“[There] are leaders who win competitive elections primarily because of their seemingly uncompromising support of good governance, but upon attaining power steadily adopt autocratic rule. Unfortunately, this reversion is becoming all too common and one must wonder whether the African democratisation project is in retreat, at least in some countries. Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika is an interesting case study of such a conversion,” wrote Mwangi S. Kimenyi for the Brookings Institution on March 9 2012.
Further in his piece, Kimenyi writes, having noted how autocratic Mutharika had become after campaigning on good governance and an anti-corruption drive and later endeavoured to run the country by these values in his first five years, only to regress in his second term: “President Mutharika is expected to be in power until 2014 when his term expires. Should he continue on this trend, Malawi could easily dissolve into chaos before he leaves office.”
A month later, Mutharika did leave office, having died, leaving behind the chaos he had presided over.
Probably the height of Mutharika’s arrogant and strong man rule manifested itself on the deadly July 20 2011. Fed up with shortages of fuel, foreign currency and long hours of power blackouts, civil society organisations that Mutharika had unsuccessfully tried to “smoke” out held the largest demonstrations Malawi had ever seen.
When the President held that the ‘misguided’ chaps were planning national protests on the streets of cities and major towns that would attract millions of poor and ordinary citizens, Mutharika was planning an event of his own at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe on the same day; a televised gathering of elite folks from where he would exorcise the country, especially those civil society protesters and their followers, of their ignorance that he assumed had led to the planned demonstrations.
And so as President Mutharika yapped about the york of colonialism, political independence, human rights and civil liberties, governance, sovereignty and his fake zero deficit budget to the country’s elites, the protests had turned ugly outside the gold draped rooms and a few kilometres from the gates of the presidential palaces in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba and Mzuzu.
Encouraged by Mutharika’s shoot to kill policy, the police—convinced teargas wasn’t enough to disperse the large crowds, opened fire on protestors, killing scores. The following day, the images that dominated the media were of the dead and injured from the demonstrations. Few remembered the public lecture.
The only few optics Bingu got were the contrasts of a President wining, dining and glowing in the flattery of his backside lickers at the public lecture while the people he was elected to protect were being butchered by police on the streets. Nine months later, those images followed Mutharika to his grave.
Eight years later, on February 27 2018, Vice President Saulos Chilima, second in command at the time to Bingu’s young brother Peter, went to the Philosophy Department of University of Malawi’s Chancellor College where he held a public lecture on the topic, “Moral Decadence: Towards an Effective Compliance and Ethics programme.”
Four months later, Chilima was forced out of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) where he tried to replace his boss as the ruling party’s presidential candidate in the 2019 elections.
Barely four months into his second stint as Vice-President, this time, under new boss President Lazarus Chakwera, out came Chilima with another public lecture, at the five-star hotel named after the guy I suspect keeps inspiring the Veep’s public lecture mood—Bingu International Conference Centre on October 30.
And the indelible curse of the public lecture did not disappoint. Bitter entanglements, pan intended, broke out. Some wise chap over at State House decided that it would be a good idea to steal the show from the ambitious Chilima by arranging that the President attend two public events other than the Veep’s a stone throw away from each other.
People rightly observed the clash in programmes, which should never have happened given that Chilima’s event was announced and publicised for more than a week.
Social media chatter went on the loose, suggesting this was a sign that the other curse—fallouts of presidents and their vice—was back to haunt us contrary to Chakwera and Chilima’s assurances that such would never be the case with them.
To diffuse these speculations, President Chakwera hastily cancelled his public engagements and participated in the public lecture. But the damage was done: in the contest of staring, the President had blinked and Chilima still had his way.
Later, an appropriate photo-op was quickly arranged with the duo seemingly comfortable with each other.
It might be a coincidence, but less than a week later, Chilima was passed over for a trip to Tanzania to represent Chakwera at an event to inaugurate Tanzania President John Magufuli for his second term. Instead, it is Malawi Congress Party vice-president Sidik Mia who enjoyed the honour.
Now let me return to my borrowed opening paragraph. Apparently, Chakwera was irked by the chatter about his relationship with his Veep, so he scolded Malawians for wasting time on idle talk, instead of discussing serious issues affecting the country such as the questionable K10 billion contract awards by Southern Region Water Board (SRWB) that left a cheaper bidder, Fisd, despite passing the technical evaluation stage.
Well, shouldn’t the President have been telling us what he is doing about the SRWB scandal instead of offering the issue to us as an alternative gossip topic?
Then on Monday, his communications people at the weekly Monday briefing threatened those openly discussing what they see as tension between Chakwera and Chilima.
State House said these people would be exposed and, ostensibly, punished. In other words, the Chakwera State House can’t stand scrutiny so much that it is ready to deploy every tool at its disposal to muzzle people’s right to freedom of expression.
Now that would be an unholy conversion by the man of God—and it will have arrived too early.