Four former vice-presidents (VPs) have called for a review of the roles and duties of the Office of the Vice-President (OVP), which currently is at the mercy of the sitting President.
The ex-veeps said, in separate interviews, that the office needs to move from irrelevance to power, as the current situation is prone to abuse and is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Yesterday, one of the commissioners during the review of the Constitution by Malawi Law Commission in 2007, Mustafa Hussein admitted that the review overlooked specifying the key responsibilities of OVP and that overtime it has become necessary that it is clearly spelt out.
The four—Cassim Chilumpha, Joyce Banda, Khumbo Kachale and Saulosi Chilima—fell out of favour with their elected presidents before end of their tenures.
Former president Joyce Banda, who took office as VP following the death in office of Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012, faulted the country’s Constitution for not clearly defining the role of the vice-president.
She said the Veep’s office is always seen as just a backstop measure.
Politically, the Veep is a president-in-waiting—should the president die or become disabled.
“Bingu wa Mutharika assigned departments to my office [OVP] a year after I took oath as VP, but they were taken away later, and there was not much I could do. When I became President, I made sure I assigned my VP [Khumbo Kachali] some ministries whenever I appointed a new Cabinet,” she said.
Banda’s relationship with Kachali turned sour after she overlooked him as her running mate in the run-up to 2014 elections.
While Chilumpha, who was vice-president during Bingu’s first term, said in addition to changing the law, there is also need to ensure that presidential candidates representing political parties should not nominate running mates.
He argues the running mate must be a well-established member of the party, such as a member of the national governing council (NGC), whose nomination must be endorsed by the NGC.
“Often, each one of them feels they are from different camps with different ideologies and policies. I think a State president ought to respect the office of the VP. The onus is on the president to respect, and establish a good working relationship with his or her second-in-command.”
When unveiling his running mate Everton Chimulirenji ahead of the May 21 2019 polls, President Peter Mutharika shocked some section of the society when he said Chimulirenji was picked because he understands the difference between a vice-president and a deputy president.
“He understands that a vice-president is always delegated and the vice-president will never be a co-president,” said Mutharika.
However, immediate past vice-president Chilima agrees with Banda that the Constitution needs to be reviewed so that the VP has more powers. He argues that the definition of the OVP is vague and does not state key roles of the VP in State affairs.
According to the OVP official website, core functions are to offer strategic support to the Head of State and Government in general, “in running the affairs of the country for the betterment of the people of Malawi”.
While Section 79 of the Constitution says: “There shall be a First Vice-President and, subject to Section 80 (5), a Second Vice-President, both of whom shall assist the President and who shall exercise the powers and perform the functions conferred on the First Vice-President or the Second-Vice-President, as the case may be, by this Constitution or by any Act of Parliament and by the President.”
Chilima said it must not be about the President’s pleasure or displeasure, but the Vice-President should be constitutionally protected.
“The VP’s office should be fully functional and not the VP being delegated to distribute bags of maize, attend funerals or escort the President to the airport,” said Chilima, who during the 2019 presidential campaign under a UTM ticket pledged to facilitate the amendment of the Constitution to provide for core functions of OVP.
Chilima bemoaned that because VP’s duties are delegated; some of the assignments delegated to him by Mutharika between 2014 and 2019 did not befit the OVP’s status.
In separate interviews, social and political commentators said the office is of little significance or utility in governing the nation’s affairs.
For example, governance expert Rafiq Hajat, in an interview on Tuesday, described the current Vice-President’s programme of activities as a ‘government extension to the political campaign mode’.
He said Chimulirenji’s itinerary, which includes representing Mutharika at international conferences, distribution of relief food to flood victims, consoling the bereaved, and attending funerals, and weddings, is meant to win people’s hearts and minds by displaying the caring side of the government.
“But is the cost [of such trips] warranted? In the midst of the political turmoil that is going on, and the outstanding court case, it seems to be damage control,” said Hajat, who is also the executive director of the Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI).
Henry Chingaipe, an accountability and governance commentator, agrees with Hajat. He said it was high time duties and functions of a vice-president were independent, and not on delegation from the President.
He gave an example of the United States of America where a vice-president is president of the Senate, a powerful policy and lawmaking body of government.
“In Malawi, it has been common that a vice-president as running mate is not chosen for work, but on the calculus of geographical and political interests. When the person brings in votes, the usefulness ends there.”
He said it was crucial that the Constitution provides for a guide on who to elect as vice-president on the strength of their abilities not region of origin, age or gender.
Legal expert Justin Dzonzi disagrees. He described the VP’s office as a spare key which can only be used when the main key is not available.
“Insisting on a job description for the VP is like insisting on using the spare key at the same time as the other key. The VP office is a contingent office in case of a vacancy or incapacity in the office of the President, if nothing happens to the President, the VP will have to do what the President assigns him or her,” he said.
But Chancellor College associate professor of law Edge Kanyongolo pointed out that the VP problem is political, and not legal, arguing that the President who delegates should only assign the holder of office on substantive functions not to trivia ones.
“The fact that VP ends up attending to trivial matters, is not a requirement of the law, but a decision of the person who delegates,” opined Kanyongolo.
In 2007, when the Special Law Commission last review the Constitution, the issue of the vice-president emerged but mainly on the term limit and whether the President should have powers to appoint a vice-president or the presidential candidate who came second should be made vice-president.
The commission observed that Section 80 (3) of the Constitution requires every presidential candidate to declare his or her First Vice-President at the time of his or her nomination.
It was the commission’s view that this provision underscores the fact that the election and prior nomination of a presidential candidate is part of a political process as distinct from a legal issue and should therefore not be the subject of law reform.
According to Hussein, the understanding at the time was that it wouldn’t be necessary to define the roles of VP as the President as the President would easily delegate.
“Our government combines the Britih and USA system, and on the presidency, we lean very much to the scheme of US where the president is like chief executive officer who decides what to give and to withdraw, but for Malawi the Constitution now has to provide for the key roles for both the first and second vice-president.