- I have no regrets
- DPP convention calls premature
If any mistakes were made, it was not out of evil. If there were errors, they were errors of misjudgement, not out of evil,” said former president Peter Mutharika in a wide-ranging interview at his beachside private retirement home in Mangochi yesterday.
But Mutharika—who was keen to protect his legacy that comprises a strong economy, signature infrastructure development, youth skills development, attraction of foreign direct investment and a flourishing democracy—said he has no regrets.
Critics say he presided over one of the most corrupt periods in democratic Malawi where people in his administration acted with impunity while he either looked away or had no idea what was going on around him.
Mutharika—who lost to Lazarus Chakwera of Tonse Alliance in the June 2020 court-ordered fresh presidential election—also stands accused of nepotistic tendencies in public appointments, with his tribe, Lhomwe, dominating plum positions.
Some of his top aides, including bodyguard Norman Chisale; former Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority chief executive officer Collins Magalasi and his State House chief of staff Peter Mukhitho face various fiscal offences.
The long arm of the law has also reached the top leadership of Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with vice-president (Centre) Uladi Mussa and regional governor (North) Christopher Mzomera Ngwira jailed this month on abuse of office-related charges.
The Chakwera administration says investigative agencies are looking into cases that may have cost the taxpayer as much as K1.2 trillion through fraud and corruption, most of them under Mutharika’s watch.
But the former president—sounding relaxed in a well-cut navy blue suit—said corruption did not start with his administration and will not end with him, suggesting it is nearly impossible to stop people from indulging in fraud and corrupt practices.
“Corruption has always been there even in biblical times. Former director of public prosecutions Fahad Assani said, well before the DPP ever came into power, that a third of our national budget is lost through fraud and corruption. And of course, Cashgate was the worst form of corruption. In this new administration, we have already started reading about corruption. It is not easy to control it,” he said.
The former president said running government is so complicated that a President cannot know what people in ministries, departments and agencies, councils and parastatals are up to.
“How do you move from office to office to ensure that they are not corrupt?” wondered Mutharika.
When reminded that some of the alleged fraud and corruption happened right under his nose at State House where his office is, he said people still find their way, including using the President’s name, to pull off their schemes.
This, the ex-president said, is what appears to have happened in the cement saga where Chisale allegedly used Mutharika’s tax details to bring into the country duty-free cement through an importer.
“I had no idea. I mean, look behind you, I have not finished that part of my premises because I do not have cement. If I had all those millions of bags of cement, do you think I would still be struggling to complete the house?” he said.
Mutharika said the cement importation controversy is a tax evasion matter that has to be dealt as such between Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) and whoever brought the cement and is furious that authorities froze his bank accounts.
“I am a victim of fraud, yet I am the one being penalised. This is not fair. They know I never imported the cement. I have no knowledge, so why punish me,” he wondered.
His personal troubles aside, Mutharika is also facing a succession crisis in DPP with senior members of the party, including ousted secretary general Grezelder Jeffrey calling on him to call for a convention to elect new leadership.
Mutharika is not pleased with these calls, saying they are premature and could lead to further disintegration of the party that is fresh from a bruising defeat.
Some factions within the party appear to be coalescing around Kondwani Nankhumwa, the Leader of Opposition and DPP vice-president (South), who is estranged from Mutharika over the power jostling.
Early this month, Mutharika moved to put Nankhumwa in his place.
The DPP central committee—a politburo comprising selected leaders of the party—axed Nankhumwa and three others aligned to him.
The others are Jeffrey, MPs Yusuf Nthenda and Jappie Mhango who is also DPP treasurer general. But the group got a court injunction blocking their ouster.
Yesterday, Mutharika said he was ready to step aside and pave the way for new leadership, but such a transition needs to be done responsibly so that the party remains united long after the battle for power is settled.
He said at the moment there is no electoral college to vote people into positions; hence, there is need to do that first.
“Most of the party’s structures at area, zone, constituency and regional levels have collapsed. Therefore, we have set up a commission to review the structures of the party and make recommendations to the national governing council.
“Once the NGC adopts the proposals, we will start with elections at those grassroots structures up to the region. Only then will we set a convention date to elect national leaders. I pledge to support whoever emerges as leader and ensure that he or she takes DPP back into government,” said Mutharika.
In an interview yesterday, political scientist Master Dick Mfune from Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, said it was unfortunate that the former president could make such defensive statements on corruption.
He said Mutharika worked with and through people and any mistake that was made in government was his responsibility as President.
“It is unfortunate this is the behaviour and statements we get from our leaders. The problem with him was his laissez-faire style of leadership,” said Mfune.
But when contacted for reaction to Mutharika’s stand Jeffrey said: “I have not personally listened to what he said so I cannot comment anything now.”
While Nankhumwa’s mobile phone went unanswered.n—additional reporting Lucky Mkandawire, Staff Writer.
*Read a detailed interview that Ephraim Munthali had with former president Mutharika tomorrow in Nation on Sunday.