As we enter 2021, I have one message and appeal to our leaders in political parties—Malawi Congress Party (MCP), UTM Party and all their Tonse Alliance partners, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), United Democratic Front (UDF) and People’s Party (PP). This is the need to strive to unite Malawians in the fresh year. The importance of a united populace cannot be overstated. A united country pulls its resources in one direction and is able to invest it where it can yield the biggest dividends. A united population does not spend good money after bad.
And it all starts with the composition and structure of political parties’ leadership. Political parties should move away from being tribally based groupings. After being ousted from power in 1994, MCP was kept in opposition for 26 years because it was largely seen as a Chewa-based political party. After it was swept out of power, UDF failed to grow because it was and is still seen as a party for one tribal group—the Yaos. DPP, an off shoot of the UDF, has largely remained a political party with its stronghold in the Lomwe belt. The late Bingu wa Mutharika, aided with good rains, a bumper harvest and debt relief from the Breton Woods institutions, succeeded in selling DPP across the country. That is why he won the 2009 presidential elections with 65 percent of the votes—the only president so far to have won the presidency with over 60 percent of the votes in the multiparty era.
But as they say, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Midway through his second term, he lost the plot and then cruel death. May his soul continue resting in eternal peace. Wrongly or rightly PP was also largely seen as a Northern Region party. Peter Mutharika just made things worse for the DPP. He made no effort to disguise the tribal card he was playing in his rule. This was particularly clear in his first Cabinet after his re-election in 2019. He rewarded the Southern Region—which largely contributed to the 38.5 percent of the votes he got in the May 21 Tripartite Elections—with 16 portfolios out of the bloated Cabinet of 24 members. This was a 33.3 percent jump from the previous Cabinet which had 12 Cabinet members from the South and eight from the other two regions.
Like in the Parable of the Bags of Gold (Mathew 25:14—30), Mutharika’s strong message in the composition of this Cabinet was simple. To the South which was and still is his support base, he said: “Well done, good and faithful servant! … You have been faithful [to me] … I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
On the other hand, to the Centre and North, Mutharika chided them for not supporting him: “You wicked, lazy servant! ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has 10 bags.” And just as was the case in all his appointments since 2014, Mutharika practiced cronyism and nepotism with reckless abandon aimed at rewarding voters from his support base.
This was the reason the greatest support for the nationwide demonstrations to force the then Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson Jane Ansah to resign came from the Centre and North. This was a sign of a divided country. Ansah was accused of fraudulently gifting Mutharika with victory before fully resolving myriad electoral disputes from contestants.
The 50+1 rule has just crystallised the need for political parties to bolster their support base outside their regional strongholds. Both MCP and UTM Party can attest to the fact that neither would have been in government without the combined strength and unity of the Tonse Alliance. Tonse benefitted from unity of purpose. One can only hope the group will build on this going forward.
Similarly, as DPP regroups and re-engineers itself, it should rebrand as an entity that is embracing all the regions of the country. And it starts with the elective convention the party is scheduled to hold in the near future. The party should at all costs avoid giving a majority of senior positions to people from its traditional stronghold. A happy and prosperous 2021 to you all.