MALAWI: COUP RUMORS, ARRESTS CLOUD POLITICAL NEGOTIATIONS

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 LILONGWE 000280   C O R R E C T E D COPY//CHANGED TEXT IN PARA 10//   SIPDIS   DEPT FOR AF/S – E. PELLETREAU  MCC FOR DIEDRA FAIR   E.O. 12958:

Cable Date: 2008 May 16

SUBJECT: MALAWI: COUP RUMORS, ARRESTS CLOUD POLITICAL NEGOTIATIONS   REF: LILONGWE 263   LILONGWE 00000280  001.4 OF 003

Classified By: DCM KEVIN SULLIVAN FOR REASONS 1.4 (b)(d)

(C) Summary: Five prominent members of the opposition  United Democratic Front (UDF) party and three active duty  generals in the Malawi Defense Forces (MDF) have been  detained in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow  President Mutharika.  The arrests occurred on May 13, casting  a long shadow over once-promising negotiations between  opposition parties and the GOM to resolve the long-standing  paralysis of parliament (reftel).  A document purporting to  detail the alleged plot says the UDF would first attempt to  impeach Mutharika and if that failed would resort to a  forceful takeover of the government.  Former president  Muluzi’s home was searched, but no illegal weapons were found  at his residence. Leader of UDF in the National Assembly  George Mtafu has continued to say his party is willing to  negotiate over the impasse and the UDF, along with other  opposition parties, restarted negotiations with government on  May 15 that were still ongoing on May 16.  Comment: While the  alleged plot cannot be dismissed out of hand, the “evidence”  released so far against the eight accused appears highly  questionable. The timing of Mutharika’s claims has led some  to speculate that his ultimate goal may be to declare a state  of emergency that would allow him to rule by decree without  parliamentary approval for 28 days, long enough to approve  next year’s budget without dealing with the opposition’s  agenda. End Comment. End Summary.

Rally Comments Equate Section 65 to Treason

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(SBU) During a May 11 rally, President Mutharika accused  his predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, of planning to overthrow the  government using Section 65 of the Constitution.  Section 65  requires members of parliament who change parties after they  are elected to vacate their seats.  He used similar language  in a collective briefing to the diplomatic corps on May 15,  without reference to any vehicle other than Section 65 to  “depose” the government.  The President’s aggressive comments  at the rally surprised many observers who believed that the  GOM had made a strategic shift toward negotiations with the  opposition through talks that had begun only the week before.

Alleged Coup Plot Leads to Arrests – And Rumors Run Rampant 

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(SBU) On May 13, police arrested UDF secretary general  Kennedy Mwakwangwala, former Blantyre mayor John Chikakwiya,  former inspector general of the Malawi Police Service Joseph  Aironi, former Malawi Police commissioner Matthews  Masoapyola, and former commander of the Malawi Defense Force  (MDF) Joseph Chimbayo.  They were subsequently charged with  treason. Both Chimbayo and Aironi were removed in 2005 by  Mutharika for perceived loyalty to Muluzi.  In addition,  three active-duty military generals – Brig. Marcel Chirwa,  Director of Personnel, Brig. Cosgrove Mituka, Inspector  General of the MDF, and Brig. Juvenalis Mtende, Commander of  the Zomba Air Wing – were also detained for questioning, but  we do not believe they have been charged yet.  State  prosecutors have now asked for an extension of their  detention from 48 hours to 14 days to complete their  investigation. Asked about this series of arrests, Mutharika,  on May 15, declined to elaborate beyond official releases.  Despite rumors of a long list of additional arrest targets  that included opposition party leaders, NGO leaders who have  spoken out on the Section 65 issue, and more active duty  police and military personnel, no further arrests have yet  been made.

(SBU) Rumor also has it that government has issued an  arrest warrant for Bakili Muluzi.  Muluzi is currently in the  United Kingdom, but his lawyer told emboff that he believes  the former president will be arrested upon his return.  This  flies in the face of the announcement to the press by  Minister of Home Affairs and Internal Security Ernest  Malenga, that the government had no intelligence reports  indicating either Muluzi, or Malawi Congress Party (MCP)  leader John Tembo was in on the coup plot.

“Intercepted” Document Details Coup Plot

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(C) Malenga claimed that the government had developed  intelligence about a UDF plot to overthrow the government on   LILONGWE 00000280  002.4 OF 003    May 16, 2008.  The government is basing its claim on  “top-secret” document supposedly intercepted from the UDF.  The document, allegedly written by Kennedy Mwakangwala to  Chimbayo, Aironi, Mituka, Chirwa, Mtende, and Mr. Chitsulo  Gama, former leader of the Malawi National Intelligence  Bureau, details the alleged coup plot.  According to the  letter, Plan “A” was to convince the Speaker of the National  Assembly to invoke Section 65, giving MCP and UDF a two-third  supermajority that would allow them to impeach President  Mutharika.  Once deposed, a new government with Muluzi as  president and Tembo as vice-president would be installed.  If  this plan could not be realized by May 16, then the  recipients were to move on to “Plan B” — a military-led  takeover of the government.

(C) According to the document, in Plan “B”, Chimbayo was  to mobilize retired and active-duty army officers still loyal  to him in Lilongwe and Zomba with the assistance of Mituka,  Chirwa, and Mtende.  Aironi was to mobilize policemen and try  to convince current Inspector General Kumbambe to side with  the coup plotters.  All were instructed to use finances to  buy support and seek out those unhappy with their current  ranks or salaries.  Plan “B” called for six groups, Group 1  to secure the New State House in Lilongwe, Group 2 to secure  Sanjika Palace (the presidential residence in Blantyre),  Group 3 to take over Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC)  and Television Malawi (TVM) in Blantyre, and Group 4 to do  the same in Lilongwe.   Group 5 was charged with arresting  current MDF commander Marko Chiziko and Group 6 with  arresting cabinet ministers.  These actions were to take  place on May 16.

(C) Once taking over government and installing Muluzi as  the new president, the document says the alleged plotters  planned to justify their actions based on:   — Mutharika’s disregard of the rule of law, human rights,  and freedom of the press.  — Mutharika’s robbing of civil servants of their pensions.  — Mutharika’s favoritism toward Thyolo (his home town) and  the Northern region for prime positions.  — Mutharika’s food support for Zimbabawe and collaboration  with Robert Mugabe.  — Mutharika’s arresting of UDF officials “without offenses.”  — Mutharika’s instructions to MBC and TVM to broadcast  programs insulting Muluzi.   (Comment: We have seen the document and disbelieve in toto  its authenticity. End Comment.)

Muluzi’s Home Searched, No Weapons Found 

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(SBU) On May 14, police attempted to enter Muluzi’s home  outside of Blantyre, but were stopped by Muluzi’s guards (who  are also active-duty police) due to Muluzi’s absence and the  lack of a search warrant.  On May 15, police returned and two  were allowed to search the premises.  Despite MBC reports  from the previous day that a large cache of weapons was at  Muluzi’s residence, only five guns  belonging to Muluzi’s  security officers were found.  In addition to Bakili Muluzi’s  residence, police have also searched the residence of Atupele  Muluzi, the former president’s son and a UDF MP.

UDF Cites Previous Treason Claims, Offers to Continue Talks 

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(SBU) In response to GOM claims about a plot, UDF leaders  publicly pointed out that this is now the third time that  President Mutharika has attempted to charge UDF members with  treason.  The first arrests were in January 2005 following a  meeting at Sanjika Palace where three MPs were accused of  having knives and a pistol in their vehicles.  Charges were  dropped and one MP successfully sued for 14,000 USD in  damages.  The second case involved vice-president Chilumpha,  who has been under house arrest facing treason charges for  attempted assassination of President Mutharika for over two  years, but has yet to be tried.  At the same time, the  party’s reaction has remained somewhat muted; George Mtafu,  the UDF’s leader in the National Assembly, downplayed the  coup claims and continues to stress he is willing to meet  with government to negotiate an end to the political impasse  in the National Assembly.  Talks between the government, the  UDF, and other opposition parties were restarted May 15 and  were still ongoing on May 16.

COMMENT:  Peace and Patience Greet Suspect Evidence   

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(C) Comment: In an eventful week, Malawians reacted with  surprising calm to the claims of an attempted coup.  There  have been no demonstrations or reports of violence; locals  seem more dismayed about the ongoing inaction in parliament  than about a possible attempt to overthrow the president.  The main impact has been frenetic gossip and speculation  which have obscured what few facts there are, and have  “connected the dots” between events that are probably not  connected at all. The terrible Malawian press has contributed  to the confusion.  While it cannot be dismissed out of hand,  the “evidence” released so far against the eight accused  appears highly questionable  The “top secret” UDF document  that details the takeover plan is suspiciously forthright  about the alleged plotters plans and intentions, and its  provenance is unknown.  Additional evidence references a June  2008 meeting that has obviously not yet taken place.  None of  the documents are signed and the defense lawyers have pointed  out it would be impossible to authenticate them.

(C) The timing of Mutharika’s claims – just days after  opposition leaders made it clear to him that they would  compromise on, but not abandon, Section 65 – has led some to  speculate that Mutharika’s ultimate goal may be to declare a  state of emergency that would allow him to rule by decree  without parliamentary approval for 28 days, long enough to  approve next year’s budget without dealing with the  opposition’s agenda.  If the coup plot claims are ultimately  proven false, however, they could well serve as a rallying  cry for Malawi’s demoralized opposition and reinvigorate the  UDF going into next year’s elections. End Comment.  EASTHAM

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