I attended President Bingu wa Mutharika’s second-term inauguration at a packed Chichiri Stadium in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre in May 2009. His party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had led one of the most successful election campaigns in the political history of Malawi, amassing an unprecedented parliamentary majority.
Mutharika’s first term was nothing like that, however. Shortly after his first inauguration in 2004, he dumped the party that had handed him contestable access to State House, the United Democratic Front (UDF), much to the joy of many a Malawian. The UDF had earned itself the bad reputation of being corrupt and the attempt by its leader at the time, president Bakili Muluzi, to seek a third term in office had sealed the party’s fate with the electorate. Muluzi, therefore, needed someone new to show to the electorate, someone who could make them vote for the UDF but more importantly, someone he could control via the backdoor.
Enter the little-known Mutharika, an economist and former Secretary-General of COMESA. Despite his impressive credentials, Mutharika lacked the vitality and charisma exhibited by Muluzi and he often looked bored on the campaign trail. Indeed, Malawians only started hearing more from him after he became president because Muluzi had done all the for him. Also, very little was known, at the time, about his departure at COMESA; that he grossly mismanaged the institution and took executive decisions without consulting his deputies.
Yet, the Mutharika who divorced himself from the tainted legacy of the UDF seemed nothing like that. He went on a massive anti-corruption drive, declared he would cut all government expenditure, moved government business to the capital, Lilongwe and hired young professionals, placing them in key positions such as the offices of the Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions and Director of the Anti-Corruption Bureau.
Quite predictably, the UDF, joined by other opposition parties, led a campaign to impeach Mutharika but the public sympathies lay much with Mutharika and such efforts proved futile. Finally, Malawi had had its Damascus moment, had reached its turning point after the lost decade that was Muluzi’s tenure, thanks to Mutharika, the self-proclaimed Economic Messiah. That he came so close to buying a Mercedes Benz Maybach 62 vehicle worth an estimated US$545,000 seemed not to matter that much to Malawians. After all, he withdrew the bid to buy the vehicle once the story broke in the media.
In his second term, Mutharika bought, against the will of the nation, a private jet, developed his Ndata Farm to a state-of-the-art facility, married a former cabinet minister with much pomp and fanfare after the death of his wife, Ethel and became Chairman of the African Union. The new first lady would also claim a backdated salary for the charity work she does, an unprecedented move, since the person who was doing that job before – Vice President Joyce Banda – was not receiving anything. Banda would also be fired from the ruling party, making it difficult for the president and veep to conduct government business effectively.
Mutharika has had so much going for him in his personal life but the same can’t be said for the life of the nation he leads. He has presided over an ailing economy that has witnessed acute forex and fuel shortages, rising unemployment, severe electricity and water shortages despite the numbers showing that it is one of the fastest growing world economies.
He has also riled the academic community, threatening academic freedom at the University of Malawi, accused the Judiciary of partiality and at one time withdrew government advertising from a privately-owned newspaper. His handlers have ever attacked a journalist “for asking the wrong question” at a presidential press briefing and quite recently, more journalists have been at the receiving end of attacks believed to have been orchestrated by members of the ruling party.
The cherry on the cake in this catalogue of governance mishaps by Mutharika is the change he ordered on the national flag. After independence Malawi’s flag had a rising sun frozen at dawn. For many people, the picture of Malawi at dawn, vividly reminded them that a nation is always in a state of continual becoming and the sun is always rising because that indicates progress, a promise of good things to come and a chance to improve on what yesterday could not accomplish as they strive for perfection.
Well, not according to Mutharika. Words of his former information minister capture the delusion of imagined national success in Malawi: “[it] makes sense now to have the full sun symbolising the development that has taken place. For how long are we going to remain at dawn?” So today, the Malawi flag has a full sun where once there was the beauty and thriving promise of dawn. And, on the occasion of the country’s 47th independence, July 6, he described Malawi as a success story despite the fact that donors were withdrawing aid, 40% of which accounts for the national budget and poverty remained deeply entrenched.
On the eve of planned July 20 demonstrations, there was a sadistic exhibition by clearly identifiable and machete-wielding ruling DPP youths who went around parts of Blantyre trying to cause fear, alarm and despondency by scaring people off the streets the following day. It didn’t work. Thousands of Malawians took to the streets in all major cities as an expression of anger at the mismanagement of the economy and declining democratic culture in their country. But soon enough, an unashamed and trigger-happy police force began firing live rounds at the demonstrators, accusing them of public disorder. 19 people lost their lives.
Mutharika says the 19 had died in vain because the very demonstrations they had participated in are works of Satan. As if that was not enough, he went on to say he would “smoke-out” any future protestors before they even arrive in the streets. With parliament clearly on his side, making it easy for him to pass laws that can help him strengthen his tight grip on power, it is not hard to see another Zimbabwe coming out of Malawi. After all, both Mutharika and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe enjoy a very cosy relationship.
But, SADC does not need another Zimbabwe, certainly not before the crisis north of the Limpopo has been convincingly resolved. Yet, with President Jacob Zuma already being drawn into the developing crisis in Malawi, there is an urgent need for a sincere and brutally honest look the July 20 protests in Malawi and take appropriate action to prevent yet another dictatorship forming with drastic consequences to the region.