President Peter Mutharika, has launched an early campaign to hang on to the presidency, but his outbursts exposes a state of flux in a ruling party accused of indifference to corruption.
The 79-year-old has embarked on a whistle-stop tour to convince Malawians that he has done nothing wrong to deserve a backlash from governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) factionaries who say he is too old to seek re-election.
He slights his challengers—who want him to pave the way for Vice-President Saulos Chilima, 45, to be on the ballot next year—as “disgruntled people I discarded”.
Speaking in Thyolo on Saturday, he said: “One of them has a K400 million debt and he wanted me to give him money. I cannot do that. I don’t give out money.
“Some are disgruntled because I fired them as Cabinet ministers. Some wanted me to give them business fraudulently. I told them I cannot do that. Some stole something and they wanted my protection.”
The near-octogenarian insists he is in the State House for a long haul.
In fact, he discredits claims by the breakaway group that he promised to step down after just a single five-year term.
He reckons that it was certain from the start that he would rule for a decade—the constitutional limit—until his second term expires in 2024.
Scramble for contracts?
However, it appears the destruction of the leader opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera christened “prince of thieves” is in the rants against the alleged cheats in the pro-Chilima camp.
Why the President waited for the raging power wrangle in his party to open up about the said corrupt and fraud demands could be a sign of his half-hearted war on corruption.
Chilima’s backers described him as a passive ruler who shuns his advisors and DPP national governing council in preference for a clique of opportunists.
In fact, former first lady Callista Mutharika says his brother-in-law is surrounded by “thugs”.
In Thyolo, the President contradicted himself to a new low when he rapped former regional governor Noel Masangwi as unthankful.
Despite vowing that no one can push him to make deals that does not benefit Malawians, he revealed how he may have offered a contract to construct a three-storey office building underway at Thyolo District Council.
He bellowed: “Mukumudziwa akumanga imeneyo? Ndi Masangwi. Yes. Koma ndi amene akuti sindikumampatsa business. He is building that thing [at] K2.5 billion. Contract tinamupatsa imeneyo koma akutinyoza kuti sitimpatsa contract. (Do you know the contractor? It’s Masangwi. Yes. Yet he is saying I deny him business opportunities. He is building that thing at K2.5 billion. We gave him that contract although he is insulting us that we don’t give him contracts).”
Masangwi and former minister Patricia Kaliati say they are not frustrated tenderpreneurs.
But there is nothing to smile and ululate about the President’s sentiments, says political scientist Dr Happy Kayuni.
“If the President can say this in public, it is very unfortunate,” he says. “It could be a confirmation of what people have always said that there is corruption in government. Malawians should be worried because it suggests that those in power are secretly sharing government contracts based on loyalty to the President.”
Many children to feed?
In his angry speech, Mutharika subtly unknotted palace politics in which he could be the protagonist with unsolicited powers to distribute State-sponsored contracts to his cronies and loyalists.
He exalts himself as a benevolent ruler whom hand-clapping DPP enthusiasts revere as dad or adadi.
And DPP outspoken secretary general Greselder Jeffrey put the father figure in context when she hit out at Masangwi.
“Professor has many children,” she said. “Each of them wants a bite. Do they think they will be eating alone?”
The rhetorical question tells a startling story about what Kayuni suspects to be systemic corruption.
The ruling party elites seem to think it is time to eat and the president must ensure “every child” gets a piece of the cake Malawians expect to be shared equally and fairly through an open tender process.
Yet nobody—not even the President, who pledged separate government business from party affairs—has the mandate to distribute government contracts to his favourites like family property.
Cronyism and shortcuts beget corruption, a leak that drains almost 30 percent of the national budget.
Under Mutharika’s reign, Malawi has slipped from position 115 to 122 on Transparency International’s rankings—a sign of worsening corruption and lapses.
Recently, the Vice-President bemoaned that it has reached “embarrassing levels” where people with ill-gotten wealth are glorified as “biggies” instead of being punished.
Chilima wants Malawians to stop praising corrupt people.
The entrenched culture of pilferage partly thrives on time-honoured adages that say a church mouse eats in church just as a goat grazes where it is tethered.
Chilima urged Malawians against relegating themselves to goats and mice.
But DPP often does not take anti-corruption sermons kindly.
Mutharika repeatedly tells-off critics in a familiar fashion: “We are all corrupt and “we all have a role to play in ending this”.
Similarly, government spokesperson Nicholas Dausi reacted angrily to Chilima’s stance.
“Ask him that, ‘Sir, you are the Vice-President of the country. You are the number two most powerful person in the country; when you say there is corruption, what do you mean? Are you not part of the same corrupt administration?’ Ask him. He has a mouth,” he told The Daily Times.
But holding positions in a corrupt system does not forever gag people from speaking their mind if they cannot take any more.
“Which is better: to silently condone wrongdoing by governing officials when you are in Cabinet or to frankly admit that something needs to be done?” asks historian Desmond Dudwa Phiri ( DD Phiri).
DPP’s muted approach to worsening corruption unceremoniously earned Mutharika a no dignifying title—prince of thieves—which was struck off the Hansard after heated debate in Parliament.
However, the attack on Masangwi did little to set the record straight.