After DPP crash landed, Peter Mutharika surfaced as the Trojan horse: Malawi road to 2014 elections

Following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, his young brother Peter Mutharika faced a nation deeply angry about the highhanded conduct of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) government. However, the young Mutharika quickly rushed from the mourners’ wake to take over the leadership of a party in ruins. That swift but manipulative move, unlike the failed devious one to unconstitutionally seize power, rescued the DPP after a fatal crash landing.

The DPP was confronted with a bitter verdict of its brutal repression, of course, though some of its fanatical and loud-mouthed supporters who today form a web of angry yobs would never want to admit. For the young Mutharika, nothing could be further from the truth. People were totally unhappy that he was handpicked; and this was one critical factor that contributed to his brother’s downfall.

Countrywide, the overwhelming conclusion was that DPP had died with Mutharika. It was finished! Seasoned politicians on the other side of the isle could only laugh: how could an exile with less experience in local politics and holding hidden ‘American citizenship’ bid for the Malawi presidency? But, here was great misjudgement on how political events were to unfold and the determination of young Mutharika in reviving, not reforming the DPP, despite his brother’s dark legacy.

Peter Mutharika
Peter Mutharika

As history is only told by time and its course determined by events: predictable and unpredictable, major 2014 twists and turns haven’t happened yet. But DPP like an ancient army under siege has Peter Mutharika at the front as a wooden horse ready to be pulled by loyal Trojans. For better or worse, the young Mutharika has walked back into the underworld of Malawi politics, carrying his own dream and the DPP scorned project on his shoulders possibly to also finish the unfinished vision of his late brother.

Over a year on, Mutharika has become a formidable presidential candidate who any of his contenders from other parties can only ignore at own peril. In part, he has been helped by circumstances – a nagging economic problem which the People’s Party (PP) government of President Joyce Banda is reeling from resolving.

It is a situation which has left his opponents wishing a speedy trial of his ‘treason case’ and a harsh conviction. His wings should be clamped, they pray, before May 2014. The fear being that it might be possible in the present context for him to benefit from a sympathy vote like Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta who won the presidency despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The battle for 2014 is boiling and emotions running high. The rules of the game haven’t changed. The actors have. After all the shuffling, eyes are on the DPP indaba on Wednesday the 17th of April which most certainly will be taking its anointed candidate through an obvious rite of passage because the backroom caucuses have favoured him.

Behind the convention curtains though, Speaker of the National Assembly, Chimunthu Banda, Mutharika’s arch challenger is lamenting about harassment. But he has himself to blame. Until now, Chimunthu Banda never really saw anything wrong with DPP because the majority of the party’s rank and file was interested in a Mutharika dynasty. It was going to safeguard their political survival.

Chimunthu Banda and his supporters should therefore not pretend. Peter’s candidature materialised before their watchful eyes and most of them put up zero resistance. It was perched by Noel Masangwi’s infamous July 2010 declaration that Malawi was not ready for a female president and DPP National Governing Council’s (NGC) endorsement of Mutharika in 2011.

Besides, prior to the forthcoming make-believe contest, Chimunthu Banda had sealed his mouth from DPP’s woyee slogan possibly in an attempt to examine the waters before jumping to the greener pasture. To add weight to criticism from his DPP enemies, he has sat on Section 65 like a wolf in a sheep’s skin, shielding defectors from a discernible constitutional stipulation. Which is why his supporters, genuine or commissioned (aganyu) would be first to be shocked by his victory.

Despite all the praise for charisma and calmness, Chimunthu Banda has played the mainstream opportunistic politician promoting yes-bwana politics for his masters only to realise that some party members have been bad-mouthing him and throwing tribal overtones onto his face. As it were, it is people like Chimunthu Banda who fortified Peter Mutharika’s privileged position in DPP. He might be mourning about helping found the DPP, but the young Mutharika did not fall from the skies.

Peter Mutharika started his journey into active politics riding on his brother’s back in full glare of DPP members. The young Mutharika had contributed to the efforts towards the country’s 1992-94 democratic change and served as a ‘special advisor’ to Bingu since the 2004 campaign. Not long after Bingu’s rise to power, he was drawn close to the presidency with a formal appointment as Chief Advisor to the President on Constitutional, Legal and International Affairs. Perhaps president Banda’s sister, Anjimile Ntila-Oponyo has put her feet on a similar path.

Peter Mutharika’s suspicious involvement in his brother’s government started as a rumour. Later it was reported that he had taken leave from USA for the 2007/08 academic year and on return, he was to serve as Washington University School of Law’s Charles Nagel Professor of International and Comparative Law. The Mutharika brothers eventually became an act comparable to Poland’s Kaczyński brothers, late Lech and Jarosław who at one time ruled as president and prime minister respectively.

Whilst president Mutharika persecuted Vice President Cassim Chilumpha effectively making him redundant with treason charges, the young Mutharika was the only person next to the president – the de facto, VP. According to Washington University in St. Louis, Mutharika’s role was ‘advising his brother on the constitutionality of his decisions as president and constitutional reforms’. In fact, he was also working as special presidential envoy to other heads of state and leaders of international organisations. His words:

‘Over the past several months, I have been on diplomatic missions to six countries on three continents…….What is challenging about the job is the fascinating interplay of law, politics and diplomacy. We are doing our best, and Malawi’s efforts are now receiving international recognition.’

It made political sense because president Mutharika was facing constitutional dilemmas and court cases. Besides picking the legal brains of his sibling, he needed moral support to be able to run a minority government threatened by Section 65 after a vicious impeachment quest ignited by his resignation from the UDF in 2005. However, this was the beginning of an apprenticeship for the young Mutharika.

With his brother at the helm, he was gradually getting great respect and gaining more power within the DPP that some almost felt the urge to kneel before the heir apparent. They all saw him as a composed workaholic who moved with the air of benevolent leader on top of his head.

DPP members were impressed by his high-level of education and vast experience of lecturing in the USA and beyond as well as knowledge in international legal systems, even as some doubted his grassroots attachment. It was reckoned, he needed to become a Member of Parliament and the Thyolo North East seat came handy in the 2009 polls.

In August that year, Professor Peter Mutharika, then serving as Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister, amazed participants at a Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) forum with his eloquence and deep comprehension of legal matters – he gave a persuasive lecture on the issue of death penalty at Capital Hotel.

By this time, the clock was ticking down on Bingu’s presidential tenure and Peter his bloodline had already been earmarked as the safest option. It was the best reward for his young brother’s support and contribution. Besides, the senior Mutharika would effectively rule from behind the throne and dodge any prosecution from his unexplained wealth accumulation.

As the DPP politburo was pledging their loyalty, the senior Mutharika calculated that an early nomination for his brother would clear doubts about his long-stay in USA and commitment to Malawi. He anticipated opposition from his antagonists but not on a colossal scale.

Mutharika, thus, took advantage of his landslide victory and overwhelming parliamentary majority to create a conducive environment for the ascendancy of his young brother to power. Specific legislation was targeted and Chimunthu Banda as Speaker presided over the bogus deliberation and passing because Speakers do not take sides! He wouldn’t have thought of blasting DPP’s dirty antics on the side-lines. When Peter Mutharika’s MIJ Radio backstabbing conversation came up, the Speaker did not want to rock the boat. He kept his ambition close to his chest.

Increasingly DPP infuriated many Malawians. The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Radio and TV effected The Road to 2014 in their programming and their Makiyolobasi caricature verbalized captions to support the outrageous bid. Traditional chiefs were recruited on three course meals and brown envelops and paraded to galvanise young Mutharika’s candidature. He kept his lips tight though to authenticate – people were freely advancing his candidacy.

But the UNIMA Academic Freedom impasse broke out with full vigor smashing Peter Mutharika’s leadership credentials as equally his hands were scolded by partaking in the Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC) cheap-houses rip-off.

The storm brewed fiercely with DPP harassing then VP Joyce Banda. As criticism mounted over fuel and forex scarcity, young Mutharika’s candidacy and the persecution of DPP detractors, president Mutharika could not tolerate any dissent. The party’s red-eyed panga wielding cadets and devoted Malawi Police officers pounced on critics.

For the Mutharika duo, there was definitely no going back, hence with Malawi’s foreign relations damaged after the expulsion of British High Commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, president Mutharika reshuffled his cabinet sending his brother on a mission to repair diplomatic ties. The stakes were high then. They are now.

The powerful force of Malawi politics is spinning. In it is the shadow of late Mutharika and his young brother’s anxious dream. Whatever happens on Wednesday and after, Peter Mutharika cannot escape answering serious questions about DPP’s murky legacy and the role he played in it.

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