On April 14 2013, a 59-year-old pastor, who hums hymns while bathing and whistles in bed, left a church he had served for 24 years to join cut-throat politics.
As a send-off, his flock raised at least K200 each to add “a decent car” to his declared assets comprising a Mercedes Benz and a Hummer and three homes away from Lilongwe’s worst slums.
Seven years on, retired Malawi Assemblies of God pastor Lazarus Chakwera who was prersident of the church from 1989 to 2013 has won the presidency in the court-ordered fresh presidential vote held on Tuesday, June 23 2020.
In a first, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) leader had to scoop over half of the votes to unseat Peter Mutharika, who won just 36 percent of the votes in 2014.
Chakwera inherits a struggling economy, but in 2014 Mutharika, too, claimed to have found the economy on life support amid massive looting of public coffers.
Two years later, as Leader of Opposition, Chakwera said the economy was not beyond redemption, though it appeared “only stable in the State House”.
Now he must make it work for the 18 million Malawians, not just hundreds who marched with him and his running mate Saulos Chilima of UTM until the ConCourt ordered, on February 3 2010, fresh polls to take place within 150 days.
Following the ConCourt verdict, Chakwera paid tribute to the judges for refusing to allow wickedness to triumph over majority will.
Mutharika alone faulted the ruling, which was upheld by the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal, accusing the judges of “a judicial coup” for giving Chakwera and Chilima a fresh race to unseat him.
“Nobody can stop change,” said Chakwera when he unveiled the Tonse Alliance comprising nine parties, including Chilima’s UTM which scooped over one million votes in the botched poll.
Chakwera promised a better Malawi for all, declaring: “This dream of a new Malawi is what binds us not as rivals or a candidate and a running mate, but partners in service of Malawians.”
The country’s sixth president has to fix a wobbling tobacco-dependent economy drained by corrupt politicians and their cronies.
In the thrill of his American accent, Chakwera constantly bared the agony of poor Malawians: “The healthcare system is in shambles, there is no water, and electricity is becoming scarce every day and people have no food.
“If our leaders stop being selfish and have a heart of serving people, Malawi can recover from the crisis.”
Named after biblical personification of poverty whom Jesus Christ brought back to life from a stinking grave, Chakwera was born to peasant farmers in Lilongwe after the death of his siblings.
His father christened him Lazarus, hoping he would leapfrog the shadow of death.
In August 2013, Chakwera succeeded MCP long-timer John Tembo in a surprise triumph over the party’s secretary general Chris Daza, former chief justice Lovemore Munro and agriculturalist Felix Jumbe at a dramatic party convention in Lilongwe.
Shortly afterwards, the eloquent clergyman told our sister newspaper The Nation: “We need policy-based politics.
“When I joined politics, people wondered how, as a pastor who doesn’t know politics, I will do politics just because there is a misconception about politics [as a dirty game]. However, the politics I am talking about is policy-based, which deals with issues.”
His rise triggered the retirement of the MCP strongman, Tembo, who twice failed to win the presidency, marking the start of a seven-year “journey towards forming the next government”.
“Democracy has triumphed,” said a delighted Tembo, who was denied a third-term by the MCP constitution.
Soon, thereafter, Chakwera kick-started MCP’s rebranding.
“Good governance is like a mirror and whatever happens at national level reflects the practice in political parties,” said the father-of-four married to Monica, from Rumphi West.
Chakwera represents a new era in the party with a chequered past, including expulsion, detention without trial and disappearance of political foes.
During the funeral of the country’s first female Cabinet minister Rose Chibambo, Chakwera apologised for atrocities committed during MCP’s 31-year autocratic rule.
Political scientist Joseph Chunga welcomed Chakwera as a new broom in the party that brutally enforced its four cornerstones—Unity, Loyalty, Obedience and Discipline.
In 2014, the MCP moderniser emerged Mutharika’s runner-up, beating the first female president, Joyce Banda.
Chakwera’s success reinstates MCP grip on power, 26 years after United Democratic Front (UDF) founder Bakili Muluzi defeated Kamuzu.
But the new broom must match his fluency with action “to transform Malawians’ lives in all sectors”.
But Chakwera will not be judged by his rants and rhetoric, but transformative action to turn the tide of pessimism and disunity fuelled by entrenched pilferage and nepotism.
For the farming majority, he pledged to subsidise inputs for all, open fertiliser factories and introduce efficient machines.
Both Chakwera and his second in command, Chilima, went to Mtendere Secondary School in Dedza and University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in Zomba.
The evangelist obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1977, almost 17 years before his ally majored in economics.
Later, Chakwera did further studies in South Africa and the US, where he taught in universities and seminaries.
MCP spokesperson, the Reverend Maurice Munthali says Chakwera’s journey to the presidency was “not instructed by a divine destiny”.
“It has been an epitome of a passionate patriot. MCP is founded on sound and visionary principles that have stood the political tides for decades. It will take ages for any party to dislodge it from power,” he says.
The newly elected leader knows that Malawi does not lack policies and structures, “but politicians require a mindset change to unleash a national consensus” for development.
The confessed admirer of South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King promises servant leadership, where there won’t be second-class citizens and incoming presidents sustain national projects initiated by their predecessors.
In December 2018, Chakwera returned from Mandela’s funeral with tidings of hope: “We can make Malawi a country for all people and where everyone is valued regardless of region where one is coming from.
“Mandela has taught us that we can conquer hatred with love and create an inclusive nation. As a nation that is seeking to rebuild from its foundations, it is possible to discipline ourselves and take the obstacles we are facing as stepping stones to the future we all want.”
How he keeps in check violent elements that backed his battle for electoral justice presents a litmus test for his pursuit of equal treatment and one Malawi.