Previously, sitting presidents have always been at loggerheads with their predecessors. Does the relationship between former president Bakili Muluzi and President Peter Mutharika signal a new chapter in Malawi politics or it is just another marriage of convenience aimed at political survival? EPHRAIM NYONDO writes.
If today were seven years ago, former president Bakili Muluzi could have been on the national tour unleashing sermons of impeaching a sitting president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika.
He could have been holding meetings with members of Parliament belonging to his party, United Democratic Front (UDF), clandestine meetings that stopped at plotting to shoot down the national budget in the disguise of defending the constitutional integrity of Section 65.
He could have been leading opposition gurus to shun every national event which the then president graced.
Indeed, if today were six years ago, Muluzi could have been all over with a string of lawyers, pushing for a comeback—if not, dragging UDF into quite an unlikely political marriage with Malawi Congress Party (MCP).
In fact, if today were four years ago, Muluzi could have been at the High Court in Blantyre answering the K1.7 billion corruption charges.
While in court, his lawyers could have been appealing for an adjournment to allow their client to access medical care in South Africa. In those days, Muluzi was a restless former president, constantly in bad books with the incumbent and constantly gracing the courts to answer the alleged corrupt practices during his 10 years in power.
They were tough and trying days not just for Muluzi. The protracted conflict between him and the then administration defined the kind of cat and mouse relationship between the two, something that culminated into political vendettas and stalemate.
But suddenly there appears to be a flicker of hope. Muluzi is now working with the sitting president. He is attending national events graced by Mutharika.
In fact, even President Mutharika, in contrast to his fallen brother, has been quite receptive to Muluzi. Just last week, Mutharika delegated the retired leader to represent him in Zambia during that country’s golden jubilee celebrations.
Of course, in other countries a sitting president delegating a former president is not news. For instance, in Zambia, former president Kenneth Kaunda is always delegated by sitting presidents to represent the country, mostly, on HIV and Aids issues.
It is news in Malawi because Dr Kamuzu Banda, after falling from political grace in 1994, never enjoyed a healthy relationship with Muluzi. It was a relationship driven by bitterness and revenge. Muluzi, too, hardly enjoyed a good relationship with Bingu. They were always pulling at each other.
So, is the Muluzi-Mutharika marriage signalling a new chapter in the history of how incumbent and former presidents relate to each other? Or is this just another face of the same-old political marriages of convenience?
“I think what is happening is what ideally is supposed to happen, but I think there is more politics than what meets the eye,” says Dr Michael Jana, a political science lecturer at University of Malawi’s Chancellor College.
He argues that Muluzi has an outstanding corruption case that Bingu pursued, and this marriage of inconvenience will shield Muluzi, at least during Peter’s tenure of office. He adds that he is not surprised that all those confiscated vehicles from Muluzi during Bingu’s time have been returned.
“Muluzi is still calling the shots in UDF, and the APM-Muluzi marriage is just another face of the DPP-UDF pact. It is an open secret that Muluzi has been grooming and supporting his son to take over UDF and become Malawi’s next president. Actually, Atupele’s acceptance of ministerial post is part of this grooming process—something I think happened with the full blessing of Muluzi senior himself.
“I am glad DPP and UDF as political parties have now entered into some formal pact. I hope there is a clear memorandum of understanding that makes sure that both parties benefit. Previously it was an awkward working relationship where Muluzi as an individual seemed to be the only link.
“That notwithstanding, the formal pact can be said to be mere formalisation of the grooming of Atupele as a leader—whether this will happen through UDF alone, or through DPP, we are yet to see,” says Jana.
On the other hand, Sam Mpasu—a veteran politician who has worked with Muluzi for years—argues that Muluzi is a shrewd politician who calculates every move he makes. Brown Mpinganjira, another old friend of Muluzi, made similar remarks about Muluzi in 2007.
Mpasu advances that the APM-Muluzi marriage has been driven by convenience.
“They both need each other. UDF is done and the only way to resuscitate itself is through working with another party. DPP might be strong but its representation in Parliament is not enough to push for its agenda. It needs support, which UDF can offer,” he says.
Jana, too, agrees.
“The more Muluzi has a positive relationship with Peter, the more a working relationship between UDF and DPP flourishes. As I have said, I think Muluzi is still calling the shots in UDF. Now, UDF with its few MPs, still holds some balance of power especially when DPP failed to get the parliamentary majority.
“In this context, entering into some working relationship with UDF is a plus to DPP. And again, in the wake of recent criticism that a minority DPP government is not being inclusive, DPP would want to at least be seen to be inclusive by working with Muluzi as former president and UDF as an opposition party,” he says.
However, Jana advances that the benefit of the APM-Muluzi marriage will not be the same for each of their respective parties.
“For DPP, this is a good move to be seen to be inclusive and thereby, repair its legitimacy that was marred by failure to get the majority vote at both Parliament and Executive levels.
“But for UDF, this development can be a lost opportunity to meaningfully influence policy. This is because if it is indeed true that there is no formal pact between the two parties, there is no guarantee that UDF aspirations are going to be considered in policy formulation.
“And one tends to wonder in what capacity is Atupele in Cabinet. No wonder most analysts are suspecting that he is an opportunist; because if he were serious about pushing his Agenda for Change as articulated [during his campaign] and in the UDF manifesto, why can’t UDF and DPP enter into a formal marriage with a clear memorandum of understanding and modus operandi? Why is Atupele opting for individualised co-habitation with DPP?” he says.
Both Mpasu and Jana doubt if indeed it is time for Malawians to start celebrating the improved working relationship between the former and the incumbent president.
“It is more of a marriage of convenience, but someone can argue that the end will justify the means, that former heads of State have a role to play. All factors constant, I am looking to this gesture being extended to Joyce Banda, the immediate former president,” says Jana.
Mpasu, on the other hand, adds that the APM-Muluzi pact will not go far.
“It has been tailored to address the political inadequacies the two are experiencing in their respective political parties. It has little to do with the way the former and incumbent president treat each other. I don’t see this marriage going beyond their immediate needs,” he says.