MCP’s Tembo and his belief in survival instincts of a cockroach: Malawi road to 2014

As if the late submission of nomination papers by Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president John Tembo was not enough, more ghostly spanners have been thrown into the party’s much awaited convention. Just in the past few days, we have seen a series of classic staged acts listed onto MCP’s strained presidential circus.

Tembo, the self-acclaimed protagonist has transformed himself into a proud contender for the party’s flagship even though his presidential bid was until now seen as politically and practically impossible. Currently, the MCP guru is a headliner in the media circuits talking forcefully about his 2014 ambition. He has a bazooka in his hands and is already firing pretentious political discourse which he believes will legitimise his bid and turn the tables on his challengers.

One thing is definitely obvious. MCP’s indefinite postponement of its indaba has exposed the naked machinations at the heart of the country’s oldest mainstream party. Disturbing as the evolving events in MCP may be, Tembo has been quick to openly boast about his strong political conviction on Zodiak Broadcasting Service’s  (ZBS) Tiuzeni Zoona program on Sunday, echoing as it were his trademark motto, ‘defeat does not exist in my vocabulary as far as politics is concerned.

John Tembo
John Tembo

It does not matter what people say or what his party membership, cadres or grassroots, think. For him politics is a bulldozing endeavour not fit for the weak hearted and utterly passive mortals. It is an undertaking in which one has to struggle for own survival, one life after another, by adopting the survival instincts of a cockroach. Tembo is relying on a volley of tricks which, at times, he deploys with subtle shrewdness to enable him wriggle out of grim situations, hence, his befitting ‘puludzu’ nickname.

Under his belt, the MCP leader has a flock of underground obsessive loyalists that are ready to run his errands. Of course, they are not as vocal and omnipresent like those in the other parties, which has helped Tembo camouflage his real intentions this far. Disgruntled MCP membership who continue craving for reform as a matter of urgency must have shrunk into their shells realising Tembo is not stepping down to pave way for young and fresh blood.

Barred by the party’s constitution from making a third run, Tembo initially presented his nomination papers ‘symbolically’ because he was going to retire from politics. That mysterious positioning explains why, like ignorant residents of another planet, MCP convention organisers suddenly realised that there wasn’t enough accommodation for delegates and saw a gaping hole lying in their budget from nowhere. Tembo’s on-going tricks make Kalulu the Hare trickery stories sound real.

Clearly, the MCP leader is more interested in achieving his personal political goal – securing a presidential position in whatever guise in the 2014 polls. We just have to wait and see whether he will succeed in pulling a rabbit out of the hat running exclusively as MCP’s president, or as rumour has it, forging a coalition with President Joyce Banda and her People’s Party (PP). If president Banda is funding Tembo’s current scam in order to have the MCP leader retained as flagbearer and with it pave her own easy ride to power, the best question to ask is: what does that tell about Malawi’s democracy?

Undeniably, Tembo is just being honest. He does not take political fights or struggles lying down on his back. Since the ousting of MCP in May 1994, the MCP guru has been a very crafty politician whose manoeuvrings have helped him prevail in the worst situations and his advocates can claim that Tembo’s foxy posturing has partly saved the party from total destruction. That is the Armageddon which between the 1994 and 2009 general elections deflated the number of MPs for Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) from 36 to 1; United Democratic Front (UDF) from 85 to 17; but MCP from 56 to 26.

As the invincible leader of opposition and longest serving Member of Parliament who served in various portfolios in the country’s first post-independence government of Ngwazi Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Tembo has his experience to draw from. In fact, one of his skills lies in covertly playing the ball.

Up till last Wednesday, the presentation of nomination papers for the MCP indaba appeared to be in full bloom decorated by one of the most open presidential contests of the post-democratic era. Other parties and presidential contenders were (perhaps they still are) inwardly sweating at the potential of MCP pulling out a winning ticket at the convention. It seemed someone had waved a magic wand and exorcised MCP’s curse of the 31-year notorious dictatorship. More importantly, Tembo was not really calling the shots anymore.

Contrary to deep seated prejudice, MCP was in the process of transforming itself from yester years’ repressive outfit to a pro-democracy entity ready to usher in a new era of competitive politics and open party contests. Most of the party’s contenders were energetically waving their bill of ‘clean record’ having not fallen into the political recycling bin nor partaken in the pervasive corruption cuisine of the past two decades.

To everyone’s surprise, Tembo had finally unlocked MCP’s iron-gate marshalling in a spectrum of candidates whose hopes have now been shaken to the ground. Just the idea that one could wake up from a wild dream, retire early from a lucrative job or wander away from the glory of a church pulpit to fill in MCP’s nomination papers was no mean feat. UDF as the leading pro-democracy party of the 1990s was stumbling with utter shame. The same with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and PP. Now MCP’s doubters must have all fallen to the ground with laughter, ‘it was too good to be true.’

Unless, MCP’s presidential contenders are part of Tembo’s plot, they must be feeling like trapped beings and are naturally beating themselves for attempting, like crazy optimists, to catch the whirlwind. Tembo’s ruthlessness in executing political plans matches his occasional outbursts when confronted with questions about the direction of his political journeys by inquisitive journalists. A usually calm speaker, who once served as Kamuzu’s interpreter, he carries a less intimidating demeanour than the wicked image of his political animation.

Among Tembo’s numerous strategies is, of course, befriending his political enemies and sometimes reluctantly embracing them until he makes a handsome bite on their fresh. MCP’s former president, Gwanda Chakuamba can give a good testimony regarding the latter. More so, after all the mudslinging campaign of the 2004 general elections, Tembo found it convenient to team up with ex-president Bakili Muluzi, and with the UDF almost impeached president Bingu wa Mutharika before running vicious shoot-to-kill rounds on his minority government. ‘Section 65… number 1, Budget….. number 2′, Tembo emphatically announced as Mutharika anxiously searched for ways to extinguish him.

The MCP czar is a seasoned fortune hunter who has flirted with on-off ally Muluzi when it suited his ego. But he is fast to purge those he sees as the party’s traitors. He can seek or pledge secretive allegiance within the ranks of traditional and church leaders including well-placed politicians as long as he calculates on getting a reward.

In the aftermath of Mutharika’s death in 2012, he must have worked on possible scenarios for the 2014 presidential race. He appropriately chose to neutralise MCP’s once aggressive voice because, inside, he was calibrating his bearings having decided not to be antagonistic to President Banda. So far, praise has been his byword for the PP administration and Banda has paid him back some privilege. You scratch my back, I massage yours. It makes one realise how late president Mutharika failed to timely and strategically tame Tembo.

But things can change depending on which path his presidential campaign will head to. It is easy to understand though, why PP and MCP could become plausible partners of a coalition jigsaw. Evidently, in politics everything is possible and there are no permanent enemies. But an opposition coalition looks less attractive for MCP. A partnership between Tembo and Peter Mutharika or rather MCP and DPP would be difficult to sell. After Tembo carried Muluzi’s forsaken dream in a last-minute alliance when the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) declared the latter ineligible to contest in the 2009 polls, MCP and UDF remain haunted by their unsuccessful excursion.

That fruitless MCP/UDF coalition further angered Mutharika that after the elections he recruited a pack of mercenaries to oust Tembo as MCP president and leader of opposition in the National Assembly. Abel Kayembe (MP) led the parliamentary mission when DPP installed him as leader of opposition instead, only for Tembo to successfully challenge the move in court. With such personal exploits, the MCP president is not bothered about the future of MCP. He has the party under the armpits and sees its existence through his own lenses – defined by the same personalised politicking that has ruined Malawi’s democratic governance project.

Many people are shuddering at Tembo’s mystifying bid, labelling it as a desperate chore against gravitational force. Tembo is fully aware that with a fresh presidential ticket, MCP has a chance to win the forthcoming elections in contrast to the hard reality of the lukewarm enthusiasm over his candidacy.

However, he is weighing the mood around the country and the critical dynamics of the coming polls. The economy is a single area where many people, even those who resent his candidacy give him high marks looking, for instance, at his impressive stint at state and other institutions, but also his contribution towards MCP’s ‘cautious’ handling of the economy. Presently, it seems Tembo can afford to lecture everyone about rampant corruption and persistent hunger in the country because these creatures have become monstrous after the fall of MCP.

Also, there is enough reason to speculate that the next elections might be affected by the 1994 spell: the regional voting pattern. If that was to happen again, Tembo reckons, MCP would mathematically stand to gain because of central region’s proportional voting bloc. He is calculating that DPP, UDF, PP will be tearing the vote in the Southern region.

Though his age, 81 in September this year, appears repulsive to many as is the attempt to change the party’s constitution to allow him stand yet again, he is banking on the supposed approval of his loyalists and whipping the vote from pessimists. Like Zambia’s serial presidential contender Michael Sata who eventually ascended to the helm in 2011, Tembo thinks he might as well be able to get third-time luck. However, his political situation is somewhat dissimilar from that of Sata even though Malawi’s politics has long paralleled that of Zambia.

Overall, if Tembo is to forge a coalition with Banda that will have great repercussions over the forthcoming polls. DPP and UDF will be traumatised and incumbent VP, Khumbo Kachali would possibly end up being pushed to a junior position for Tembo to pair with Banda as running-mate. That would ignite questions over the dominance of south and central region in high profile positions.

It would be very surprising if Tembo was to accept the position of 2nd VP in a PP/MCP coalition because such would be trading the party’s electoral chance at a very cheap price. With the misfortunes that have consecutively befallen the country’s VPs though, Tembo might not fear being relegated to the bench as long as his name is prefixed with stately honour. Certainly, he also has the stamina to fight on if such was to happen.

The role Tembo is trying to assign himself at the upcoming MCP convention will either build or break MCP. That role has the capability of hugely changing the course of the 2014 elections. MCP delegates, therefore, need to consciously think about the party’s future and that of the country by upholding democracy.

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