Case of Malawi President Peter Mutharika: In his brother’s shadow

Recently Malawi president Peter Mutharika invited ridicule when he urged starving Malawians to eat mice to stave off hunger. He has been President for over two years now in a country which, with a Gross National Income of $250 per year per capita, makes it the poorest in the world. Perhaps the indifferent start to his presidency is because he is still settling into what must be the toughest job on the continent.

Malawi President Mutharika

Malawi President Mutharika

Peter Mutharika did not come into his job unprepared. From 2004, he was a top advisor to President Bingu wa Mutharika, his brother, and had also served as a Minister of Justice, Minister of Education, Science and Technology and Minister of Foreign affairs between 2009 and 2012.

Yet, serving under his older brother, Peter Mutharika was an unremarkable minister and didn’t show any particular spark of leadership. When he was at education in 2011, the police planted spies in a political science class of professor Blessings Chinsinga at Chancellor College, the main campus of the University of Malawi. University lecturers demanded an apology from the Inspector General of Police and refused to teach until their “academic freedom” was assured and respected.

The stand off that ensued lasted some eight months. At its peak, the Minister of Education drew ire and indignation when he took off on holiday and flew out to the United States. In that year, the Times , which rates the performance of ministers and the president, gave Peter Mutharika a rating of 4, out of a possible 10.

In many ways, that is Peter Mutharika’s style: to do nothing about anything. He was minister of foreign affairs when his brother, in an act of irrational pique, declared Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, the British High Commissioner to Malawi persona non grata and expelled him from the country. Instead of taking charge to resolve the situation, Peter Mutharika again went missing in action, effectively closing his eyes and wishing the problem just went away.

“Peter Mutharika’s style is to let things run on autopilot, wishing that nothing too bad happens,” says Stanley Onjezani Kenani, a popular Malawian author and political commentator.

Peter the President

But the job of president is what Peter coveted the most, almost with a sense of entitlement. When his brother died in office at the age of 78 on 5, April 2012 and manoeuvres to install him president crumbled, the report of the commission of inquiry into the death of Bingu wa Mutharika says that Peter Mutharika wanted the Malawi army to take over instead. If he was not going to be president, he didn’t want then vice-president and bitter rival Joyce Banda to take over, either.

But constitutional order won. Joyce Banda became president, ruled for two years and lost the presidency in 2014, allowing for Peter to ease into the seat he probably wanted the most since his brother invited him back home in 2004, after he had been away from Malawi for more than 40 years.

Back in 2004, when Bingu wa Mutharika first became president of Malawi, he came in like a hurricane; he declared that his administration would have “zero tolerance to corruption”; he broke away from the United Democratic Front (UDF)—the party that had sponsored him into office—ostensibly because it was corrupt and formed his own party, the Democratic Progessive Party (DPP). He asked Malawians to “dream in colour” and try to achieve the impossible. His investments in agriculture saw Malawi, following a bumper harvest in 2007, selling more maize to the World Food Program than any other country in southern Africa, and exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of maize to stricken Zimbabwe.

Malawi fell in love with Bingu’s “dreams” and the honeymoon lasted all of five years, and some. At the presidential election of 2009, Bingu’s mandate was renewed with 66.7% of the ballot.

But Peter Mutharika—elected on 31 May, 2014—has been president for only two years and, already, cracks have begun appearing in his marriage with the people of Malawi.

Disconnected from reality

Struggling to define his vision and plan of action, he is on his fourth press secretary now, having hired and fired Fred Ndala, Timpunza Mvula and Gerald Viola in quick succession.

During the rare moment that he tries, he has not always been successful in communication and defining what it is that he stands for. In a BBC Hardtalkinterview, President Mutharika did his best to blame everything on his predecessor and bitter rival, Joyce Banda and cashgate. Cashgate, the infamous theft of $200m from treasury by civil servants and the politically connected, happened under the presidency of Joyce Banda.

But in doing that, he lost an opportunity to weave a compelling narrative about the country, to articulate his vision, and, more importantly, to sell his action plan to the world and hope to get some buy-in from much needed investors. With his fixation on blaming Joyce Banda, Mutharika missed the opportunity to talk about many of the country’s priorities, chief of which is the need to stamp the cancer of corruption and wasteful government spending and put in measures to attract foreign direct investment and incentives for businesses to function at an optimum.

Malawi’s abysmal failures are long-standing and can’t all be attributed to Joyce Banda. Indeed she was responsible for some cock-up—which she paid for by losing the presidency—but she was president for only two years. Malawi celebrated its 52nd birthday in July so it would be disingenuous for anyone to pretend that endemic poverty, systematic corruption and chronic underdevelopment started with Joyce Banda.

Here is Malawi for you in facts: 47% of children have stunted growth; Malawi’s Gross National Income is at $250 per year per capita, which  makes Malawi the poorest country in the world; 85% of the rural population live in poverty; 50% of the country’s 17 million population live below the poverty line and electrification stands at 9% of the population, the lowest in Africa.

“When he attempts to articulate to the public what his government is doing, he comes across as disconnected from reality” says Onjezani Kenani. “In the city of Blantyre, he promised to build a hotel and stadium while in the university city of Zomba, he promised that his government would build a shopping mall. He talks about fancy projects when healthcare, for example, is on life support”

Recently, Peter Mutharika attracted widespread ridicule and disbelief when he asked starving people to eat mice as a way of coping with hunger and famine.

It didn’t help his cause when, in July, he hired an expensive private jet to fly to Ethiopia to receive an honorary degree at the University of Addis Ababa.  When Mutharika tried to justify this by saying the honorary degree “will have an impact not only on me but on all Malawians”, there was a chorus of skeptical people asking, “how?”

Where are the reforms?

“It is difficult to describe Peter Mutharika”, says popular Malawi blogger and academic, Jimmy Kainja. “He doesn’t seem sure how to deal with problems facing his country.

“Malawi needs tangible policies with an actionable plan for things to improve. It’s difficult to figure out what Mutharika can do to improve because it seems like he didn’t really have a plan for Malawi in the first place.”

Perhaps Mutharika’s biggest disappointment so far has been the failure to live up to his campaign promises. He said he was going to fight corruption, make the anti-corruption agency independent, cut wasteful expenditure, reform the civil service and reduce the power and trappings of the president.

“If you talk reforms and you have a motorcade of 30 cars, then perhaps the public will think you are not serious. If you talk anti-corruption but do nothing about your ministers who have been named in the disappearance of $250 million from state coffers, then people will think you are not serious. If you talk reforms but start to build a banquet hall next to a presidential place that has 300 rooms, then maybe you are not serious about reforms.

“People look at what John Magufuli has done in Tanzania in a short period of time and they see for themselves that there are no reforms happening in Malawi,” Kenani says.

The Economy is the enemy

Perhaps Peter Mutharika’s most formidable opponent yet may just be the tanking economy.

In July, The Nation newspaper reported that 1,000 formals jobs had been lost since January 2016 in the banking, manufacturing, retail and hospitality sector. The local currency, the Kwacha, depreciated some 338% in value against the US $ between 2012 and 2016 that the Reserve Bank of Malawi had to issue a press statement early this year to calm the fears. “The Reserve Bank has capacity to implement needed monetary policies (and) to take any actions to stabilize the Kwacha”, it said.

But it didn’t help matters when, in the same month, the long-serving minister of the economy, Goodall Gondwe, ominously told the nation that: “the fate of the economy is in God’s hands”.

Many young and economically active Malawians I know are constantly assessing the situation and deciding that the prognosis is not good. “When your minister put the economy in God’s hands,” one recently graduated medical doctor looking for a job outside Malawi told me, “you don’t want to hang around to find out if he is joking or not”.

The biggest loser

Of course, Peter Mutharika has time to fix things before Malawi goes to the polls in 2019, by which time he will be 79 years old and eligible for a second and final 5-year-term. Between now and then, he has to present to the people a credible Plan of Action, marshal the nation around a vision, get his messaging across to an increasingly skeptical nation and, like Magufuli in Tanzania, be seen to be a man of action.

He also has to start making better use of his young and capable vice president, Saulosi Chilima, who left his job as MD of telecoms giant Airtel Malawi to be the surprise running mate in the elections of 2014.

But for all his real and perceived corporate brilliance, Chilima has somewhat cut a forlorn figure and has remained an outsider in the dirty world of politics and, to this day, is not an executive member of the DPP, the ruling party to which he belongs.

Right now Chilima is like a fish out water, full of potential and energy but Malawians are unable to benefit from it.  A useful Chilima may be beneficial to Malawi but he’s a threat to those with leadership aspirations within the party”, Kainja says, adding, “in all this, Malawi is the biggest loser”.

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17 thoughts on “Case of Malawi President Peter Mutharika: In his brother’s shadow”

  1. Haswel Bandawe says:

    Does anybody in Government read such articles?

    Anybody with a conscious; a sense of national and self pride would hang down his/her head with shame.

    The Election Manifesto was the basis for people’s voting decisions. The manifesto has been thrown out of the window— a case of being voted into power under false pretenses. Isn’t that unlawful? Isn’t that deception?

    Governed owes the people the promises that were made! Reneging on those promises is as unlawful as borrowing money and not repaying it!

  2. Mbuyache says:

    Thumbs up Mr Idriss for the article. Glad to know there are still objective people in Malawi, a country full of selfish and unpatriotic individuals sorry to say. We are enemies of ourselves as far as development is concerned. No one to blame for our failures. Bad leadership! lack of visionary leaders.

  3. salimba says:

    I think the writer made a mistake.During the period that elder muntharika cut diplomatic relations with The UK the junior muntharika was not in charge of foreign affairs.At that time the minister of foreign affairs was Madame Etta Banda MP From Nkhata bay.It Was her who summoned the ambassador to protest the leaking of the cable and the criticism leveled against the President.Muntharika hired his brother later apparently in an effort to mend relations with the UK.

  4. ngalamayi says:

    This article sums up what APM is… but nothing changes. The opposition seems mostly very quiet on these issues. DPP will win the 2014 elections by fair means or foul. Will Malawi live that long?

  5. Mgift says:

    What good can we say of pita? since his brother was sleeping on money as matress & the money which his brother was sleeping on led him to death ,& all the money was taken by him , truelly he has no problems , yes let his fellow tyolo eat ziwara & mbewa according to his direction .zoti ndiwakwathu zitithandiza? bwezi Obama sakanakhara president ku America.

  6. Petre Mathanyula says:

    That’s dpp for you. Runs the country on autopilot. Zoseketsa. Koma akuluwa nthawi yomwe anali lecture ku US ana ankamvadi????

  7. Charlie Hebdo says:

    Well written Kainja. Pls contribute it to the Daily’s

  8. Fisi Chaponda-apa says:

    The problem with Chilima is his own decision making. I just wouldn’t understand how anyone needing change would choose to work with DPP. A party that fought and killed anyone in their way just to protect themselves from prosecution for the their misappropriation of government money. A party that ensured that it eliminated or sidelined any of its own founding members like Chimunthu just because they appeared to take a non shielding stand point towards cashgate ministers.

    If he really wanted to make a positive contribution and leave a lasting legacy of our country, this bicycle carrier passenger, Chilima should have chosen to work with MCP.

  9. Mr. Next President says:

    Good piece keep it up!!

    I wish a president akumawerenga izi

    1. Fisi Chaponda-apa says:

      He can’t, if he was reading Nyasa Times, he couldn’t have been that daft. He reads foreign press like BBC that is why he reacted swiftly to the hyena report.

  10. Patrick Phiri says:

    Nonsense. APM will win again in 2019 and, unless you join him, you will continue with your opposition garbage.

    1. Fisi Dausi says:

      Stupid comment by a foolish hyena. Instead of appreciating and encouraging thinkers like the writer of this article you want to frustrate them.

      1. Boko says:

        Lomwes will gang behind thire stupid APM at whatever cost. Remember, when the death of Bingu was applauded by the rest of the people in Malawi, the Lomwes cried fervently, some even collapsing at the sight of Bingu’s coffin. Let’s just ensure that DPP does not return to power again in 2019.

        1. Chipapwiche says:

          Don’t hate the Lomwe people because the president is the Lomwe by tribe. If I can ask you people is it possible that the Lomwes are the ones who are confusing the president not to govern properly and let me assure you that not all the Lomwes voted for him. Please stop castigating the Lomwes.

          1. Kanchenga says:

            To be honest with you the majority of Lomwes voted for their own. It’s a shame that their own don’t care about them. Imagine telling them to survive on grasshoppers and mice. The Lomwes may have made a mistake but they are still people. God’s people. Don’t insult them. You will need them in 2019. Anyway foolish as they are they will have forgotten by that time and still vote for him.9Y1kI

        2. poly police says:

          I like the thinking by Kanchenga. I for one wants APM out and would be happy to see him out now than in 2019. I just feel he has wasted too much of my time. But if his diehards, those who think like they have chicken brains, vote him to power again I am saying please go ahead to commit that mistake. What I know is the majority of people who will vote back mediocrity to power will be worse off than me in most aspects of life. They will continue to cry louder than after 2019 should they vote uselessly as they have always done.

          The message I have this afternoon is that let us love our nation by putting to power people who have a little bit of integrity, people who fear what does not belong to them, people who understand the art of governing and growing the economy. Time for kindergarten administration is not there for us. We have lost too much time and we need people who can use 100% of their brains to change this impoverished nation. That person is surely not the APM. I am ashamed that Malawi is called the poorest in every aspect of the economy with no sign of tangible recovery plans. To continue blaming cashgate when currently we seem not supporting ACB in their quest to eradicate corruption is in itself rubbish. We need leaders that walk the talk.

          The man I feel sorry for is Saulosi, the VP. His public standing was far much better as a marketer in the private sector than as a marketer (If at all he still remembers his marketing) in politics. But I know as far as politics is concerned best brains get soiled and they come out worse than before they joined. Do you remember Nga Ntafu, Dr Ntaba, Engineer Malunga and the list is endless.

    2. kanchenga says:

      Yes indeed he will win. But what you should know is that where somebody wins somebody will lose. At first I thought it is Chakwera who lost the 2014 elections but no I saw him today in Nkhotakota driving a state of the art toyota. Fully paid for by the state. And yet winners in Thyolo being told to eat Mouse and grasshoppers or zitchetche or what ever you call them. These are the people who voted and celebrated in may 2014. Haven’t you any little shame left in you. Watching your very own suffering like that. All the writer is saying is be a little conscious of the suffering if not of all poor Malawians at least for your very own in the lomwe and sena belt.

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