How Saulos Did On Hard Talk


Saulos, Zainab in the studio

In the introduction, Zeinab Badawi described Malawi as “a small southern African state”. This condescending description of Malawi as “small” was an unforced error on the part of the interviewer, and that it was committed in the very introduction was a good opportunity for Saulos Chilima to seize control of the interview and present himself as the one who is going to drive the narrative on Malawian affairs in this interview, not her. But instead, Chilima let it slide, thus allowing her to be in command of the exchange from start to finish, which left him largely on the defensive where he is weakest, rather than staying on the offensive where he flourishes the most. A general rule in being an excellent interviewee is that before you answer any question, you must first and quickly decide whether or not you accept the premise of the question, and if you don’t accept it, then you must first challenge that premise before you even answer the question. Zeinab’s premise that she was talking with the Vice President of a small country had the effect of trivializing his significance, and Saulos should never have accepted that premise, for he is not from a small country, for there are smaller countries in Europe that she would not have derided for their size in a similar fashion.


This was Zeinab’s very first question, and it was obvious from BBC’s advert before the interview happened that this would be where the interview would start. Surprisingly, Chilima seemed to be caught off guard by the question, giving two rather lacklustre points in response. First, he said it is because times change. Second, he said it is because he has a constitutional right to run. This question was such a golden opportunity for Saulos to wax eloquent about his altruistic reasons for running, his burden regarding the stagnation of his people, his anguish over the corrupt state of the government, and his realization that his good intentions for the people of Malawi are held hostage by the ceremonial office of the Vice President. But instead of talking about his nation-building reasons, he talked about his personal rights, which sounded flat, uninspiring, and self-serving.


This was obviously going to be a very tricky area for him, because he and his team have not yet come up with a credible answer as to why he continues to hold his position as Vice President in a government he repudiates. This decision to retain his office in a government he describes as embarassingly corrupt is arguably the place he is most exposed to criticism because it is hard for him to make a convincing case that the same government you denounce as unworthy of public trust is worthy of your participation. And so when Zeinab asked the question, he admitted that constitutionally, his office is a delegated office, which means that being a functional Vice President requires delegation of duties from the President. But since he and the President are no longer talking and he is no longer attending cabinet meetings, then that means he has not been delegated any duties by the President for the past four and a half months. In short, Saulos is not doing his job because the President is not giving him any jobs to do. And yet, having said all that in the interview, Saulos insists, much to Zeinab’s dismay, that he is still doing his job as VP because, as he put it, he still shows up at the office, conducts meetings with his staff, and is available to answer questions from citizens. This kind of reductionism of his job is beneath the office of the Republic’s Vice President, and that he finds it justifiable to be expending large amounts of taxes from citizens on his security, benefits, and salary just so he can go sit in his office where there are no presidentially delegated tasks waiting for him smacks of entitlement, not service. And so Zeinab was right to characterize such a position as “awkward” and “difficult”.


When Zeinab asserted that by breaking rank from his own party and making his own bid for the top job, Saulos had turned against APM, Saulos said he had not. You have to be a Jedi master to pull that kind of mind trick effectively. If I was advising the Vice President, I would tell him that this kind of answer makes him sound disingenuous, and that it would be better and more credible to simply say that he is indeed against APM’s leadership. He should have said, “Zeinab, APM has failed to lead the country, he has failed to fight corruption, he has been implicated in the siphoning of 2 million dollars from a fraudulent government contractor into an account only he controls and which his party was forced to return to that businessman when it was exposed, he has lost the trust of the Malawian people, he has had two nationwide protests against his leadership in the space of six months, and right now he is headed for defeat at the polls because the Malawian people are against him, including members of his own family. And I too am against him, because I’d rather stand with the Malawian people than with my own boss, because the country is bigger than any one man. So yes, I am running against him because the people that pleaded with me to do so are against him and so am I.” But instead of this kind of consistency, he stands on a platform at political rallies where he and his coterie take turns to denounce and lampoon President Mutharika, and then turns around to sit with Zeinab to claim that he is not against Mutharika. If you are going to wear two faces, you have to at least make sure that people don’t see you wearing both at the same time. That Saulos can takes actions against APM, including the severing of all contact with him, and yet say he is not against him, is a red flag. A similar pattern emerged in his exchange with Zeinab about his candidature, where on the one hand he pays homage to democracy by saying that he is not yet a presidential candidate because UTM has not yet nominated him at an elective conference, and that he would be ready to support another nominee if the party chose someone else; and yet on the other hand he completely undermines any chance that that elective conference will be democratically competitive given that the entire history, founding, messaging, and branding of UTM is already in a full blown campaign for his and only his presidential bid. These are all signals of a man who is quite at ease with talking out of both sides of his mouth, giving with his left hand in one forum what his right hand takes away in another.


This was Saulos Chilima at his very best. He gave a strong and robust defence of this signature promise of his campaign. And the fact that Zeinab actually asked about the “one million jobs im a year” promise is a testament to how much that message has resonated and distinguished him as having a clear target that he is aiming for. Zeinab tried to suggest that this many be too ambitious a target, but Saulos was authoritative in his description of the economic distinctives of Malawi, its dormant sectors, and the high unemployment levels on which he based such a promise.


His response to this question was weak to say the least. The best approach would have been for him to show up to this interview armed with statistics of the political landscape under question, and more importantly, to exhibit a comprehension of the statistical impact his party has had so far after two months of rallies in select parts of the country. He should have said “we have conducted x number of rallies in x number of districts of the 28, and those rallies have been attended by x number of eligible voters, and in the 5500 areas where people will be casting their vote we have established party structures in x number of them, and those we know have said they are voting for us after only two months are x number of voters out of the 5.5 million already registered.” This would demonstrate that he is aware of the political bases other parties command and that his quest to build a base of his own is in fact bearing fruit. That would have been better than the answer he gave, which was effectively a dismissal of the political realities on the ground as having any relevance in his calculations at all. A campaign is not wishful thinking.


This was a trick question, and quite a trap. Saulos recently met with PP President Joyce Banda, whose government presided over the infamous Cashgate scandal, the most brazen looting of public funds from the treasury in our nation’s history. Zeinab asked Saulos how he could justify his overtures to Joyce Banda and yet claim that he wants to draw a line in the sand between himself and previous Presidents who have presided over corrupt administrations. To some degree, one has to sympathize with Saulos here, for the question was a lose-lose scenario. If he had thrown Joyce Banda under the bus, he may have jeopardized any prospect of a coalition with PP going forward, and that would potentially be politically suicidal. On the other hand, if he defended her as a credible President worth consulting with on matters of fiscal prudence, he would have been placing himself at odds with 85% of Malawian voters who in the 2014 elections reached the same conclusion as Zeinab, namely that Joyce Banda’s leadership on corruption was “poor”. Saulos was put between the Egyptians and the Red Sea, but he could find no staff to wield and forge for himself a path out of the trap, so he fell into the treacherous noose of defending Joyce Banda’s divisive record on corruption, a risky move which may pay off with PP supporters and cause a fallout with the rest. Perhaps he is counting on the Muluzi truism that “A Malawi sachedwa kuyiwala”.


When Zeinab Badawi narrated the improvements to the economy and the state machinery under Mutharika’s oversight, it was yet another awkward question designed to force Saulos into either the trap of singing Mutharika’s praises or dismissing those improvements as false when reputable institutions like the IMF and the World Bank are on record as lauding Mutharika for having steered the country from the edge of collapse. As with most tricky questions, the right answer is almost always a third option that is not on the table, which requires the ability to think quickly on your feet and refuse to fall for the false dichotomies you are being backed into. As such, Saulos should have fallen back on the plight of the Malawian people and the terrible abscess of corruption. He should have said that while the figures about inflation rates and currency stability under Mutharika are indisputable and a credit to Mutharika, that achievement has not translated into a change in living standards and job creation for Malawians, nor are those economic achievements sustainable if the levels of corruption continue rise as they have done during this administration. Instead, all Saulos said was, “whether he has done good or bad, I believe we can do better”, which is really not saying much at all.


This is another area where Saulos always has his talking points in order. Touting his accomplishments at the helm of Airtel, his management of disaster relief efforts, his spearheading of the Public Service Reform Commission, he declared with characteristic confidence that given the chance to govern the country, “I can do wonders”. It was of course a departure from his mantra that Malawians should not fall prey to self-declared messiahs, but as Malawian, he also understands that “Fumbi Ndiwe Mwini”. And when it comes to self-branding and self-marketing, Saulos is in a league of his own, and he made the most of the closing moments of the program to singe himself in the psyche of the listener. He closed the show with an admirable control of the narrative that he had lacked for most of the program, where he had allowed the smiling assassin in the chair across from him to corner him into knots he was not as dexterous or as seamless at untying as we have seen him in interviews at home, especially those done in his own mother tongue.

Having said all that, it is unfair to say that the interview was a disaster. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was average and inconsequential. If the goal was to come out of it buoyant with momentum for having captured the imagination of the global audience that Hard Talk commands, that mission failed. Similarly, if the goal was to project himself as one running for president for reasons that are more noble and people-centered than his own personal rights and ambitions, that mission also failed, rather spectacularly. But if the goal was to dominate another cycle of news and social media discourse among urban Malawians for the furtherance of his quest for an office he is pursuing more as a personal right than a national duty, he succeeded immensely.