The vice-presidency in Malawi is a high constitutional office that has been robbed of its significance largely by myopic political machinations. Before elections, the position promises power and an opportunity to its aspirants to serve the country in a distinguished manner; after elections, it brings about marginalisation, sometimes ridicule, and invariably misery to the incumbent.
This was not how the framers of our Constitution expected things to be. In creating the position of the vice-president, they were establishing an important public position. The weight of State power is too much to be borne by a single human being. The president needs a second hand, and so does the nation.
Somehow, Malawian presidents have found it hard to respect the vice-presidency as a vital constitutional office and to allow it to function effectively, as was intended by the Constitution.
We do not know whether the demons of the 30-year one-party rule still haunt the nation. Dr Kamuzu Banda did not have a vice-president throughout his extended rule. Are the democratically-elected presidents seeking to claim a position of dominance that Banda enjoyed?
While we speculate on this question, it is important to note that the 1966 Constitution did not provide for the vice-presidency. The current Constitution does. Still, successive presidents have pushed this position to the margins of political power, rendering the difference between the two constitutional epochs practically meaningless.
At some point, Malawi had the most highly educated presidential leadership in Africa. This was when Dr Bingu wa Mutharika and Dr Cassim Chilumpha were president and vice-president respectively.
That combination of talent did not, however, pay any dividends. If anything, it turned out to be the most conflictual and unproductive relationships the country had ever seen. As a result, Chilumpha contributed nothing concrete to the nation and yet he was paid for showing up at his office, and probably continues to enjoy retirement benefits to date.
That relationship and others before and after it have raised the question whether the president should be allowed to hire and fire the vice-president at will. Good reasons could be adduced in support of an affirmative answer to this question.
The Constitution already gives the president almost absolute power to constitute the Cabinet in any way he or she likes. That includes the power to appoint anyone to Cabinet and to dismiss any member of Cabinet at anytime, anywhere and for any or no reason.
The executive is responsible for policy-making and implementation, general administration and enforcement of the law. It’s a responsibility for which it is held directly accountable at the polls. The executive must thus be allowed to create and recreate itself freely so that it can maximise its ability to fulfill its electoral mandate.
If the foregoing justifies the presidential prerogative of Cabinet appointments and dismissals, it should also justify the presidential power to appoint and dismiss the vice-president at will. There is nothing in the office of the vice-president, it could be argued, that mandates different treatment from that Cabinet ministers receive under the Constitution.
After all, the vice-presidency is not an accountability mechanism—a check on the presidency— for it to have its tenure constitutionally protected. The vice-president is merely a second in command whose responsibility is to assist the president and act in his or her absence. The Constitution has created a number of institutions to serve as accountability mechanisms for the executive.
In spite of these seemingly good reasons, the Constitution does not allow the president to dismiss the vice-president. This has given the vice-president immunity from dismissal even when the relationship with the president has broken down irretrievably.
Why did our Constitution deem it necessary to entrench the vice-presidency? On what grounds can this constitutional choice be justified? If this position is indeed justifiable, what could make this arrangement work in Malawi? I will address these questions in part II of this piece.