Malawi’s chronic dictatorships: The rise and fall of Bingu wa Mutharika

Bingu wa Mutharika
Bingu wa Mutharika

Thursday, 5th April 2012 was the day when Malawi experienced the greatest sudden change ever in the course of its politics and history. The unexpected collapse of State President Bingu wa Mutharika at the New State House (Kamuzu Palace) in the Capital City, Lilongwe and his eventual death due to a heart attack marked the end of his dictatorial regime which had presided over a crippling economic crisis and an appalling record of human rights. Mutharika’s death came at the foot of a political journey in which with a larger-than-life conviction he rode through immense contradictions, fierce public anger as well as intractable battles; some of which he fought and won but others which he fought but eventually lost.

Mutharika’s 8-year reign was a graphic portrayal of the typical and unsavoury notion of ‘African governance’ which in modern history has become a clear epitome of bad leadership mainly characterised by the personal-rule paradigm. It was a familiar trajectory exemplified by the curse of dysfunctional leadership succession. Contrary to the assertion in the west that Mutharika was another eccentric African president, he was in actual fact an overly ego-centric and stubborn leader whose entire rule was defined by reactionary political behaviour and actions aimed at ensuring his political survival. In this regard, the worst misconception about Mutharika’s rule which continues to inform media and academic analysis is that he became a dictator in his second-term.

For a fact, Mutharika’s presidency was a poisoned chalice right from inception because it was founded on undemocratic grounds. By accepting to be handpicked by ex-president Bakili Muluzi as the 2004 successor, Mutharika had openly demonstrated that he never believed in democracy. There were inevitable political consequences to his ‘imposition’ whether he allowed Muluzi to rule from behind or not. It was therefore, a matter of time that Malawi was to experience the full entrenchment of his dictatorship. Noteworthy, Mutharika’s repressive rule thrived on the mismanaged post-dictatorship transition of 1994-2004 which has since led to the erosion of the liberal constitution, chocked the manifestation of a culture of constitutionalism and consolidation of democracy.

Having weathered widespread resentment that surrounded his candidacy, in part aided by Muluzi’s abuse of incumbent advantage and rigged elections, Mutharika used his 24th May 2004 inauguration to declare a new era of economic growth and zero-tolerance on corruption. His resolve for self-determination was very obvious in his moving speech ‘The Road to Prosperity – a new vision for Malawi.’ However, he quickly began to exploit the strings of political patronage to establish a notorious club of self-serving, recycled and corrupt politicians – a wicked political class which covering itself with a blanket of impunity was interested in self-enrichment than pursuing a national agenda.


Evidently, following Mutharika’s initial fiscal approaches the ‘fundamentals’ of the macro-economy improved. Annual economic growth rates increased averaging 7.5 per cent between 2006-08 though the trickle down effects were not manifesting for the majority of poverty-stricken Malawians. Inflation was on a downward trend onto single digits and the Kwacha stabilised against major currencies. The qualification of Malawi under Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative confirmed Mutharika’s eagerness to turn around the economy that IMF and World Bank parroted his achievements with back and forth appraisals.

But Mutharika had an unbending mind of his own. His stubbornness to implement the Farm Inputs Subsidy Programme (FISP) against western donors’ disapproval earned the country a bumper harvest in subsequent years since 2005. He reckoned that food security was critical to economic growth and that maize as a highly politicised commodity was a strong currency for the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) political mobilisation and ‘buying of votes.’ Even though benefitting poor smallholder farmers, FISP was blighted with deep corruption at all levels and Mutharika’s ministers and cronies in the business sector were profiteering from both fraudulent contracts and structural flaws of the programme.

Originally seen as a calm and measured man who many in the United Democratic Front (UDF) saw as lacking touch with its grassroots membership and poor Malawians, Mutharika slowly graduated into a vocal politician who frothed with aggressive language to intimidate his critics. He never took kindly to political threats and in a tit-for-tat campaign ‘deflated’ real or imagined opponents including the vanguards of his 2005 impeachment bid: Lucius Banda and Maxwell Milanzi. His crusade led to denying his mentor, Bakili Muluzi an unwelcome presidential comeback when MEC barred him from contesting in 2009. Mutharika who enjoyed one-man rule sought to ‘abolish’ the position of Vice President creating constructive resignation and later treason case for Vice President Cassim Chilumpha and afterwards harassed then VP Joyce Banda in his second term. It was only then that various actors woke up from their deep sleep.

An ardent admirer of Malawi’s first president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Ngwazi Mutharika was a rigid technocrat who had a fair attachment to pursuing grandiose projects, examples being construction of roads, the ‘Shire-Zambezi Waterway Project’, the magnificent but controversial Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) etc. But as a pan-Africanist who believed and theorised about African solutions to the continent’s problems, he was defeated by the same problem that has struck Africa’s post-independence leaders – bad governance.

One critical marker of Mutharika’s rule was the fallout with his god-father and his resultant resignation from the UDF – the party that initially sponsored him into power. Undeniably, the moment Mutharika dumped the UDF his position as president became politically untenable because he only had 6 MPs out of the 193-member legislature. Though the opposition held a sinister motive to oust him from power, there was no realisation that Mutharika had helped create a political problem and therefore that he needed to find a harmonious political solution. Accordingly, he was seen as a victim of political vengeance when in truth he was both a victim and an architect of his own political fate which unfortunately had serious repercussions on the country.

In a 5-year conflict-ridden term, Mutharika managed to recruit traditional chiefs as DPP advocates who continued to back his political agenda in his second term. As the Section 65/National Budget parliamentary deadlock unfolded, civil society equally adopted the DPP agenda keeping vigil and hooting – in effect encouraging Mutharika to disregard the constitutional stipulation on runaway MPs who in recent times have reduced parliament into a house of nomadic wanderers. Not surprising that Mutharika lost the opportunity to draw on the people’s goodwill in order to establish a political consensus. For example, by negotiating for a Government of National Unity (GNU) based on a proper memorandum of understanding so as to maintain the sovereignty of the constitution.

Though Mutharika’s initial arbitrary actions were aimed at fighting off the inevitable consequences of the faulty foundation of his presidency, he was at heart driven by immense personal interest to eventually gain absolute power. During his very first term, Mutharika began to systematically sow seeds of dictatorship by violating the Republican Constitution, disregarding the judiciary, suppressing parliament as well as abusing public funds and institutions. However, stakeholders never took seriously the revelations that Secretary to the Treasury, Milton Kutengule had been pressured by DPP officials to divert K20 million and create a bogus Credit Scheme account to fund the party by among other things ‘buying off’ opposition MPs.

This is besides Mutharika’s campaign purportedly benefitting from the K1.7 billion which Muluzi allegedly deposited into his personal account from donors. Ironically, he interfered in ACB’s corruption cases and opportunely used the anti-graft campaign to target his political enemies whilst his own DPP government was soaked in rampant fraud. After prosecuting then Minister of Education, Yusuf Mwawa for using K170,000 government funds to pay expenses for his 2005 wedding, Mutharika later pardoned Clerk of Parliament, Matilda Katopola for awarding K87 000 worth of procurement contract to her own firm, Monick Trends.

At least, civil society was busy hooting and the Chichiri media echoing the president’s accomplishments from memorised scripts, when Mutharika was building his luxurious Ndata mansion, receiving gifts from Mota-Engil and signing a rip-off for Kayelekera Mine with Paladin Energy Ltd. At the time, a powerful narrative was constructed around Mutharika’s economic feats that civil society, the media, the church and academia ignored the president’s excesses. It was the equivalent of terming a poisonous snake as a pet. Stakeholders argued Mutharika was better left to rule as his amayi a Bingu would sing (alekeni a Bingu alamule) because people would not eat politics. In other words, one could separate politics from economics.

Although the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) as a blueprint looked plausible, it was juxtaposed by incoherent policies and several of its critical components were unsustainable in the long term. In fact, some local actors including misguided donors observed that Mutharika had been able to ‘develop’ the country without local assemblies. So that when Mutharika halted democratic processes such as local government polls, everyone stayed put because the Messiah of the Malawi nation, alias modern day Moses (Mose wa Lero) had the best interests of the country.

As Mutharika aptly proclaimed, ‘Let the work of my hands speak for me.

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