Why should anyone be surprised that Mulhako wa Alhomwe and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are one and the same? The two are blood brothers—joined at the neck; born and bred according to the precepts of their founder—former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika. The two entities were formed to complement each other and materialize the founder’s political colour dreams.
Unlike the nine other ethnic groups in the country, Mulhakho wa Alhomwe is a political construct. And the DPP leadership makes no secret about this.
And so it should not be strange that former president Peter Mutharika spoke at the annual Mulhakho celebrations at Chonde in Mulanje at the weekend as if he was at a DPP rally. The point is that there is a very blurred line between DPP and Mulhakho. People can criticize Mutharika or DPP for politicizing the cultural event and hijacking it into a political rally, but unlike other ethnic cultural groups, Mulhakho was established to do exactly what its leaders and financiers are doing.
And I cannot agree more with some researchers that “historically marginalised, the Lhomwe have been aggressively mobilized along ethnic lines since 2008, through the establishment of a formal ethnic association and a new political party (Kayira, Banda, Robinson 2013).
In fact, the rabble rouser at the Chonde gathering was not even Mutharika but Achair who set the tone when he spoke about divisions in the DPP following its loss of elections in 2020. Bakili Muluzi who once boasted that he had capacity to deflate the tube and tyre (Bingu’s political lifeline because it is him who put him in power), knows DPP inside out. And so it must have been in that context that he saw nothing wrong to talk about politics at a cultural event because he has always known Mulhakho as just being one side of the political machinery which established it.
Apart from Lhomwe, there are nine other major ethnic groups that are historically associated with Malawi as we know it today. These are the Chewa, Nyanja, Yao, Tumbuka, Sena, Tonga, Ngoni, Ngonde, and the Lambya/Nyiha. When there is no Covid-19 and funds permitting, some of these groups hold annual cultural festivals to popularize their languages, dances, songs, food, chieftaincy and dress codes.
For example, the Tumbuka of Rumphi gather at Bolero for the Gonapamuhanya cultural festival; the Chewa join their cousins from Mozambique and Zambia for the regional ethnic celebrations Kulamba at Chipata, Zambia. The Lhomwe have the Mulhakho wa Alhomwe which is held at Chonde in Thyolo while the Maseko Ngoni and the Ngoni of Mzimba hold their Umshangano and Umtheto in Ntcheu and at Hora in Mzimba, respectively. The Tonga celebrate the Mdawuku wa Atonga (Mwato) festival in Nkhata Bay, the Yao have the Chiwanja cha Ayao cultural activities.
Some of these festivities are held under the auspices of their ethnic groups. Kulamba is held under the charge of the Chewa Heritage Foundation (Chefo). Mulhakho wa Alhomwe celebrations are organised by the ethnic group of the same name. Umtheto is organised by the Mzimba Heritage Association (Mziha). Mwato holds Mwato celebrations.
As can be seen, while some are just annual gatherings, others are associations with formal structures.
All these ethnic groups and their cultural festivities are purely what they profess to be and nothing more—cultural groups. Except Mulhakho wa Alhomwe.
What people need to know is that from the onset, Mulhakho has always been politically motivated. Bingu founded both the DPP and then in a short space of time, Mulhakho. DPP in 2005 and Mulhakho in 2008. It is therefore inevitable that established around the same time and by the same person the two organisations should not have strong ties.
With such ties, how could anyone take one entity out of the other? As some have rightly also argued it is not strange that Mulhakho wa Alhomwe has always been characterized as “aimed at mobilizing members of the Lomwe ethnic group to support the DPP” (Kaira and Banda 2013).
An astute political entrepreneur and ethnic elite established Mulhakho wa Alhomwe to shore up ethnic visibility which he would then turn into a political resource to garner greater support for his party. The question to ask is if DPP is for Lhomwes, what are non-Lhomwes doing in the party? And how good is associating the party with the ethnic group? But these are questions we can tackle on another day.