Senior officials under Bakili Muluzi’s rule were rudely dismissed as madeya (bran) and a bunch of cowards. Behind the scenes, they sacrificed their ambitions to protect the constitution. Golden Matonga writes.
Rewind to 2002. It is exactly a decade since Malawians voted against the one-party system, vetoing the life presidency of founding leader Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Elson Bakili Muluzi has been in power and it is just a year before he bows out. The law requires him to rule no more than 10 years. However, it appears his party has not had enough of him. There is no better person to take over the hot seat, the United Democratic Front (UDF) operatives say.
“You are the only one. The rest are madeya,” Davis Kapito, the vocal regional governor for the South, likens ministers and party seniors to bran. At the rally in Mulanje, prominent figures look down, women ululate and the president does not censure the belligerent regional governor. His indifference continues when Young Democrats, the aggressive youth wing of his party, starts hacking and silencing people opposed to the campaign to change the constitution to prolong his stay in power.
As it were, the first ruling party in democratic Malawi was unleashing untold atrocities on the republic and the majority of Malawians had had enough of the UDF tyranny. The nation was becoming a failed State—“Another Niger” hit by hunger and impunity.
On the streets and in private homes, the young party militias were terrorising the president’s opponents. Our choice of allies abroad suggested the country was becoming an international pariah where the likes of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi were feted to the chagrin of western Superpowers.
“When he [Muluzi] ascended to power,” writes South African-based political scientist Clement Mweso, “Malawians hoped for a new breed of politics with a new democratic president and a new constitution which entrenched human rights and democratic principles to avoid going back to the dark past.”
Born on March 17 1943 in Machinga, Muluzi was a charismatic leader who previously served as secretary general and administrative secretary during 31 years of the deposed Malawi Congress Party (MCP) dictatorship.
He revolted against Banda just in time to join the pro-democracy bandwagon, ruling the country from 1994 to 2004.
He might have permitted the plot to extend his rule, but the ever consummate political grandmaster never uttered a word backing the bid.
“It was not about me,” he says when we delve into the flashback. “That’s the unfortunate notion Malawians have.”
Almost 12 years after the bill was narrowly defeated in Parliament, Muluzi claims he was personally against the idea of a third term although he allowed “a democratic debate” to happen and the bill to be tabled.
The exclusive interview with the devout Muslim on Eid Ramadan is never short of humour. Muluzi seems proud of his past and present though he has spent his post-presidency period commuting to court where he stands accused of diverting K1.7 billion from public coffers.
But this is about his lust for power.
He confesses the third term bill was a bad mistake and that mistakes were made, but he does not regret allowing voices for constitutional change to be held.
“That’s democracy,” he says, “Had I stopped them, it would have been dictatorship.”
Not many agree that Muluzi never backed the infamous campaign.
“It was not a good move at all. I will tell you, my personal view, No! No! People say it was a Bakili Muluzi idea; it was not. Even when we were talking about it among ourselves, we said this was not the route to go.”
Finally, he seems to see what many Malawians noted with concern when his youthful backers were hushing protesters with machetes in support of the bill for the third term and open-ended tenure.
“We were saying [with] open term, it could have been possible for someone to stay for life; it could defeat our fight for democracy,” he says.
However, as he crisscrossed the nation holding State-funded rallies, it was obvious Muluzi was the principal benefactor of the movement. Today, he refutes this was overt approval but “a healthy and open debate,”
Sam Mpasu-who served as a cabinet minister, speaker of Parliament and UDF executive official during the unwanted bill-says there was no space for discussion and consultation within the party and outside.
The bill was forced down their throats, Mpasu says.
He explains: “The first time I heard the issue of third term was when Brown Mpinganjira, Peter Chupa and Cassim Chilumpha were dismissed from Cabinet, ostensibly as a fall-out from the education scandal. But BJ told you in the media that the real reason he had been fired from Cabinet was because he was opposing a proposal for Muluzi to contest again in 2004. That was the first time ever that the issue came into the public domain.”
The UDF crusade attracted open dissent from citizens, faith groups, opposition parties, academia, students and civil society. Muluzi remained unmoved by a wave of demonstrations, press releases and pastoral letters demanding him to openly declare his stance.
“Silence becomes a lie when the truth is not spoken out. People are tired of the UDF hypocrisy,” Dan Msowoya, the then firebrand spokesperson of Alliance for Democracy (Aford) told the press.
The bill failed to pass with a miraculous three votes though UDF had reportedly shopped votes from an Aford faction led by its deceased tsar Chakufwa Chihana and their MCP counterpart under John Tembo.
The public jubilated. But the votes that killed the proposed law on July 4 2002 have remained faceless.
Muluzi denies taking the vote badly.
“That’s why I say it wasn’t about me,” he says. Elsewhere, Muluzi was supposed to leave State House immediately. The failure of the bill to keep him in power as long as he was relevant was actually a vote of no confidence in his leadership style.
Instead of accepting the writing on the wall, his backers restyled the open-term and asked Parliament to change the law to just three terms to enable him contest the next election. This time, Tembo proved an unlikely hero.
With one eye on the presidency himself, he atoned for his earlier ‘betrayal’ by declaring to stand against any selfish constitutional amendments.
“Tembo said at a rally in Rumphi that he was withdrawing his support. It came as a shock to UDF and signaled the end for Muluzi. The bill simply had no hope without the backing of the Tembo faction,” Mpasu recalls.
People’s Party interim president Uladi Mussa, the UDF regional governor for the centre and one-time staunch advocate of the bill, says Muluzi finally surrendered to growing opposition within his own party.
He cited resistance from the then party vice-president Aleke Banda and State vice-president Justin Malewezi as pivotal in convincing Muluzi to give up.
“It came as a surprise after the senior officials made it clear they opposed the bid,” Mussa says. n