Bitter political rivalry yesterday marred the funeral service of Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe at Bolero in Rumphi District as it resulted in a clash between the clergy and traditional leaders, threatening to disrupt the service.
Tension started building after director of ceremonies Chimbizga Msimuko of taxpayer-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) clarified on an intervention by the firebrand Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Livingstonia Synod general secretary (GS) the Reverend Levi Nyondo to acknowledge the presence of estranged Vice-President Saulos Chilima at the ceremony.
But the director of ceremonies responded by asking all speakers to only acknowledge President Peter Mutharika in their salutations. Nyondo, who was on the initial list of speakers, was later skipped.
In an apparent demonstration of a widened rift between the President and the Vice-President, who in June quit the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and declared his ambition to contest for the presidency in the May 21 Tripartite Elections, the First and Second citizens sat worlds apart in different podiums. The two were also not seen shaking hands or demonstrating any friendly gestures.
The President sat alongside his Cabinet ministers, Speaker of the National Assembly Richard Msowoya and the country’s former vice-president Khumbo Kachali, among other dignitaries. The fallen chief’s widow was sandwiched by Mutharika and Msowoya in the seating arrangement.
Chilima, on the other hand, sat next to his wife Mary and Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera, who is also Leader of Opposition in Parliament, in the adjacent tent.
In delivering the President’s eulogy from a prepared speech, Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Kondwani Nankhumwa only acknowledged the presence of the Speaker, Cabinet ministers and traditional leaders, among others. He never mentioned Chilima, Chakwera or Kachali.
More tension ensued after Nankhumwa’s speech when the director of ceremonies handed over the programme to the clergy.
The synod leadership, which sanctioned commencement of the service before the President’s arrival, accused government of sidelining other political leaders.
Immediately after taking over the programme, a visibly fired up synod moderator the Reverend Douglas Chipofya announced that Nyondo, Chakwera and Chilima would speak before the church section of the ceremony. His announcement drew applause from sections of the mourners.
He said: “If the GS [Nyondo] does not speak, it means the Synod of Livingstonia has not spoken and that is unheard of.”
Chipofya’s announcement stirred panic and Mutharika was seen conferring with an aide before two traditional leaders, including group village head Kazamawe moved in to seized the microphone from Chipofya, stating that protocol does not allow anyone to speak after the President.
At this point, Nyondo emotionally threatened that his church would not proceed with the funeral programme and declared that the chiefs carry over.
To boos and murmurs from some mourners, he said: “Tiphalazgenge yaye! Mafumu walutulizgenge [We won’t preach, let the chiefs takeover].”
It took the intervention of presbyterians such as the synod’s Church and Society Programme director Moses Mkandawire, who pleaded with the clergy to proceed.
Kazamawe then wore a brave face to strike a compromise, saying: “We accept that government erred by not including other political leaders on the programme, but they should not speak after the President has already spoken. This should never happen again.
“We ask you as a church to preach the message in honour of Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe who loved attending church services.”
Speaking later as a family representative, Kazamawe said the family was disappointed with the turn of events.
When the synod resumed the programme, Chipofya ignored the President’s presence and only saluted Chilima, Chakwera, the Speaker and other dignitaries.
He hailed Chikulamayembe as a leader who delivered on his promises and never made “empty promises”.
Reading from Exodus 19 verse 1-8, Chipofya dwelled on how the Israelites failed to deliver on their promises.
He said: “It is very easy to speak, but not to deliver. Your Excellency, coming to your Cabinet, during the swearing in ceremony, you promised to defend the Republican Constitution but after sometimes you forget.”
In their reactions, opposition political parties condemned politicisation of the funeral service, faulting government for sidelining Chilima—who was recently dropped from the Cabinet list.
People’s Party representative Kamlepo Kalua said the country missed an opportunity to create an environment of political coexistence. He said the fracas was demeaning.
Alliance for Democracy (Aford) president Enoch Chihana accused government of politicising national or cultural events.
But DPP spokesperson Nicholas Dausi faulted the synod for politicising the funeral ceremony, saying: “This ceremony was being handled by the State and there was no need to involve political parties. We should not use funerals to score political points.”
University of Livingstonia political scientist George Phiri said divisions among the political leaders sparked the drama.
He said Mutharika and Chilima should have been made to sit side by side.
Initially, Mutharika had delegated Nankhumwa to represent him, but the Office of the President and Cabinet revised an earlier announcement on Monday night and said the President would attend.
Born Walter John Hardy Gondwe, Chikulamayembe died on Thursday last week aged 86. He is survived by a wife, five children and 13 grandchildren. He was buried with military honours that include a three-gun salute.