The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on Tuesday morning hit hard President Lazarus Chakwera’s inner circle, killing two Cabinet ministers—Mohammed Sidik Mia and Lingson Belekanyama—in quick succession.
The tragedy struck a day after the fast-spreading virus killed 10 Malawians on Monday.
Chakwera termed the news as “an incalculable loss” and “the darkest hour in the nation’s history”, declaring a State of National Disaster and three days of mourning.
The resurgent virus has, cumulatively, claimed over 235 lives from about 930 confirmed cases in Malawi.
Mia, who was minister of Transport and the governing Malawi Congress Party (MCP) vice-president, and his Local Government counterpart Belekanyama, become the country’s highest-ranking casualties so far.
A businessperson-turned-politician, Mia, 55, was an unsung hero in the formation of the governing Tonse Alliance.
The fallen minister revealed his illness in an open letter, calling for strict compliance with Covid-19 measures.
His death ends a 26-year-old political career, illustrating the unselective spread of the global outbreak first detected in Malawi last April.
“We are in a state of shock. For the party, this is too much to bear in one day. Honourable Mia was our beacon of hope, a humble person who put the national interest ahead of his personal ambition,” said MCP secretary-general (SG) Eisenhower Mkaka.
According to Mkaka, Mia needed no force to pave the way for Africa’s first opposition coalition to defeat a sitting president in a court-sanctioned repeat election.
He recalls: “As the SG, I interacted with the party vice-president quiet often. He told me at that time: ‘SG, people think that I am standing in the way of the alliance, but I am ready to step aside for the good of the nation if doing so will bring the change we want’.
“It didn’t take a long time for the party to convince him to buy into the Tonse Alliance agenda and it takes a strong character to put his personal ambition on the altar for the good of his nation.”
Mia’s drop allowed UTM Party president Saulos Chilima to become President Lazarus Chakwera’s running mate in the court-sanctioned June 23 2020 Fresh Presidential Election.
Born in 1965 to a trucker at Makande in Ngabu, Chikwawa District, Mia vocally campaigned for the alliance in the poll. During the victorious campaign, MCP and its allies resisted a nationwide lockdown to combat coronavirus, allowing Malawians to go to polls amid the outbreak’s first wave.
Mia’s investment in Chakwera’s campaign stirred a heated debate over party financing in July 2020 when the President appointed him and his wife, Abida, to his maiden Cabinet.
Born a year after Malawi attained independence from Britain, Mia admittedly started politics as an MCP agent aged 29.
His loyalists hailed him as ‘the Shire Valley giant’, a tag left by the late Gwanda Chakuamba, who helped MCP win all parliamentary seats in Nsanje in 1994. However, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) dominance on the southern tip of the country brought into question the said influence.
During the switch from MCP’s one-party rule to democracy in 1993, Mia supported the liberal United Democratic Front (UDF), established by Bakili Muluzi who ended founding President Kamuzu Banda’s 31-year-old dictatorship.
When Muluzi disagreed with his chosen successor Bingu wa Mutharika in 2005, Mia dumped UDF to join then newly-formed DPP. In April 2012, when Bingu succumbed to a heart attack, the Shire Valley politician and his 18 DPP executives swiftly switched to then vice-president Joyce Banda’s People’s Party (PP).
The political nomad returned to MCP in June 2017 and rose to become Chakwera’s running mate in the 2019 presidential poll cancelled by the courts due to widespread irregularities.
In May 2004, the proprietor of a cattle ranch in Ngabu, S&A Cold Storage Company in Blantyre City and a nationwide event management firm was elected Chikwawa Nkombezi member of Parliament on a UDF ticket.
A month later, Bingu appointed him deputy minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Food Security; then eputy minister of Mines, Natural Resources and Environment; deputy minister of Transport and Public Works and later as minister of Irrigation and Water Development.
He retained the parliamentary seat on DPP ticket in 2009 when Bingu appointed him minister of Defence. In 2010, he moved to the ministry of Transport, staying put until Bingu died.
In January 2014, Mia pulled a surprise when he quit PP and resigned as Minister of Transport, saying he was quitting active politics.
He bounced back three years later when he rejoined MCP and declared his interest to contest for the second-topmost executive position before being officially welcomed into the party.
He announced: “Come the convention, I am vying for no other position but the vice-presidency of the MCP. That is it, I stand by it and I am very ready.”
A week later, then MCP vice-president Richard Msowoya counteracted the shocker, announcing he would partner Lazarus Chakwera in the 2019 polls.
However, Mia defeated the then speaker of Parliament during the party’s convention. Msowoya has since quit politics.
Political commentator Ernest Thindwa, a lecturer at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, says Mia may not have been in the same league as Chakuamba, but he made MCP look bigger than its Central Region stronghold.
He said: “His willingness to forgo the running mate status in the fresh presidential election to pave the way for a widely desirable MCP-UTM Party electoral alliance is arguably his most significant contribution to Malawi’s electoral politics and survival of democracy.
“He will be hugely missed by MCP as he epitomised the party’s presence in the Lower Shire. For objective observers, he will be viewed as a symbol of subordination of personal ego to the greater and collective good.”
The deaths of Mia and Belekanyama have sent ripples of fear across the country, putting faces to the figures of coronavirus death rates the Ministry of Health churns out daily.
For Mkaka, this is a reminder that we need to come together to combat the common enemy in our midst.
“We all need to put our hands together and observe preventive measures to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our nation,” he said.