Tongues continue to wag over the whereabouts of Foreign Affairs Minister and MalawiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ruling DPP presidential hopeful Peter Mutharika who has not been seen in public for about a month.
He has, for example, conspicuously missed key official engagements involving his ministry, notably the hosting of the Commonwealth secretary general Kamalesh Sharma and the AU summit which has just ended.
The minister, who in December 2011 raised controversy on his use of a presidential helicopter, has also been absent from almost every public function graced by the President.
When approached for comment on the ministerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s whereabouts, most officials have been mum, tossing the issue from office to office.
In an interview on Sunday, MutharikaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s personal assistant Ben Phiri confirmed the minister is not in Malawi.
Said Phiri: “I can confirm he is outside the country. He has combined work and holiday. He will be returning in the country soon, very soon.Ã¢â‚¬Â
However, at a time when there is strong government restriction on travel due to foreign exchange shortage, Phiri could not disclose where the minister is spending his holiday and what kind of work he is doing. Efforts to contact his ministry over the issue were futile.
But Minister of Information and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati, who is also official government spokesperson, said her office is not better placed to know the whereabouts of the minister.
“I am not in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to understand that. Even when ministers leave the country, they do not report to me, they report to the President. So, this is the issue of the Office of the President and Cabinet [OPC],” she said.
Deputy Minister in OPC Nicholas Dausi said his office could not answer about the ministerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s whereabouts and referred The Nation to officials at OPC.
However, an OPC official who warned The Nation against printing his name, said: “I am not his [Peter MutharikaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s] employer. He does not report to me. This is true for every minister. As such, it is quite unfair to expect me to know his whereabouts or even whereabouts of any other minister. If you want to find out more about him, why donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t you talk to him. He is better placed to answer you that.”
On the number of days a minister is entitled for leave, the official said: “I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know anything about that.”
Mutharika, who the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) National Governing Council has endorsed as the partyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s torchbearer in the 2014 presidential election, has been absent from various presidential functions, which is abnormal for Malawi Cabinet ministers.
For example, the minister was not present in Zomba on January 4 this year when the President launched the National Forestry Season at Muluwira Village, Traditional Authority Mwambo. He also missed the commemorations of the John Chilembwe Day which was attended by the President on January 15 at Providence Industrial Mission (PIM) headquarters in Chiradzulu.
When Sharma and his wife arrived in Malawi through Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) on January 21, they were welcomed by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Kondwani Nankhumwa.
The situation at hand draws striking parallels with what happened in 2010, precisely between October and November, when Mutharika, then Minister of Education, Science and Technology, also conspicuously missed from the public for close to two months.
He missed centenary celebrations at Henry Henderson Institute on October 10 2010. He missed the Umthetho celebrations organised by the Ngoni Heritage on October 18 the same year. He missed the launch of the Nsanje World Inland Port on October 23 and he was absent from the Mulhako wa Alhomwe function on October 25. All these functions were attended by the President.
Speculation was rife then that the younger Mutharika had travelled abroad after an alleged disagreement with his elder over the hiked University of Malawi fees.
But addressing journalists during arrival from the two monthsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ sojourn on November 11 2010, Mutharika described the alleged differences with his brother as “nonsense” and clarified that he was working, but took some leave days with his brotherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s permission.
At the time, the minister told journalists that if anyone wanted to know his whereabouts, he “was reachable on e-mail or SMS.”
However, on Monday this week, The Nation sent the minister an SMS to his phone number which was calling without any response at the other end.
The minister did not respond to the SMS or e-mail his feedback to an address provided in the text message by this reporter.