Malawi president Peter Mutharika, 76, predicts he will be around during and beyond the 2019 presidential polls. He knows so judging from the condition of his innards which he claims are like those of one who is 30 years old.
Mutharika was explaining his absence from the country for several weeks after attending the United Nations General Assembly in the United States. He dismissed talk that he was seriously ill and calls for his resignation.
No human being knows their expiry date and Mutharika is welcome to say whatever he wants about his shelf life.
If the president got incapacitated, the vice president would take over, according to the country’s constitution.
Despite having provisions to take care of the eventuality, the development would still create problems in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) given what happened in the past.
The opposition of course can only watch from the sidelines but Malawi isn’t short of creative people like former President Bakili Muluzi. Would this present an opportunity down the line?
Vice President Saulosi Chilima would take over from Mutharika if he couldn’t continue. But Chilima, the most punctual politician in a country where leaders aren’t conscious about time, is reportedly unpopular among some DPP members since he is a johnny-come-lately. He joined DPP in the run-up to the 2014 elections to shore up its appeal among young voters and spruce up its battered image — in 2011 police killed 20 people in anti-government protests. Before his sudden 2012 death, Bingu was a dictator of sorts.
A political junkie ought to be familiar with what happened when Bingu died but it bears repeating for those who don’t know or need a refresher. Bingu’s succession was contentious. After his death, there was a blackout on his health status for three days. His estranged vice president was automatically supposed to step in, a fact which didn’t sit well with some old guard who worked in cahoots with each other to circumvent the constitution and stop her ascendency to the presidency.
Joyce Banda, who became Malawi’s first female president and Africa’s second female head of state in the modern era, had been fired from DPP. On the face of it, Bingu, who’d been grooming his younger brother Peter to succeed him, expelled Banda from DPP.
Back in 2004, Bingu was also a johnny-come-lately to the then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) of President Muluzi who anointed him as his successor against the wishes of the party. Bingu became president but later founded DPP after leaving UDF while in power in dispute with his mentor whom he accused of exerting his influence over him.
Bingu’s wish to be succeeded by Peter became a reality two years after his death. He routed Banda in 2014 elections but two years on, Peter’s less than stellar leadership has seen the economy and security continue to spin out of control. After secretly going under the knife in the United States earlier this month, Peter is trying to prove that he is in good health and in control but the chatter of Chilima taking over isn’t going to die down soon. It’s de-javu.
Like his predecessor Banda, the law is on Chilima’s side but he doesn’t have a real political constituency because he isn’t a legislator. And perhaps more like Bingu and Banda – they both were partyless presidents at one time – Chilima would need strong public support to govern. So far, partyless presidents in Malawi have shown to throw out the window all norms of political morality to remain in power.
But Chilima in the driver’s seat could be different from what Malawi has experienced so far. He was well off when he was drafted into DPP from the private sector unlike most Malawi politicians (read as lawmakers) who can barely survive in the private sector and are known for continually demanding higher pay and sometimes threaten to shut down government if their demands aren’t met.
But Chilima’s background and conduct would perhaps not be enough for some influential long-standing DPP members who would resent an “outsider” leading them. They would work against him either by preventing him from taking power or by undermining his administration.
Fast forward to 2019. There’s another player Malawi hasn’t heard much from since joining cabinet from the party which produced Bingu and DPP. Atupele, the son of Muluzi, is UDF leader. Analysts view his joining DPP as calculated to bolster his credentials for a future presidential run after his unsuccessful bid in 2014. I would go out on a limb and say DPP disunity could increase the young firebrand’s odds in 2019.
While DPP and UDF are different, they’re like twins — similar in some ways but different in others. It’s their similarities that naturally draw them together. The question then becomes, in 2019 would it be farfetched for the senior Muluzi — he made Bingu UDF leader, his son joined DPP government and the multi-million dollar corruption case against him is crumbling — to work his magic and bring the two parties together with Atupele, a legislator, getting on the DPP presidential ticket?
- The author is a former founding editor of Maravi Post