It was supposed to be a dream presidential partnership—an octogenarian law professor with government experience at the top of the ticket backed by a dashing, young and charismatic business executive with extensive private sector practice.
The generational combination was also the kind of progressive political pie of the old and the new that many hoped would usher in a fresh governing era of real partnership between a President and his vice after such pairs in the past ended in enmity.
It worked for a while—at least in the first 12 months of President Peter Mutharika and his vice Saulos Chilima at the country’s helm.
In their first year in office, the two would meet at least thrice a month to share notes and discuss policy priorities, according to a former Mutharika aid and an impeccable source close to the Vice President, both of whom asked not to be named to speak candidly about an issue that has become sensitive among the ruling elite.
The President even granted Chilima the portfolio he was promised on winning the election—to drive the public service reforms agenda that observers say is arguably the most successful initiative under Mutharika.
Now the duo’s relationship has become distant.
From meeting thrice a month in the first 12 months, they started huddling only once in every three months and in recent times, six months can go without the duo having the one-on-one meetings that defined their earlier governing partnership, aides say.
Then a month ago, President Mutharika took away the reforms from the Vice President’s office and put them under the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC).
Analysts said at the time that the reforms’ move to OPC was political chess aimed at weakening Chilima who was getting popular for what many agree was an effective management of the reforms agenda.
While in public Mutharika and Chilima have put up a show of a model working relationship, the truth—according to interviews with aides and some executives in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—is that the President and his vice are not in good books.
Interviews with various people who know both leaders show that the President likes, even respects, Chilima as an individual.
The problem, said one aide is that Mutharika is not sure of the Vice-President’s loyalty to him personally and the party.
“It appears that the President keeps asking: Can I trust this guy [Chilima] with the party? Does he have my back? Is he a team player?” said an impeccable source close to the Vice President this week.
This analysis was corroborated by a senior advisor to President Mutharika. He too granted the interview on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss a matter that has attracted rumours and speculations, but, until now, nothing concrete was ever established.
Said the presidential adviser: “The President is wondering these days whether the Vice-President is pursuing a personal agenda or the administration’s agenda.
“I think there have been some public statements that the Vice-President has made such as the ‘snake’ speech in Ndirande last year and more recently the church speech of not just clapping hands for leaders. Thus, it has come to a point where the President has said, let’s be careful with this gentleman.”
At a development rally in Ndirande Malabada Constituency in Blantyre last year, Chilima warned the President and the DPP to be careful with some of its members and political allies who he said were bringing confusion in the party.
The VP added that “njoka saweta. Ena amayesa kuweta nsato koma mapeto ake imawadya—translated to a warning that a tamed snake can end up killing you.
Then recently, Chilima urged Malawians not to praise mediocre leadership but resolve to seriously hold leaders accountable for service delivery in transformative development.
He was speaking at St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish in Lilongwe on January 1 this year after serving braai to some 13 000 Catholic youths who had congregated at the parish.
“Statements like these have led the President to think that his Vice is not working in good faith,” the presidential aide said.
The distrust appears mutual
Sources say Chilima is disappointed that the DPP has not allowed him to be an active party leader, passing him up for vice presidency of either Central or Eastern political regions.
“Because of these developments, the Vice President started putting question marks on his political career in particular his place in the DPP. He feels rejected by the party he helped win elections. The fact that the President is not appointing him into the party vice presidency role has brought a lot of disrespect from the rank and file of the party towards the Vice President and he is understandably unhappy about that,” said the source.
What worsened the relationship between Mutharika and Chilima, sources commenting on both leaders say, is the narrative that the Vice-President had lined up a Cabinet during the time the President had an extended stay in the United States after the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which brought rumours that he was terminally ill, even dead.
“That is what broke the camel’s back. The President had disappeared. Even the Vice-President did not know where he was, but Mutharika was fed intelligence to the effect that Chilima was forming a Cabinet in readiness for a power takeover. Of course, it was absolute nonsense, but the President appears to have believed it,” said the aide.
He added: “This is the single biggest issue that has brought the divisions to the fore.”
Yesterday, Mutharika’s senior adviser confirmed that indeed State House had “strong evidence” that Chilima had assembled a Cabinet in anticipation of a power takeover, which further made the President to distrust his vice.
The senior aide said: “President Mutharika has no problems with people having presidential ambitions. In fact, one of the reasons he picked Chilima was his youth and proceeded to assemble one of the youngest Cabinet ever with the likes of Atupele Muluzi, Kondwani Nankhumwa, Grace Chiumia, Samuel Tembenu, Peter Kumpalume and Francis Katsaira, for example.
“Mutharika’s idea was that anyone of these could have presidential ambitions and he wanted this generation of leaders to replace the old ones as a way of changing the political culture.
“The problem is that when Atupele Muluzi was brought into Cabinet [from UDF]—Chilima may have felt that it was to replace him on the next ballot as Mutharika’s running mate, which is far from what the President had in mind,” said the aide.
The senior adviser said Chilima then started positioning himself—through a brilliant public relations team—as the face of progress through the reforms that Mutharika had entrusted him with.
“In trying to project himself as the man driving the reforms, Chilima was stealing the limelight from the President, a cardinal political sin,” said the Mutharika aide.
The presidential aide, however, admitted that Mutharika’s failure to give Chilima a substantive position in the party has reinforced the Vice President’s insecurities.
But, he said, people should know that the President “has not been forgiven” by the party gurus for making an outsider State Vice-President at the expense of people who built the party. Even a State House guard we talked said he only sees the Vice-President going to State House when there is a Cabinet meeting.
In a way, the President is concerned that by appointing Chilima into a party vice presidency post, he would be angering party stalwarts further, said the adviser.
Both the offices of the President and Vice-President declined to comment for this story. n