constituted security threats as they limited [some] citizens’ democratic rights.
Following are examples of how the big-man syndrome has been a source of security threats in
Malawi in the recent past.
The Academic Freedom Saga in Malawian Universities
The example here shows how the big-man syndrome facilitated the stifling of academic freedom
in Malawian universities. Academic freedom can be defined as the ability of academic staff to
teach, conduct research and publish without outside interference (Anderson and Johnson 1998:
8). Contrary to this understanding, on 12 February 2011, an associate professor in the
Department of Political and Administrative Studies of Chancellor College, a constituent college
of the University of Malawi, was summoned by the Inspector General of police for questioning
over what he presented in the classroom during a political science lecture. This used to be the
case during the dictatorial time of Kamuzu Banda (1964-1994) (Kerr and Mapanje 2002: 79),
where the Malawi Government had spies in university classrooms to report issues that were
perceived to be against the government.
The summoning of the lecturer sparked intense controversy and a demand for academic
freedom, with lecturers at the University of Malawi demanding an apology from the Inspector
General of police and an assurance of safety in university classrooms. However, supported by the
Malawi president and in a big-man fashion, the Inspector General of police refused to apologise.
The lecturers then boycotted classes in demand for academic freedom to which the Malawi
Government respondent with threats to fire lecturers, freeze salaries and eventually closed the
campuses of the University of Malawi. In big-man fashion, President Bingu wa Mutharika who
was also chancellor of the university, publicly denounced lecturers’ actions and threatened to fire
and replace them within a short period of time. Thus, while academics stood their ground in
demanding for academic freedom, the big-man wa Mutharika was not ready for any constructive
talks and instead he went on blaming academics during some of his party rallies.
Given that academic freedom provides freedom to research and teach without outside
interference (Anderson and Johnson 1998: 8), the Malawi Government can be said to have stifled
academic freedom by interfering with what was presented in class. President Bingu wa
Mutharika and his DPP Government showed a lack of communicative rationality to solve issues
using reasoned arguments. The adamant position taken by the DPP Government in tackling the
The Big-Man Syndrome as a Security Threat in Malawi
49
academic freedom issue attracted demonstrations by concerned citizens, who were largely not
listened to within the big-man environment. Stifling of academic freedom is a good example of
how the big-man syndrome facilitates security threats in a country. The second example regards
the university selection by quota system that was also conceived and implemented within the
big-man environment.
The University Selection by Quota System
This example shows how the quota policy conceived within the big-man environment lacked
deliberative mechanisms and caused security threats in the country. In its way of solving
university access to university education, the DPP Government established a quota based on
district of origin in its selection of university students. Although this policy is contested as it
talks to people’s identities and was controversially challenged in court when the former
dictatorial regime pursued it (1989-1993), the DPP Government in 2009 advanced the policy
without any proper deliberative mechanisms. In big-man style, President Bingu wa Mutharika
dismissed any person who talked against it [the big-man had decided and no one was to
challenge the decision].
The former Malawi Congress Party Government of Kamuzu Banda first introduced the policy
in 1989. Against this policy then, four students: Charles Mhango, Ambokire Salimu, William
Kaunda and Christopher Chilenga who were admitted to the university on a non-residential basis
challenged the University of Malawi Council’s decision to admit them on that basis and on the
basis of district of origin other than on merit (Malawi Law Reports 2003). Following their
application to the court, the High Court of Malawi on 16 July 1993 rescinded the quota policy of
selection based on the following arguments:
That the university council adopted a government directive without making its own
decision on the issue in accordance with the University of Malawi Act and thereby
fettered its powers under the said act.
That the university council had implemented an academic policy without consulting the
senate as it was required under the act.
That the decision to base university selection on district quota other than on merit was
discriminatory and of no solid foundation (Malawi Law Reports 2003).
However, despite this High Court rule of 1993, in 2009 President Binguwa Mutharika and his
DPP Government decided to reintroduce the policy. The policy attracted demonstrations by
concerned citizens who generally saw the policy as discriminatory especially as it based its quota
on district of origin. While interested citizens sought judicial reviews more than once, the recent
quota policy has been maintained by the courts because unlike in 1993 those challenging it were
not directly affected by the policy.
In big-man fashion, the DPP Government’s university policy-steerage machinery did not give
room to dissenting views. The quota policy of university selection attracted multiple voices from
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religious leaders, university students, university lecturers, the civil society and many others from
which the government could have benefited in terms of debate. Notable among groups or
organisations that commented on the policy are the Public Affairs Committee (PAC): a grouping
of all faith groups in Malawi and the Livingstonia Synod: a Presbyterian Church operating in the
northern region of the country. Against the quota policy generally and the policy-making process,
in its press statement, the Public Affairs Committee argued as follows:
That the quota system as a policy issue could have benefitted from a proper consultative
process required in a democracy.
That the discussion culminated into political discourse and unleashed tribal, regionalist
and divisive sentiments in the country.
That the president’s declaration amounted to top down policy approach.
That the president should avoid publicly making comments likely to divide Malawians
As the press statement rightly captures, the stand of the president culminated into a political
discourse that unleashed tribal, regionalist and divisive sentiments in the country. These divisive
aspects are intrinsically embedded within the patron-client thinking alluded to earlier, which can
be argued to have been a way envisaged [probably wrongly] by the big-man Bingu wa Mutharika
to garner political support. This is so given the fact that the policy was largely seen as negatively
affecting the minority northern region, but not than the larger south and central regions from
which Bingu had comparatively more political support (Shawa 2011: 23).
On its part, the Livingstonia Synod in its press release generally argued that the quota policy is
anti-democratic and that it should not be used as an excuse for not expanding the higher
education sector in Malawi.
The policy attracted demonstrations by frustrated Malawians who were interested in social
justice. It can be argued that the big-manism in Bingu wa Mutharika and his DPP Government
yet again facilitated a source of security threat in the country due to a lack of listening or
communicative rationality (Habermas 1984: 86). The other examples hinge on the 20 July 2011
mass demonstrations in the country that were dealt with in a big-man fashion by the DPP
Government.
The 20 July 2011 Mass Demonstrations and Killings of Some Demonstrators
in Malawi
The mass demonstrations of 20 July 2011 provide excellent examples of security threats that
followed the big-man syndrome behaviour of the DPP Government generally. The mass
demonstrations were organised by the civil society due to concerns over governance, human
rights and economic problems in the country. Problems included fuel shortages, rising cost of
living and the general stifling of democratic values in the country. The civil society had tried its
best to engage with the government on how to solve the problems but did not manage to get a
“reasoning together” from the government.
The Big-Man Syndrome as a Security Threat in Malawi
51
Some of the issues that exacerbated the demonstrations are the two policies advanced by the
DPP Government: the injunctions bill and section 46 of the penal code. The injunctions bill was
passed by parliament on 16 June and came into law on 8 July 2011 when President Bingu wa
Mutharika accented to it. The bill barred ex parte granting of injunctions against the government
or public officers. The law caused public outcry as it limited citizens’ rights to challenge the
government and its machinery. The bill would have allowed the government to manipulate
citizens’ rights and continue to enjoy total control over Malawians. Despite reactions from the
civil society against the bill, in big-man fashion the government did not heed to the people’s
wishes.
In big-man fashion, the DPP-led government amended the constitution with a section 46 that
empowered the Minister of Information to reject information that was deemed dangerous to
society. In this vein, if the Minister of [information] had reasonable grounds to believe that the
publication or importation of any of publication would be contrary to the public interest, he
would, by order published in a gazette, prohibit the publication or importation of such
publication. This bill infringed citizens’ rights to information.
It can be argued generally that the 20 July mass demonstrations were a kind of a last resort to
beg the government to address the many issues that hinged on poor governance, human rights
and economic woes. However, during the demonstrations and in big-man fashion, the
demonstrators were shot at by the Malawi police leaving about 20 people dead across the country.
Thus, instead of facilitating a “reasoning together”, in big-man fashion the DPP Government
responded with violence to impede people’s democratic rights of expression, hence facilitating
security threats in the country.
While dismantling the cult of the big-man syndrome shall take time, some of the actions by
President Banda need notice. With the death of Bingu wa Mutharika, Banda facilitated the
repealing of both the injunctions bill and the amendment of section 46 of the penal code during
the June 2012 parliamentary sitting. This is important in containing the big-man syndrome.
However, changing the syndrome requires a change of attitudes and developing a culture that can
allow for democratic rule. It thus requires President Banda, in collaboration with other actors, to
bring about a sustained way of containing the syndrome. The next section suggests a
philosophical grounding to contain the big-man syndrome.
A Philosophical Grounding to Contain the Big-Man Syndrome
As argued earlier, a critical theory perspective proposes a need for humans to realise that they
can engage and change distortions that happen within their societies (Carr and Kemmis 1986:
130). This requires identifying agents of change and suggesting ways to effect change. This
paper advances a need for self-reflexivity and argumentation based on philosophical notions of
dialectical reasoning and communicative rationality as ways in which to conceive containment of
the big-man syndrome.
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Agents of Change
This paper identifies the following agents of change: the civil society, the Malawi Government
and the international community. These actors are identified because of their potential role both
directly and indirectly in democratising the Malawi nation. The understanding of civil society is
a broad one and it encompasses the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the church,
university institutions and the general public sphere. The civil society in the country has shown
great interest in fighting the big-man syndrome. This is very important in order to advance the
democratic rights of the people. The new government led by President Banda seems to be
interested in listening to its citizens as exemplified by the recent repealing of some of the anti-
democratic laws. The international community is important in making sure that Malawi follows
its protocols that hinge on human rights that the country has signed thereby promising to uphold.
Dialectical Reasoning and Communicative Rationality
From notions of dialectical reasoning and communicative rationality, this paper advances ideas
of self-reflexivity and argumentation respectively as ways of containing the big-man syndrome.
The idea of dialectical reasoning entails understanding things as they are now and what they
might be in the future (Adorno 1982: 38-9; How 2003: 3-4). For example, for Hegel, dialectics
meant that the particular and the universal were interdependent (How 2003: 3-4), revealing the
idea that reality is a becoming. Thus, dialectical reasoning demands constant questioning or
reflexivity conceived as involving three moments: thesis, antithesis and synthesis (Carr 2000:
212). In this questioning, reality embodies the reflexive mind that negates the self-evident nature
of reality (Horkheimer 1978: 26-48). For Adorno (1982: 38-9) dialectical reasoning also entails
seeing the new in the old other than just the old in the new. Like Hegel, Adorno holds that the
dialectic always involves asking questions about, what a future might be, from what is now. As
such, other than viewing matters in nomothetic terms, dialectical reasoning demands continuous
questioning of reality (Carr 2000: 217). For example, “for human justice to exist, to be justice at
all, it must suggest the potentiality of fairness, rightness, equity and so forth” (How 2003: 3-4).
To contain the big-man syndrome in Malawi, state presidents, politicians, government officials,
the civil society and the general public sphere ought to start looking at reality within the realms
of dialectical reasoning.
To contain the big-man syndrome, however, dialectical reasoning ought to be complemented by
the Habermasian theory of communicative action or rationality that allows for argumentation.
The theory of communicative rationality is against instrumental reasoning. The phrase
instrumental reasoning was coined by Horkheimer following on Weber’s argument that in
western society, reason was being used for social control by some people (Rasmussen 2004: 14).
This meant for Weber, that reason became devoid of its emancipatory role as it was being used
for manipulative purposes (14). It is this manipulative nature employed through reason that
Horkheimer termed instrumental reason or force of reason for social control (Grubbs 2000: 222-
223). It is against the domination and colonising effects of the powerful through instrumental
The Big-Man Syndrome as a Security Threat in Malawi
53
reasoning, that this paper suggests that communicative rationality as argued by Habermas would
be helpful to contain the big-man syndrome.
Habermas posits critique within communicative action in which actors seek to reach common
understanding and coordinate actions by reasoned arguments, consensus and cooperation, rather
than instrumental reasoning or strategic action aimed at manipulation (Habermas 1984: 86). He
advances the idea that communicative action is complemented by a theory of the lifeworld (70)
in which he contends that subjects acting communicatively always come to an understanding in
the horizon of a lifeworld or a cultural, social and shared meaning context (1987:130). As such,
the “lifeworld provides context in which actors come to know themselves, where they ask
questions of each other raising validity claims about what is true or force, right or wrong, about
what should or should not happen” (How 2003: 128). As noted, the lifeworld is also posited as
the taken-for-granted. The danger is that this shared context in which meaning is derived could
be informed by distortions and anti-democratic practices, and thus, the need to rationalise or
contain the lifeworld through argumentation (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 130). In other words, there
is a need to question the taken-for-granted. Habermas posits as follows:
The more cultural traditions predecide which validity claims, when, where, for what, from whom, and
to whom must be accepted, the less the participants themselves have the possibility of making explicit
and examining the potential grounds on which their yes/no positions are based (Habermas 1984:70).
Rationalisation (containing) demands that validity claims that may be influenced by the
lifeworld need to be exposed to criticism and deliberation based on reason (Habermas 1984: 337).
This means that argumentation facilitated through communicative rationality is, as such, key in
rationalising or containing the lifeworld. In this paper thus, argumentation is important in
containing the big-man syndrome.
The Role of Dialectical Reasoning and Communicative Rationality
Dialectical reasoning is pertinent to containing the big-man syndrome in that it presents social
reality as in a constant transformation through human on-going reflexivity. Communicative
rationality is significant in its use of reason, inclusivity, freedom from domination, equality and
consensus in policy-making. Communicative rationality entails that government policy-steerage
ought to be a democratic affair in which domination is avoided in favour of rationality.
Embracing dialectic reasoning at a political level shall be helpful in producing politicians that
take their actions as a constant reflection to improve the sector rather than to control and
manipulate fellow citizens. State presidents, politicians and government officials who embrace
dialectical reasoning are bound to begin by questioning themselves as requiring change before
seeing what changes ought to be in others. Such thinking is important for them to guard against
the big-man syndrome.
Embracing communicative rationality would allow all concerned stakeholders to engage in a
deliberative way in policy formulation and create an enabling democratic environment in Malawi.
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For example, the quota selection policy would have benefited from such engagement if those
steering it did not harbour instrumental use of reason. Both dialectical reasoning and
communicative rationality would help politicians, as well as government officials, to rethink
their uncritical stances, that foster anti-democratic practices.
In trying to curb instrumental reasoning, there is a need to strengthen democratic institutions in
the country. A serious starting point is a need to uphold the rule of law as stipulated in the
constitution, such as in following the principle of separation of powers. For example, following
the principle of separation of powers would allow for an independent police service that would
not be manipulated by the government as was the case in some examples of the big-man
syndrome cited. In this way, rule shall be premised on the rule of law and not on the big man.
With strengthened democratic institutions, there is a need for establishing a strong national
communicative community or public sphere in which the identified agents could employ the
force of reason to deliberate on security threats such as those stemming from the big-man
syndrome. There is a need for a strong civil society to initiate deliberation on major issues that
affect the country.
There is a need to revisit the whole education sector from kindergarten to institutions of higher
learning so as to instill moral tenets within the curriculum that hinge on dialectical reasoning and
communicative rationality. For example, there is a dire need for universities to start genuine
training for citizenship education in which learners learn to formulate arguments, listen to other
people’s arguments, appreciate diversity and be able to develop their critical minds within the
realms of a deliberative community. In this way, as a nation, citizens will be better equipped to
criticise and rationalise distortions such as the big-man syndrome.
Drawing on a critical theory perspective, the model of social change presented in this paper is
based on establishing a conducive environment for democratic rule in which the big-man
syndrome can be contained. The concepts of self-reflexivity and argumentation based on
philosophical notions of dialectical reasoning and communicative rationality are pertinent in
fostering such an environment. The model advances practical ways of achieving such an
environment: personal growth in terms of self-reflexivity which needs to extend to the whole
community and nation, forming a deliberative public sphere that provides checks and balances
within policy-steerage, systemic changes such as in strengthening democratic institutions and
adhering to the principle of separation of powers, and attitude changes. In these areas, the
educational system has a role to play.
Conclusion
This paper has drawn on insights of critical theory to engage with the big-man syndrome as a
security threat in Malawi. The paper has shown that societies that exhibit the big-man syndrome
like in Malawi suffer from the dominance of its leaders who strive for absolute power. In such
societies there is usually a lack of democratic decision-making mechanisms. It is argued that the
big-man syndrome has posed as a security threat in that it has facilitated poor policy-making that
has limited citizens’ democratic rights. The paper gives three examples, which show how the
The Big-Man Syndrome as a Security Threat in Malawi
55
syndrome has posed as a security threat: the stifling of the academic freedom in Malawian
universities, the policy-making process of the quota system of university selection, and the mass
demonstrations of 20 July 2011 that reacted to the general demise of democratic values in
Malawi. In a critical theory fashion, the paper identifies agents of change and proposes a
philosophical grounding of change within dialectical reasoning and communicative rationality.
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Biographical Note
Dr Lester Brian Shawa obtained his PhD (Philosophy & Higher Education Policy) from the
Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand in 2011. He lectures Philosophy of Education
and Education Policy at Mzuzu University in Malawi, where he is also the deputy dean of the
Faculty of Education. He is a visiting lecturer at the Catholic University of South Africa (St
Augustine) as well as a Research Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
His research borders on critical theory, deliberative democracy, policy-praxis, quality discourses
in higher education and citizenship education.
... The problem with this system is that it is embedded within regional, linguistic and ethnic lines that reveal patronage politics (see Shawa, 2012;Chirwa, 2014). This is part of the larger neo-patrimonial social ethos in Malawi. ...
... Shawa (2012, p. 49), reports that the Banda regime introduced the quota system in 1987 and that "four students who were admitted on a non-residential basis challenged the University of Malawi Council's decision to admit them on that basis and on the basis of district of origin other than merit". The High Court rescinded the quota selection policy on the basis that, among other things, it was discriminatory (see Malawi Law Reports, 2003;Shawa, 2012). ...
... The assault on academic freedom and institutional autonomy seems to have extended to the multi-party democratic era. Examples range from the Chinsinga saga of 2011 -an associate professor of political science who was summoned and questioned about his class presentation (see Shawa, 2012), to the University of Malawi Bill of 2012 that proposed that the university council should appoint deans and heads of department (see University of Malawi Proposed Bill, 2012). Both issues sparked strong reactions within the university. ...
... Being an economically disadvantaged country, EDPs have been playing a major role in health service provision in Malawi since its independence in 1964. While Malawi is considered one of the most peaceful countries in sub-Saharan Africa, it faces long-standing political, fiscal and health system challenges (Durevall and Erlandsson, 2005;Shawa, 2012;Gabay, 2014). Since the new 'more democratic' government of 1994, 1 there have been further efforts by those EDPs supporting the Malawian Government in identifying priority areas in health, and in various other sectors of development, and allocating resources accordingly. ...
... Unfortunately, any abusive transaction, such as bribery, or corruption of resources, within the system can damage trust amongst stakeholders (Tibandebage and Mackintosh, 2005). Financial mismanagement and fraud have been major issues in Malawi for some time (Durevall and Erlandsson, 2005;Booth et al., 2006;Shawa, 2012). Unfortunately the acute and reverberative problem of the 'Cashgate' scandal, which broke in the summer of 2013, has further complicated the financing of the country's health sector, and the government's overall financial management system. ...
... Many foreign aid funded health and development activities were un-co-ordinated. At that point, the new government attempted to crackdown on the widespread corruption and make improvements in the public financing system (Shawa, 2012). This was ultimately expected to have a positive impact on health service financing. ...
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... Over the five decades of independence under five presidents 7 Malawi has been considered one of the most peaceful countries in sub-Saharan Africa. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi faces significant fiscal as well as political challenges but it has also been the recipient of a great deal of foreign aid and technical assistance for development (Shawa 2012;Sida 2005). ...
... In the absence of universal coverage in healthcare, household out-of-pocket spending for health is common in Malawi. Also, it is important to note that in the past two decades with donor commitment and support towards universal coverage, out-of-pocket expenses on health is reported to have decreased significantly, from 26 per cent in 1998/99 to 12.1 per cent in 2005/2006 and 12 per cent in 2013, relieving this debilitating burden on economically disadvantaged households (Mamaya 2015;Mwandira 2011;Zere et al. 2010) The recent scandal of financial mismanagement impacting on health sector financing: Financial mismanagement and fraud have been major issues in Malawi for some time (Shawa 2012;Booth et al. 2006;Sida 2004). Unfortunately, the acute and reverberative problem of the 'Cashgate' ...
... A major challenge of the interventionist mechanism is shown through policy formulation that tends to follow presidents' own quest to sustain political power. As an example, I briefly discuss the university access policy that shows patronage aspects in Malawi (see Shawa, 2012;. ...
... A major challenge of the interventionist mechanism is shown through policy formulation that tends to follow presidents' own quest to sustain political power. As an example, I briefly discuss the university access policy that shows patronage aspects in Malawi (see Shawa, 2012;. ...
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Makerere University started in 1922 as a humble technical school enrolling 14 day students of Carpentry, Building and Mechanics. Nine decades later, the University has made giant strides-enrolling over 35,000 students in over 145 study programmes hosted by nine colleges spread across various campuses. As one of the first higher education institutions in East and Central Africa, the university has had to contend with a multiplicity of issues, including relevance, curricula reform, community engagement and graduate employability; access, equity, massification and quality assurance; national politics, regulation, institutional autonomy and academic freedom; funding and financial management; student politics and activism; staff unionisation, management and brain drain; physical resources expansion, utilisation and maintenance; liberalisation, privatisation, commercialisation and internationalisation; Information and Communication Technology (ICT); and institutional leadership and integrity. Today, the University stands out proudly as a hallmark of innovation and excellence in teaching, research and community engagement, notwithstanding the challenges it has experienced over the years. As it celebrates 90 years, the higher education scholarly and policy fraternity take the opportunity to honour and continue the University’s tradition of scholarship and innovation - through contributing ideas for dealing with some of the challenges that the University and similar institutions are contending with. Although studies of Makerere University have been included, it must be understood that this book is not necessarily about the University. Additional studies have been drawn from Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and other institutions in Uganda.
... A major challenge of the interventionist mechanism is shown through policy formulation that tends to follow presidents' own quest to sustain political power. As an example, I briefly discuss the university access policy that shows patronage aspects in Malawi (see Shawa, 2012;. ...
... For example, a quota system limits their opportunities in the public service and in tertiary education, when compared to both Chewa and several minority ethnic groups (Shawa 2012). The economic activities in which they are discriminated against are often those in which English mastery is the most useful. ...
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... While popular support for democracy can be a 'mile wide, it may only be an inch deep' (Bratton & Mattes 2001), reflecting the quality of democracy that is emerging. Shawa (2012) identifies the capacity of the 'big man syndrome' to undermine democratic tenets. ...
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