April 5 2015 marked the third anniversary of the sad sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, whose legacy stand to defend his honour through visible infrastructure development and policies and initiatives like the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), free ARVs for HIV/AIDS patients, the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS), the African Food Basket and Green Belt Initiatives.
But after three years of mourning, it is high time we dried our tears, and ask ourselves, not why God granted such a visionary leader an untimely death, but why at the time of his demise, Mutharika’s presidency was widely criticised both at home and abroad? It is more imperative to reflect upon the failure of Mutharika than his success because first; President Peter Mutharika need to learn more from the mistakes than the success of his brother and second; young aspiring future leaders of Malawi have one or two lessons to learn from Mutharika’s “errors of judgement.”
Mutharika had a very successful first term of locally and internationally acknowledged political and economic success from May 2004 until May 2009. However, his derailment began with dislocations in diplomatic relations with Western donors in 2009. Bingu first breached the trust of donors when he bought a presidential jet at the price of about $22 Million. Donors criticized the purchase because it was too expensive even to maintain, and the purchase was a violation of fiscal austerity measures that Mutharika ought to have complied with to keep economic reforms on track. The Opposition too considered the purchase luxurious and ill-timed as the majority of Malawians lived in grave poverty with more 70 percent on less than 2 dollars a day. Following the Jet purchase Britain reduced its budgetary aid for the first time in Mutharika’s regime by at least 3 Million pounds.
The controversy over the jet purchase only opened the Pandora’s Box, as Mutharika again locked horns with the West a few months later in December 2009 when a gay couple wedded through a public traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre. Mutharika’s government arrested the couple and slapped them with a jail sentence of 14years in May 2010 as per the Penal Code. Western donors, and human rights bodies, including the UN condemned Mutharika for the arrest, and accused him of violating human rights. Under the international pressure, Mutharika delivered a pardon speech with the UN Secretary General, Ban ki-moon, by his side after he had arrived and held private talks with him. But despite the pardon, Mutharika later told Malawians through MBCTV that the couple had broken the law, and insulted religions and culture of Malawians. He publicly attacked Western donors and accused them of attempting to fight his government using gay rights. In an act of open defiance to the West, Mutharika criminalized homosexuality further about six month later in December 2010 and included a ban on female homosexuality.
Bingu’s relations with the West took the deepest plunge, four months after the further-criminalization of homosexuality, in May 2011 when he expelled the British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet following a leaked cable in which Cochrane-Dyet wrote the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, that Mutharika was becoming a dictator and violated human rights including press freedom and minority rights. Britain retaliated by deporting the Malawian Ambassador and freezing the remaining aid.
Mutharika’s defiance towards the West did not spare the World Bank and IMF either. His relations with the IMF loosened in 2011, when the IMF accused Mutharika of going off truck, and withheld the Extend Credit Facility (ECF). Malawi was meanwhile suffering huge deficits in the Balance of Payment, which resulted in shortages of fuel and medicine and companies scaled down production leaving the economy on the verge of collapsing. To stimulate inflow of foreign currency, donor confidence, and the resumption of the ECF the IMF recommended among other conditions, a devaluation of the Kwacha. At first Mutharika reluctantly complied and devalued the Kwacha with 10 percent in August 2011. But the IMF recommended further devaluation of at least 40 percent which Mutharika rejected adamantly and accused the IMF of practising poor economics. He challenged the IMF on several occasions that he was not going to devalue the Kwacha, and that he would only devalue in the presence of a readily available bailout package to cushion inflationary effects for poor Malawians.
Apart from his poor relations with Western donors and the IMF, Mutharika’s own success and power were the deadliest nails on his coffin. Having had a successful first term, Mutharika scaled to the pinnacle of power, especially after scooping the 2009 General Elections with 66.7 percent. His DPP took majority in Parliament while most tough MPs like Dr George nga Mtafu that kept him politically alert and level-headed, flopped during the Elections, filling the parliament with new entrants mostly pro-DPP. And greater still Mutharika replaced Muammar Gaddafi on the Chairmanship of African Union in January 2010 after only seven months of his landslide victory, fuelling his ego further.
An example of success and how it derailed Mutharika is the FISP success. When the FISP succeeded beyond expectation and made Malawi a story of success Mutharika took too much credit for it and considered it his punch into the face of the West. The Western donors had earlier opposed the idea of subsidising farm input for farmers in Malawi. But as a well-versed World Bank economist himself, Mutharika debated at home and abroad that the subsidy was a workable solution. The success of the program proved him right, and proved the West wrong. This set a bad precedence for Mutharika, and was the Genesis of his defiance because he believed that since he had already proved to the West that he understood Malawian economics better than them, then he could no longer bow and buy their imperial policies.
An example of how power derailed Mutharika is manifested through his use of Parliamentary majority to pass the infamous bad laws which included section 46 of the Penal Code, which empowered Minister of Information to ban publication of materials he or she deemed not in the interest of the Public, the Injunction Bill that would prevent people from suing government or a government official, and the Police Act that empowered the police to, under certain circumstances, search without search warrant. He also bull-dozed the change of Malawi’s national flag amid huge controversy from the Opposition and Civil Society Organizations. Section 46 dragged Mutharika and the Media into an unprecedented fight between the media and a President. The media frequently attacked Mutharika and even manipulated some of his statements which he uttered out of anger and frustration, and Mutharika verbally attacked the media back, dragging himself further deep into political strife.
Mutharika also took a wrong turn at the start of his second term by prematurely endorsing the presidential candidacy of his brother, Peter Mutharika and without a party convention. He took the mistake further by prematurely campaigning for him even through government rallies. This was a symbol of Mutharika’s political patronage and a manifestation of how deep the tentacles of his power had spread inside the very heart of government and the DPP. Most people do not consider this a blunder, but first, if Peter Mutharika had been endorsed through a convention – which ought to have been the case – it would have minimized resistance of his endorsement which led to a regrettable emergence of factions and the firing of Joyce Banda and other party officials from DPP. And some of DPP Members of Parliament and officials that defected to PP after the death of Mutharika had already pledged their allegiance to Banda while the factions surfaced due to the endorsement of Peter Mutharika. And second, Bingu got into an early campaign and fight with the Opposition and anti-Bingu regime activists whom wanted to prevent what they had considered an imminent Mutharika dynasty whose beneficiaries would be Mutharikas tribesmen and close friends.
Finally, Mutharika in a sudden regrettable turn of events began to practice overt tribalism right after his re-election, which was another nail on his coffin. For instance, in his attempt to support the Quota System of selecting students to public universities and colleges, Mutharika publicly declared that the North was overrepresented in employment. He later accused Northern Lecturers and students at the Chancellor College of having a Mzuzu Corner where they cheated for exams to give Northern students an upper hand. Mutharika had unfortunately underestimated the influence of Northerners in Malawi’s politics as the setters of political agenda since pre-independence. Mutharika thus declared war with Northerners, or Northerners themselves took his stance as a declaration of war, and swarmed on his leadership like bees. This is evidenced by the fact that most CSOs leaders and faith based Activists that battered Mutharika’s leadership were from the North including Undule Mwakasungula, Bishop Zuze, the Synod of Livingstonia, and Ralph Kasambara.
In conclusion, my analysis is that the fall of Mutharika happened so fast and within a very short time. There are a lot of factors involved and blunders of Mutharika, but basically he isolated himself from bilateral and multilateral donors whose funding had earned him the very success he was proud of. Without their aid, the economy was vulnerable and there was little he could do to recover it. He also isolated himself from CSOs who had stood by his side during his first term when his presidency was threatened by impeachment attempts, section 65 and rejection of the passing of national budget. Frustrated with his arrogance and consolidation of power, and lack of his appreciation for their effort during his troubled first term, the CSOs partnered with the Opposition and some Western donors. It was easy for donors to support CSOs since they had already blacklisted Mutharika as an emerging pan-African dictator.
May the work of his hands continue to speak for him!
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