So it turns out Vice-President Saulos Klaus Chilima is not an undecided jim, an ambitious marketer who speaks in parables. The 45-year-old, who appeared too slow to speak of his political future after dumping the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was explosive on Saturday when he launched the United Transformation Movement (UTM) at Masintha Ground in Lilongwe.
The man, now marketed as SKC by his groupies, spoke impassionedly for almost 45 minutes, unpacking his agenda to create a Malawi which will benefit all, not just the corrupt few in power.
Unsurprisingly, the instant reaction from the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) is that all the talk about rampant high-level corruption in the DPP administration is a vindication of outcry.
But the major opposition party may not necessarily have a new ally in the war against official corruption that begot Cashgate—an unfolding scandal in which politicians, civil servants and businesspersons conspired to loot billions from Capital Hill for no goods and services delivered or inflated invoices.
For those who perceive politics as a game of numbers, the massive turnout Chilima’s movement attracted to Masintha, the heartbeat of MCP’s stronghold in the Central Region, confirms that MCP leader Lazarus Chakwera has a new challenger both on the ground and on the ballot in the race to unseat President Arthur Peter Mutharika (APM).
Four years ago, Mutharika and Chilima formed a formidable pair that defied the advantages associated with incumbency and won an unlikely victory over a sitting President—Joyce Banda.
Now, the pair finds itself head to head with the presidency up for grabs next year.
The two, who consigned Banda to third-place spot in 2014, face each other in a power struggle. Both the President and his alienated the Vice-President still have access to State resources as a long suppressed rumour of their sour relationship culminates to a new episode a President at war with his Number 2 .
In 2003, similar hostility forced Justin Malawezi to ditch former president Bakili Muluzi, who publicly derided him. The uneasy relationship Malewezi terms “a curse of vice-presidents” did not end when Muluzi imposed Cassim Chilumpha on his successor Bingu wa Mutharika nor when the fallen president handpicked Joyce Banda after demanding the licence to elect a running mate during his successful bid for a second term.
It roars on with a twist more intricate than the face-off in which former Minister of Justice Ralph Kasambara, who doubled as the Attorney General, accused Chilumpha of constructive resignation and dragged him to court over allegations to assassinate Bingu.
The APM-SKC tussle is unfolding with speed as the next election draws closer.
Just in 2014, the youthful economist-turned-marketer stunned many when he quit his lucrative job as the managing director of Airtel Malawi to prop up Mutharika’s presidential race.
Widely perceived as a political novice—“a baby”, according to the country’s oldest Cabinet minister Goodall Gondwe—he cut his teeth as the leader of a student wing of Alliance for Democracy at Chancellor College in Zomba in the 1990s.
At Masintha, he took the battle to his boss—leaving no one guessing about what he previously spoke in parables. He was straight-forward and persuasive as he upgraded the simmering spat with Mutharika.
Chilima’s oration largely hinged on burning issues people wanted to hear head on, says political commentator Makhumbo Munthali.
“For the first in recent years, we saw someone tackling issues that really matter to ordinary Malawians…with a deep conviction,” says the activist (See Page One of this supplement).
But SKC’s popularity cannot be measured by the Masintha rally alone. Yet Chilima’s speech has been well received, keeping tongues wagging and the social media purring day and night.
It makes him a fresh voice worth following and looks likely to relegate Mutharika’s archrival—MCP’s Chakwera, the fierce critic of the President whom he christened “a prince of thieves”—to the back of the queue as the clocks tick and chime towards 2019 Tripartite Elections.
To journalist and social commentator Idriss Ali Nassah, Chilima’s emergence pushes the leader of opposition in Parliament aside.
“Chakwera has failed to capitalise on several blunders by the DPP and Peter Mutharika. When things happen, he waits to be led. Instead of seizing the moment, he seems to take cue from civil society leaders, then he follows,” writes Nassah on Facebook.
He splits the difference:“With Chilima now contesting, Chakwera isn’t the fresh new face of politics anymore. That title is gone and, with it, potential votes.”
This brings into question Chakwera’s favourite coveted image as the people’s darling—a voice of voiceless and unheeded Malawians.
His voice in Parliament sends jitters to government elites he loves to accuse of uncurbed corruption. But his indecisiveness unsettles those who look up to him for alternatives.
This may well cost him the trust of the people facing the likelihood of switching to Chilima.
The Vice-President could be the major winner in all this.
Chakwera’s flip-flopping on issues of national importance reached a new low when his party backed a push to share some K4 billion, earlier assigned to legislators who shot down a bill for the president to be elected by over half of the voters, equally among all MPs. In no time, he turned around to criticise the distribution of the controversial payout he backed.
This political posture may benefit Chilima, who appeared at Masintha with State security and boldly admonished corruption in a regime he is a part of.
The Vice-President has civil service experience having championed the Public Sector Reform Programme and Department of Disaster Management Affairs.
This provides a launch pad for his raid to foil Mutharika’s re-election.
Chilima has vowed to expose corrupt minds in power weeks after a leaked dossier from the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) implicated the President for allegedly benefitting K145 million from a shady deal to supply food to Malawi Police Service.
Mentioning no names in his rhetoric, the Vice-President wondered how politicians who had nothing four years ago became millionaires overnight.
Periodically, he left the murmuring crowd to fill the blanks—forging an instant connection with his audience.
The man, said to have rigged the 2014 elections which MCP still disputes, kept mum on this. However, he reinforced the speculation when he urged the governing party not to dare rig the elections.
“Machine-anuwo ngati mukuti mubera chisankho mwauponda [if you think you will rig elections using the spy machine, you are wasting your time],” said Chilima.
MCP’s reaction to this was instant.
“Let SKC tell Malawians how the votes were rigged in 2014 and who masterminded the tricks; also how the DPP is planning to rig the 2019 polls. Malawians will want to know the whole truth about everything our second citizen is aware of so that they know who to vote for in 2019,” said MCP spokesperson the Reverend Maurice Munthali.
He reckons the more Chilima exposes the rot in government, the higher the MCP’s chances of winning the presidency 24 years after its founding leader Kamuzu Banda lost it to Muluzi in 1994.
Like Chakwera in 2014, the Vice-President may have become the people’s person but the real test of his agenda for change is a game of numbers decided on the polling day. How the self-styled anti-corruption crusader turns the numbers into votes will determine his rise or fall.
Extra reporting by James Chavula