Former First Lady Callista Mutharika first had her real 15 minutes of fame in early 2010 when her late husband, Bingu, asked for her hand in marriage, leading, first, to the couple’s traditional engagement ceremony called chinkhoswe and, later, holy matrimony.
Of course, by the time Bingu made her really famous, she was already a public figure, having served as member of Parliament for Zomba Likangala; Minister of Tourism, Wild Life and Culture, a member of the pan-African Parliament and Secretary of the Malawi Women’s Caucus.
So, Bingu did not necessarily pluck her from oblivion.
Indeed, one cannot obviously underestimate her political instincts—she certainly knows how to play her game. I mean, you would really be foolish to underrate someone who can change the whole political narrative and control the news agenda for more than a week—and counting.
With more people coming out in support of her stance, it looks to me that she had thought long and hard for some time before coming out. And the follow-ups and cameos through what I see as her surrogates tell me that this coming out is too well-orchestrated to have been a fluke.
Callista certainly knows how to ingratiate herself in people’s hearts. Soon after her marriage to Bingu, she embarked on pro-poor programmes and showed she was a strong defender of child and women’s rights. She even gained international recognition for her troubles.
For some time, Callista was generally a beloved figure, if not as respected as her predecessor, Ethel—Bingu’s late wife of 37 years.
But then, Callista waded into politics—she just could not help it, telling civil society organisation (CSO) leaders who were hitting at her husband’s administration for poor economic and political governance “to go to hell”.
That angered some CSO leaders such as Gift Trapence of the Centre for the Development of the People (Cedep) who described her rantings as “provocative and insulting”. But Callista was not done.
At the height of the fuel and foreign currency shortages, the former First Lady stood at a podium to say that the poor do not need fuel and forex; hence, the shortage of the two cannot affect them.
This was probably the last straw for many.
The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) issued a statement, describing her reasoning on forex and fuel as “irrational and absurd”.
Nine CSOs—including Human Rights Consultative Committee, Malawi Congress of Trade Unions, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace Archdiocese of Lilongwe, Church and Society from CCAP synods of Livingstonia and Nkhoma, the Civic and Political Space Forum, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Institute for Policy Interaction and Cedep—also released a statement calling her utterances that rural people are not affected by fuel as “reckless and unacceptable.”
So, yes, Callista is no stranger to controversy. But I hope that her carefully coordinated and bold move to challenge President Peter Mutharika and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) should not distract the nation from the challenges of our time—problems that are seriously affecting firms and households, especially the poorest of the poor.
We still have half the population who may not have food for the better part of this year. The country is still reeling from a crippling energy crisis. We still have to grapple with how government wants to throw around K4 billion without clear operational guidelines and while trampling all over the decentralisation architecture that is both backed by law and policy. Fiscal authorities cannot make head and tails as budget implementation gets messed up by government’s failure to meet revenue targets even as it spends recklessly on non-essential things.
Let’s not forget that public hospitals are telling poor people to buy their own drugs because there aren’t just any. Lest we forget, corruption remains endemic with little progress made towards reducing it as per Transparency International ratings.
Granted, Callista Mutharika is a free woman in a free country who has as much constitutionally guaranteed right as anyone to express her opinion on who she thinks is better equipped to run Malawi and we should all commit—including those who don’t agree with her—to defend her right, fiercely if we must, to say what is on her mind.
What we should not do, what we cannot afford to do for the sake of this country, is to get carried away so much with the DPP’s succession battles that we forget we have serious problems to solve.
We all need to keep our eyes on the ball.