Vice-President Khumbo Kachali was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia two weeks ago representing Malawi at the African Union Summit. For a meeting that is largely a preserve of heads of State and government, he looked rather lost.
However you look at it, the Vice-President is not the President and cannot sit as an equal of Robert Mugabe, Jacob Zuma, Jakaya Kikwete, Laurent Kabila, Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni, Michael Sata, Uhuru Kenyatta, Goodluck Jonathan, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and others.
In some countries, a vice-president is nicknamed ‘His Unneeded Excellency’. In many respects, in many countries, it is the most useless and meaningless job in government. Of course, there are perks galore—free housing, free food, free travel, large house and a convoy to boot. But the glamour must be a little difficult to enjoy if you cannot escape the tag of being in a “useless” job. For instance, how many of us really care about Kachali as Vice-President of Malawi?
So, why all this excitement about running mates, who will end up on the pile of uselessness?
In Malawi, what exactly does a vice-president do? Act as president in the president’s absence? Wait to be assigned duties by the president?
But surely that cannot be often enough to keep anyone busy and relevant.
And in any case, a wise president, particularly an African president, cannot afford to be absent from the country for too long at a time. There can be no guarantee that when they return, the job would be there for them.
Earlier in my life, I worked as a deputy and my bibulous boss was the most fidgety, insecure and garrulous man you will ever meet. Only later did I learn that these were severe signs of clinical insecurity—but it made working under him the functional equivalent of walking on eggshells all the time. As this man rose up the ranks, he managed to scheme to get rid of some of the company’s best staff; some left on their own and many others he found a way to get them fired.
When it was my turn, he launched an ill-judged smear campaign and I promptly left. These days my CV brags about having been almost sacked from the company on trumped-up charges that, pitifully, included calling this boss “uneducated”. Cassim Chilumpha’s experience as vice-president to Bingu wa Mutharika must be eerily similar to this.
But in defence to my former boss, you have to sympathise with the man because he was not the brightest bulb in the box and how he acted was more about masking his glaring deficiencies. It was also a cry for help.
In Malawi, two former vice-presidents—Justin Malewezi and Chilupmha—had to find meaning to their political lives by coming back to serve as mere members of Parliament, something of a distinction.
Until Joyce Banda struck it rich when Bingu suddenly died, vice-presidents in Malawi have largely been a wretched lot. Kachali, now dumped into the wilderness, joins this pile.
Those accepting to be running mates hoping to become vice-presidents after May 20 and maybe presidents one day must be well aware that only one vice-president in the history of this country ever ascended to president—and that was by design of sudden death.
Saulos Chilima has left a plum job at Airtel to be lured into a political cul-de-sac as Peter Mutharika’s running mate and I do not know why. But it would kill me to be deputy to Peter Mutharika and here is why: Not once in his whole time as minister of Education, minister of Justice and Foreign Affairs did we see a spark of leadership from him. As minister, his style to most of the problems he faced was to close his eyes, pretend they did not exist and hope the problems disappeared. If they became too much, he would hop on his brother’s presidential jet and fly away to America.
Peter is old and old-fashioned, his speech is boring, he is mysterious, he is arrogant, he cannot take criticism and does not inspire confidence. Given the sort of person this man is, what did it take to lure a relatively bright young man into partnering him?
Perhaps, at the core, we all crave political power.
But unless the president dies in office, it is a colossal waste of anyone’s time being vice-president. And I want to wish whoever is elected president on May 20 good health, long life and trust that they will complete their term.
—The author is a Malawian journalist based in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.