President Peter Mutharika will not preside over the official launch of the national identity (ID) documents project today as the function has been postponed indefinitely, fuelling more speculation about the President’s health.
However, there are conflicting reasons behind the cancellation.
Whereas organisers of the event National Registration Bureau (NRB) said they needed more time to finalise logistical arrangements, a source confided in The Nation that State House ordered cancellation of the function soon after private broadcaster Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) had previewed the launch at 10am yesterday, indicating that the President will be the guest of honour.
The source said the launch date was set by State House when the President was in the United States of America for the 71st Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Said the source: “The organisers [NRB] were told last week about the event and they went ahead to book the venue at Bicc [Bingu International Conference Centre].”
The abrupt postponement has further fuelled speculation that Mutharika was not in good health after his uncharacteristic left hand gestures and handshakes on arrival at Kamuzu International Airport when he is known to be right-handed.
Mutharika’s appearance when he mostly used his left hand while his right hand appeared to be stiff with a canular protruding on his wrist was in sharp contrast to sentiments by Minister of Information and Communications Technology Malison Ndau that the President was “enjoying a robust health” in the USA after the UNGA. He was responding to social media speculation that the President was taken ill.
The launch, where Mutharika would have been the first citizen to be issued with a national ID after a 12 year wait since the development of the programme, could have been the President’s first public appearance since his return on Sunday.
NRB yesterday halted preparations for the launch at Bicc by pulling down decorations and cancelling booking of the venue and accommodation for delegates to the launch.
Sources said the cancellation has come after NRB spent about K40 million for the event, including branding, advertising, decorations and launch cloth.
A visit to Bicc main auditorium yesterday found the carpet laid in front had been hastily removed and decorators confirmed receiving instructions to take down decorations as soon as possible
But organisers of the launch, NRB, said the event had been postponed to allow them finalise logistical ad preparatory works.
NRB public relations officer Norman Fulatira said: “We have shifted the launch of the national identity cards to a later date to finalise some logistics and preparatory works.
“We have communicated the same to State House because we had invited His Excellency the President Arthur Peter Mutharika to grace the launch.”
But when queried why the logistical and preparatory arrangements could not have been ready before extending an invitation to the Head of State, Fulatira said the logistics bordered on transport and accommodation for NRB officers and guests.
“Monday being a holiday also put a spanner in the works because we could not complete certain transactions within good time,” he said.
In an earlier interview with The Nation, Vice-President Saulos Chilima had set a tentative period for the launch of the national IDs for end of October or early November.
Ironically, the date for the launch was announced not long after Mutharika responded to strong calls to return home from his month-long sojourn to the USA.
Following his return on Sunday, the President was expected to address a press conference on his visit as per tradition.
The swearing-in of four new judges of the High Court and Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal judge Jane Ansah as the new Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson also await the President.
However, sources indicate that this week, the President’s only engagement was the launch of national IDs while the Vice-President was expected to address a rally at Kaliyeka, Lilongwe in the afternoon.
Authorities have been mum on the status of the President’s health since his return on Sunday, with presidential press secretary Mgeme Kalirani stating that his office was not aware that the President was in ill-health and Ndau asking for more time to get details.