A close up with Atupele Muluzi: Malawi youthful presidential candidate

In “Anthills of the Savannah”, Chinua Achebe, lays bare the ordeals of a Typical African state. Set up in an imaginary state called Kangan, three childhood English-educated friends unexpectedly find themselves in the roles of president, commissioner of information and editor of the nation’s main newspaper- yet no longer friends. A sad and shocking turn of events for friends who had seen each other grow. Legacy was at stake and posterity would judge them as failures. Yet two of them had the right intentions for the country but were overtaken by personal egos.

Unfortunately, history is replete with such African failure. The legacy of Africa is ingrained with greed and opportunism among its leadership that has led to intolerable suffering among the proletariat. Africa is not poor, it is the leadership quality that is poor.  It would appear that our leaders go through brain haemorrhage when entrusted with this key responsibility. They forget about the legacy they will leave behind. A man must always aspire to leave a good legacy, a good name that will speak volumes long after he has gone.

While holidaying in Malawi recently, Senior Chief Kawinga died and I went to attend the burial ceremony since his son is a very close friend. As one of the Senior Chiefs in the Yaoland, the late Chief left a good legacy that will leave long after he has gone, as evidenced by the eulogies and the attendance. Travelling to the funeral service in the same car with me from Blantyre to Machinga and back, a journey of not less than 4 hours, was Mr Ken Ndanga, the Publicity Secretary of the new United Democratic Front (UDF) and two other friends. Throughout the journey, we discussed so many social-political and economic issues affecting our beloved country, Malawi. Key among the discussion was the question; why are we poor? The answers pointed to one direction – political leadership.

Our politicians have let our nation down. Very few of our politicians have a clear direction on where they want to take the country, perhaps with the exception of Justin Malewezi. I met Justin Malewezi in 2002 in Kuala Lumpur and he left an indelible mark in my regard for him.   As for the rest I have rubbed shoulders with, they are driven by greed and gluttony for power.

Atupele having  a conversation with a villager
Atupele having a conversation with a villager

But what does the future hold for Malawi? Surely not all hope is lost. As a nation, we believe and hope that soon or later, there will rise a leader that will uphold the decency of its people in high regard. A leader who will make us be proud of our nation as it marches through the next century. In the car, I asked Mr Ndanga of his  infamous scuffle with Emmie Chanika at Comesa Hall back in the days when the UDF was in power, the glory and sins of the old UDF , his formation of New Dawn for Africa party together with his friends Thom Chiumia and Chikumbutso Mtumodzi and late Keith Nyahoda, Rev Malani Mtonga, Silaba Mpasu and Dorris Chanache.

Then we looked at the future, for the past is there to be learnt from and the future to be moulded. The new UDF with its new leadership under the youthful Austin Atupele Muluzi and his agenda for Change could one day be the future. But what is this Agenda for Change? Critically, who is Atupele Muluzi apart from what we here from his political opponents and detractors that he is a mere son of the former president, riding on his father’s back?

Though I had spoken with Atupele on the phone a few times before, I had never met him. Our phone calls were always very brief. Despite being quite close to his father, I have never used my vantage position to get to the young man himself. Indeed relationships should sometimes be carved on their own merit outside the  influence of connections. Fortunately, the father has never pushed any of us to know each other. So this was my opportunity to hear from an executive member of the new UDF what is it that is different from the usual hanky panky  “ndilibe ma saizi a nsapato zanu” business of the old UDF under former President Dr Bakili Muluzi. Little did I know that that very same day I will be meeting Atupele for the first time and a week later, we will be having a serious discussion on the social, political and economic affairs of our nation.

He happened to be attending the funeral service. When he was about to leave after burial of the late Chief, the whole crowd thronged to him, greeting him while chanting: “boma!! Boma!! Boma!!”. I found the situation amusing so I started taking pictures. Suddenly, I was grabbed and pulled through the crowd to where Atupele was only for Ndanga to start introducing me.  He asked me how is the UK and when I was heading back. Off the cuff, he asked if we could meet before I left for the UK, turning to Ken asking him to arrange the meeting.

Almost a week passed and I forgot the incident and the promised meeting. To me, it was just another encounter with another Malawian politician who always say “lets meet” just for the sake of saying it but are too busy to meet afterwards- unless it is one Bakili Muluzi. Yet when they cross the border to your neck of the woods, they hound you with endless calls wanting to know where they can buy the cheapest suit or second hand trucks! So I went about my business, until one Friday evening when I was in Mangochi, Ken called. He told me that Atupele had asked him to see if I could meet him anytime during the next three days. This puzzled me greatly since from the time I started interacting with Malawian politicians, soon after leaving high school when the parliament buildings were still in Zomba to my student days in Malaysia and then the UK, I would have to chase after them when we had agreed to meet.

I remember I once had to stand at the parliament doors in Zomba, aged 15, because one MP had owed my family member a few Kwachas and I needed this for pocket money at school!  In another incident in 2002 after my undergraduate, I had to use unconventional means to get to a minister who had taken student passports in Malaysia with the promise that he would get them renewed, yet did nothing, only to give an excuse of having no money to pay for the passport fees. So to me, Atupele’s offer of three days was a spoiling choice. I told Ken that I had a meeting with one Chief in Mangochi so I could only meet Atupele on the last day of the offer, a Monday.

The next Sunday evening Ken called to say that our meeting had been shifted from 10am to 11am. He did not say the reason for the shift. Anyway, as I drove from Mangochi to Blantyre, a very close friend who had also come from abroad for holidays texted me saying Atupele is on the radio being interviewed. I asked her what was the interview about and she told me that it was about his policies and what he stands for. However, she told me that the reporter asked him “who Atupele is” to which he replied something to the effect: “ask those people who know me and they will tell you what kind of man I am, definitely I am my own man”. My friend then asked me that since I knew Atupele, would I mind telling her who Atupele the man is? To which I replied: “I am meeting him tomorrow, till then, I don’t know much about him, but perhaps by tomorrow, I will have a snap close enough to tell you a little about this man”.

Monday morning came quick and I met Ken at Nico House in Blantyre. We drove to Atupele’s house, in one of the sprawling suburbs and we were ushered in at the gates by his personal assistant who led us to the reception room. As we were about to sit down, Atupele came in, beaming with a big smile, obviously pleased to see us. He was not a swashbuckler in the least sense as I had expected. As we shook hands, he pointed to the seats and asked us to make ourselves comfortable. He then turned to the assistant, requesting him to bring in drinks.  The air was very informal and relaxed, like that of old friends after a long time apart.

After a casual greeting, he started by apologizing. First apology was on his change of time. He said he had to go to the gym in the morning so he did not want us to come and wait. I put him at ease and said keeping fit is very important. When the assistant came with the drinks and some snacks, Atupele again apologized for what he called “lack of proper food”, owing to the fact that he had sent all his domestic helpers on holiday. Again I put him at ease and said in fact water would do just fine.


First but brief, our discussion was on the UK.  Atupele had studied in the UK between the mid 1990s to the early 2000s. Part of his stay in the UK, he had resided in Leicester where I happen to be a frequent visitor since a family member runs an immigration Law firm there.

In addition, as Secretary General of the Malawi Muslim Community UK, a charitable organisation I founded with some friends, we conduct most of our activities there owing to the fact that there is a large Malawian community of Indian origin based there whom we work with. Most of these Malawians (yes they are proud to be called Malawians despite the fact that Kamuzu and his MCP unceremoniously chased them from the villages under the failed policy of local or indigenous empowerment in the 1970s) are very successful business people, running multi million pound business empires. Some, such as the owners of Crown Crest and Poundstrecher, Rashid and Aziz Tayub who migrated in 1976 from Malawi, are  worth £160million and ranked no 34 in last year’s Birmingham Rich List. Such Malawians would easily make it into overall UK richest men list. Unfortunately, since Kamuzu left, no government to date has tapped into such vast resources, despite the fact that these Malawians are ready to assist in the development of the country.

Interestingly, some of these businessmen remember Atupele from his student days and when I met him,he remembered them vividly.  During one of my visits to Leicester, as we passed by a certain suburb, one businessman and a Leicester local Government official showed me the house Atupele lived. Now as we discussed the UK, Atupele not only remembered the individual names of the Malawian community in Leicester and the UK at large but also their specific businesses and even the brand names of their products.

Like a school child who has memorise a poem and was excited to recite it to the teacher,  he would mention a business, the owner and the products or service the business offers. Impressive since in today’s world, we need globally connected leaders, since there is no capitalism without connections. He would then ask me how these individuals are doing both healthy wise and economically. I must admit I did not know all of them personally so I could only manage to tell him what I know of their busineses and what I hear about their wellbeing from others who know them. He was very happy to hear that they are doing well despite the recent tough economic conditions.

Needless to say, most of these business Malawians, at least those I have met, remember Atupele as a humble young man hungry for success, determined to carve his own path different from the lottery ticket given to him by birth.  The grapevine has it that he took interest in what they do and how they had made it in a foreign land. No wonder after a good ten years away from the UK, he remembered mundane things such as product brands of various companies of Malawians in the UK because only someone with a genuine interest in business would remember these things,  let alone a mere teenage student who should have been busy partying and “chillaxing” in the streets of London,Birmingham and Manchester.

As we moved to discuss the general social, political and economic situation in the UK among other  issues,  we both quickly turned to the same issues at home. For someone who could have chosen to remain in the UK and still make it big with his vast network of business and influential people, it was obvious to me that he was  very excited and happy with the path he had chosen, politics in his motherland.  He firmly believes that our generation owes a duty to the country. Malawi needs to break the chains that have shackled her from colonialism to independence to multiparty democracy in order to realize real change.

According to him, business as usual will not solve the many problems and challenges that have blighted us as a nation for all these years, hence his Agenda for Change. Thus Agenda for Change is a transformative embryonic  idea that is geared on delivering Malawi into the technological and digital era of 21st century by harnessing her  core strengths and critical growth sectors.  Key to this concept is the identification of the country’s critical growth sectors, of which he said have been incorporated and outlined in the UDF manifesto soon to be launched. He gave me an example of transportation as one of the key sectors that can bring Malawi the much needed potential.

Unfortunately, he said, Malawi  has been viewed and “tagged” as a landlocked country for a long time. This tag has been self defeating in as far as our ability to generate development using the transport sector is concerned, yet it is the bedrock upon which the industrial nations were built on. Consequently, under the Agenda for Change, there is need to start viewing Malawi not as “landlocked”, but a “gateway” into the interior of Africa.

The challenge, which is not insurmountable, is to invest in our road infrastructure network and generate revenue there from. This is just one sector among plenty. Once we have identified such critical growth sectors where we can generate resource, we can then implement robust social safety nets for our vulnerable in society. The youth and the elderly, the frail and physically challenged, the pregnant mothers and the single mothers, the orphans and the wayfarers, they all need a government which can help them live a decent dignified life. All this needs a radical change in our thinking and way of doing things, a break from the past and a fresh start, a dais for the future.

Had it not been that I had a meeting in the afternoon, we could have spent the whole day debating and discussing Malawi. The man is a walking encyclopaedia of Malawian challenges and their supposed solutions. From business to social, economics to politics, it appears Atupele has left no stone unturned as he aspires to change the course of this beautiful country of ours. No doubt he is very passionate about the affairs of his country and he is determined to change them for the better should he be given the opportunity. As a parting shot, I asked him why does he think that he will be any different from the many politicians who have promised Malawians heaven on earth only to create hell for them.

Adjusting his sitting position, leaning forward while looking me straight in eye, he said: “Rhodrick, I am very young, so are you. If given an opportunity to serve Malawians, I would ensure that I leave a legacy that is second to none, for I do not want to spend the rest of my life trying to launder that legacy”. He explained that Malawians deserve better, and it is the youth that will bring that. To ensure that the vigour and vitality of youth is infused with  the wisdom and calmness of maturity, he told me that he would choose a running mate who is older, well learned, hands-on, one with whom Malawians will be happy with as their second in command. He did not tell me the  name and just as any other Malawian, I learnt from the media after a Press Conference that it was Dr Godfrey Chapola. I said goodbye to Atupele, but one word was imprinted in my mind: “LEGACY”.

At least here is a man who cares about legacy and posterity and how a chapter in the history books will be written. A young man who is not intoxicated with greed and gluttony for power.  But alas, how many of our Malawian politicians since independence care about legacy? To borrow Chinua Achebe’s words, “a handful of us – the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best –  had scrambled for the one shelter our former rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in” – A Man of The People”. 

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