Former president and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Peter Mutharika came out of hi cocoon and talked to Nation Publications Limited managing editor Ephraim Munthali on a number of issues surrounding his reign and the succession plan in his party in this exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Q: Mr. President how have you been?
A: Thank you, I am very happy, happy like when I was in the academia, dealing with reasonable people. I am doing a lot of reading and some writing, but mostly reading because I have not had the chance to do some reading for some time. I am reading mostly biographies of some leaders. Right now I am reading ‘Speeches that Changed the World” dating back to Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Barrack Obama, Roosevelt. It is very interesting.
Q: Is that reading helping you to reflect on your presidency?
A: Yes, I think so, although I have not reflected much, it has just been three months since the last election, but I do reflect on it; what we did, what we had achieved and some of the challenges that we encountered. I am reflecting on the party (DPP) and some of things that have been happening. But basically, I have been taking more time talking to the children and grand children. One of my grand children has just gone into college in Minnesota so I talk to him quite often now and he is really excited because he wants to go into journalism and advertising field.
Q: Since leaving office you have been quiet and remained out of sight. Why are you coming out now?
A: A lot of people have been saying that I have been too quiet, including the party, saying people want to hear from me. But I wanted to take my time, I didn’t think there was any rush, but also I am pretty much retiring from politics. As soon as I hand over the party to a new leader, I will retire completely. Right now I am in semi retirement. But I also thought that it was important to give the new government some space. I believe in the tradition of not criticising your successor, so I thought I would keep quiet. But now there are a lot of things happening in the party. Also, it has been more than three months since the election, so I thought I should talk to the press and reflect on what has happened and where we are going.
Q: What is your reflection on your presidency and legacy you think you have left behind?
A: There are a number of areas. One of course is the economy. As you know when we took over (in 2014), the economy had collapsed. I was the first president in Malawi to run this economy without donor support and we managed. We struggled, but we managed to bring inflation to single digits from around 30 percent, interest rates from 40 percent to around 16 percent in terms of the policy rate, we managed to stabilise the exchange rate. When we came in there was less than one month of import cover, but when we left it was more than four months—over a billion US dollars in both private and official reserves, so I think we did quite well. The second area is the introduction of skills training through community colleges, which has created a lot of jobs. The programme has enabled young people, immigrants and minorities to try and move into middle class. People are creating their own jobs. I am proud, for example, that Kasama Community College was built by graduates from some of these community technical colleges. The third part of my legacy is infrastructure. It is important that we have good infrastructure in this country, especially roads. We have built roads all over the country in all the regions more than any other administration before. For example, Karonga-Songwe Road, Mzuzu Nkhata Bay, Liwonde-Mangochi Road, Thyolo-Makwasa-Thekerani and so many others. We have built the Tsangano-Neno Road to open up areas… In the universities, including Polytechnic, University of Malawi (Unina) in Zomba, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) we built new infrastructure there. The fourth is foreign direct investment. No country can develop without the infusion of foreign capital. We embarked on an expansive programme to bring in investment. And so for the first time we had investment conferences, we reformed Malawi Investment and Trade Centre that resulted in one-stop centres. Today (Friday) the President is opening, and I am sure he is going to be proud of it, the Golden Peacock five-star hotel in Blantyre. That is my project. I personally negotiated in China and it has changed the skyline in Blantyre. There is also the Grand Business Park in Lilongwe, I negotiated that. When completed, people will no longer have to go to China to buy goods. It will also create a lot of jobs. But my legacy is not just about what I did as President. It started in 2009 when I became a member of Parliament and minister. You hear stories even by your own people saying that where ever APM went to be a minister it was a disaster. I ask them what disaster was there, they can’t mention. At the Ministry of Justice, I started the National Registration initiative—that was my idea and worked on a Bill to facilitate that and our registration system is one of the best among those taking place anywhere in the world. I also introduced the concept of credit reference bureau. For the first time we now have a credit reference bureau—I introduced that while I was at the Ministry of Justice and it has been a success. They say the Ministry of Education was a disaster when I was there just because of a University of Malawi strike. But that strike was not about academic freedom; that strike was about challenging the government. It was about regime change. In fact, I am the one who persuaded the President to reinstate those four lecturers, but they don’t know that. Must was created under my leadership at the Ministry of Education and I was heavily involved in its creation. Luanar was created under my leadership. Delinking Bunda from Unima happened when I was at the Ministry of Education. The introduction of the National Council for Higher Education was my idea because I was concerned about university standards so I started the council so that it can accredit universities. They say it was a disaster at Foreign Affairs because of the expulsion of the British High Commissioner. I was not even in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when that happened, I was Minister of Education. It was Professor Etta Banda who was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at that time. But it was I who persuaded the President that look, I am an expert in international relations, why don’t you let me handle this, so he appointed me Minister of Foreign Affairs and I led a delegation consisting of myself, Goodall Gondwe, George Chaponda, Nicholas Dausi and Ben Phiri. We first went to London where we met William Hague himself, the Foreign Secretary, but also members of the Africa Committee of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. From there we went to Berlin because there was also some trouble with the Germans and from there I went to Brussels where I met the European Union. The British ended up sending another High Commissioner and that was the beginning of a new relationship and we now have an excellent relationship with the British Government. I did all that, yet some people continue to say I was a disaster in every ministry I went to, I don’t know what they are talking about. They are so biased against me that they see things that are not there. So, the things I did in those ministries are also part of my legacy. So, if you judge me fairly, my legacy would be strong. But the trouble is people decided from the beginning to be against me. There are two reasons, one, that I had been outside the country for a very long time and somehow people did not feel that I am a legitimate Malawian, so there was that resentment from the beginning. Second is the resentment that another member of the same family was also the President of this country. So, some people decided from the beginning that no matter what I do, I have failed. But if you look at what I have done as an adviser to the president, a minister and president I think I have contributed positively to the country.
Q: Do you have any regrets? Are there things that you think you could have done differently?
A: Not really, I can’t think of any major terrible things that I did unless you give me specifics.
Q: There is this shadow or perception of corruption that hangs around your presidency; that you presided over a highly corrupt administration, what do you say to that?
A: Yes, it does, but you know, it is more of a perception as I have said many times: that there has always been corruption, there will always be corruption as long as there are people. This happens throughout history. You go back to biblical times even the high priests were very corrupt. One of the directors of public prosecutions, way before I got into power, said a third of the resources go into corruption. Then look at Cashgate, it was the worst form of corruption and yet there were no people demonstrating against Cashgate. During my time, they said there were seven rotten ministers in my Cabinet, it turned out not to be true. They are doing investigations now and a few people have been arrested and that’s fine, but you see, with corruption, I don’t see how ministers would be involved. Ministers are not really controlling officers, they don’t touch the funds. If you look at Cashgate, most people involved were civil servants, not ministers. It was civil servants, the people who handle finances in this country were the ones involved in Cashgate. As for my ministers I said many times that we have a Zero Tolerance for Corruption Policy and any minister found to be corrupt will be dismissed. There have been allegations of corruption and one minister had to leave Cabinet for allegations of corruption in maize purchases until he was cleared after the court found no corruption there. And I have told people that if you know of cases of corrupt ministers or officials report to the ACB or to me or other authorities so that they are acted upon, so I think it was more of a perception. Even now during the new administration we are already hearing stories of corruption, but we tried to fight corruption and it is the responsibility of everybody. But investigations are going on. People will find out how much corruption was going on, they will find out if really this was the most corrupt administration in the history of this country, but I don’t think so.
Key people who were very close to you in your administration—your chief of staff, your head of security and others have been picked up on allegations bordering on fraud, corruption and abuse of office. What does that make you feel because some say if they were close to you it probably means that either you were complicit or condoning?
You know government is so big. You have to be in the presidency to understand it. It is a very unique kind of job and there are so many things happening that you cannot control. It’s vast. You have ministers, you have MDAs [ministries, departments and agencies] you have parastatals, and you have people in local authorities. In all these places there are so many people. With decentralisation, look at the corruption that allegedly takes place in councils, how do you control it? How do you move from office to office to make sure that people are not corrupt? It is difficult to do. It’s a vast organisation. Many people do things that we don’t know. Sometimes there are people who act in your name. For example they have found people in the new administration who are claiming that they want to hire people for the administration or the First Lady’s office when it is not true. The same was happening in my administration, people trying to enrich themselves using your name. Even your own staff it’s not possible to know what they are doing.
Q: The cement allegations were about someone who was almost always sitting next to you and working right there at State House, so when you say government is vast and a complicated structure, how do you explain the alleged malfeasance right under your nose?
Q: But still those people are not sitting in your office; they are sitting in their office on different floors, so it is not possible to know what people are really doing. Even the president’s advisers, it is not like they sit in your office, they don’t. When I need to meet them I meet them in the audience room and they make an appointment to see me. So, if people are working within State House it doesn’t mean that everything they are doing you know. And if I can come to the cement issue, it was Mgeme Kalirani who called me and said I got a call from a reporter at The Nation who wanted to know if you had ordered cement without paying duty and Mgeme said he told the reporter that the President has duty free status for personal use. So, I said what cement? He said apparently you ordered some kind of cement. I said for what? So we started investigating and found that there was this massive amount of cement, I understand amounting to around K5 billion, 1.4 million bags. That’s enough to build three or four airports. I don’t have that kind of cement. You can see it yourself. I am even failing to finish the front and that side behind because I don’t have cement. The point is that I was not aware of it or how it happened, how it was financed. I think this is something that they are investigating and I understand there is this gentleman, Mr. Chunara, I don’t even know him, but apparently he is the one who was importing this cement. I never had an import licence to import cement and I did not ask for forex to bring in this cement and where would I even get the K5 billion? Now I understand MRA [Malawi Revenue Authority] has sent Chunara a K1.3 billion tax bill on the same because it is clear that he is the one importing. In fact this is a tax evasion case, that’s what it is, but it is being turned into something else and I really don’t understand why. They have even gone to the extent of freezing my bank accounts, but they have not frozen the accounts of this gentleman who imported the cement. It is a very strange situation here that I am a victim of this fraud, of people using my name. I don’t even know my TPIN number; I have never even used it. I am a victim of this but at the same time I am being penalised by freezing my accounts and we have requested the ACB that they should unfreeze them because there is no reason for freezing my accounts, so I am waiting to hear from the director general of ACB.
Q: Does that make you angry? The fact that you have been a victim of a potential crime and yet you are being punished?
A: Well, I am certainly not pleased with it because I think it is unfair and I don’t know why it is being done that way because as I said this is a clear tax evasion case. The freezing of my accounts is creating a lot of hardships for me when all my resources have been frozen.
Q: Some people in your party say these arrests are political persecution. What are your thoughts?
A: Maybe yes, maybe not. But let me tell you a secret. When I was arrested while in opposition and charged with treason, people were very angry because the charges were absolutely bogus and when we came into power, some people wanted me to go after Dr. Joyce Banda as revenge for the unfair arrests. But I said that is not a good idea because this business of persecuting former presidents has got to stop. No other country does this in Africa. It’s only in Malawi, so I wanted that culture to stop and I told everybody to leave her alone. I don’t know how the culture of persecuting former presidents started in Malawi. It doesn’t happen in Zambia, it doesn’t happen in Tanzania or anywhere in the Sadc, not even in Africa for that matter so I wanted it to stop. So, whether what is happening now is persecution or not people will decide.
Q: There are divisions in your party and these divisions appear to be coming from the issue of succession. What is your plan for ensuring that there is timely succession without tearing the party apart?
A: When I took over the party in April 2012, it was pretty much dead and then many people left. The secretary general of the party left, the first vice-president of the party left. In Parliament, we had 144 members out of 193, 111 left and we remained with 33 members and the party was pretty much dead. But I vowed at Ndata that I would never leave the party. I could have gone back to the US. In fact, my family told me why don’t you just come back after all I still had my job at the university. But I said my brother had so many people depending on him to lead the party, now that he is gone I can’t leave them alone. We waited for about six months and then we started rebuilding the party. I wasn’t sure at first whether people would even come to the first rally, so I said we are going to have the first rally at Thyolo Boma where at least I was sure people from Goliati would come (chuckles) and the crowd was unbelievable. By 9am the place was full. The following week, we were at Mgona in Lilongwe, huge crowd. The third one was in Mzuzu, huge crowd. The fourth one in Balaka and then after that we went to Njamba and the crowd there was even larger than when the Pope came to Malawi, it was unbelievable. After that we started restructuring the party. That’s how we built the party that won an election (in 2014). The reason I am saying all this is that we had the election just over three months ago and I don’t know why there is this rush. Even while we were in government I said that we will have a convention in 2023 and elect a new leader and in the meantime allow people to grow. I did this because even before the 2019 elections, there were factions, but I told them to wait, let’s win the elections first because it will be easier to win again when the party is still in government, so they stopped a little bit, but started again after the 2019 elections. And when we left the government I appointed a committee of about eight people with representatives from all the four regions, the youths and women and gave them the terms of reference to look at the structures of the party. I mean the party was formed in 2005 and for 15 years we never had a review to look at the structures. So, yes, people want a convention today, but I asked the secretary general how that convention will be conducted. Who are going to be the delegates when all the structures have collapsed over the years because the party was not being administered property? What we need to do is to go back and review, reform the party, rebuild at area level, zone level, constituency level, district level, regional level. Once the committee submits its report on how this can be done, then the NGC will review the recommendations, including any amendments to the party constitution if needed, then NGC will decide to set a date for the convention, but it has to be called after we have restructured the party and we have delegates, an electoral college, to the convention. I have given the committee a deadline of October 30 2020 after which I will call for the NGC meeting.
Q: Critics would say this is one of your ways of clinging to the party?
A: It’s not that I am clinging to the party. I will be glad to give this party tomorrow. It’s not easy to run a party, it’s a headache, but I must be responsible. This must be done properly so that we have a leader who is properly elected and then I will support that leader through the election to make sure that the DPP comes back in 2025, so I will do that, but I will not allow people to divide this party or try to sell it to the highest bidder. The committee will come up with criteria on who qualifies to contest at this convention apart from defining the philosophy of the party and where we want to take the country. Some parties that were once strong in this country have died because of poor succession management. So, we rebuild the party then have a proper transition with a leader who will not pursue personal interests, but interests of the party and then we will be able to be competitive.
Q: You are talking about rebuilding the party, but you just fired the secretary general, the treasurer general, vice-president (South), isn’t that a contradiction?
A: No it is not. That was done because of indiscipline and the central committee of the party felt that these people had to be disciplined. And we have seen that in other parties. MCP fired the secretary general, they fired the publicity secretary and others and the party continued. In our case, there was a feeling that some people were pursuing personal interests, not the interests of the party and of course there was the issue of insubordination. Any organisation needs discipline that is why a lot of parties in Malawi have expelled a lot of senior members, so it is not a contradiction.