Ntata’s Uncommon Sense: Reflections on Malawian vice presidency dilemma

During an interview with the vice president of Malawi not too long ago, Zainab Badawi of the BBC asked why the Malawian vice President, Saulosi Chilima, was not using his position as Vice President of Malawi to stop the rampant corruption in the country. The question was asked in the context that Chilima had launched his own political party to challenge incumbent president Peter Mutharika for the presidency in the elections scheduled to take place in May 2019.

Pressident Mutharika and Vice-President Chilima 

Badawi’s question demonstrates a serious and longstanding misunderstanding of the Malawian executive governance framework. It is assumed, as it should be, that a vice president should have powers in his own right to do something about policies in Malawi such as the fight against corruption. The reality of Malawi’s administrative and political framework, however, is quite different and does not necessarily follow the basic logic presumed by Badawi.

In order for anyone interested in Malawi to understand the peculiarities of the Malawian ice presidency, one had to consider the circumstances that brought the office into being.

Back in 1994 when the country was transitioning from a single party dictatorial regime to a multi party democracy, changes in the constitution were required. One of these was to provide for the country to have a vice presidency as none had existed during the one party regime. Unfortunately, those charged with reviewing and revising the constitution were the very people who were interested in the politics of the country, with most of them even harbouring presidential ambitions.

This conflict of interest, considered minor at the time, produced an impotent vice presidency that is simply present as a figurehead, with no power, no government portfolio and noinfluence of any kind. Those writing the position into the constitution, looking ahead to the possibility that they may become the next president, considered the idea of sharing real executive power between the president and the vice president to be undesirable.

The gravity of this mistake was evident from the first presidency of the multiparty era. Baikili Muluzi soon fell out with his vice president and all relationships between presidents and vice presidents in Malawi have consistently followed the trend.  

When I became Legal Counsel to late president Bingu wa Mutharika n 2009, I soon found myself in the middle of a similar standoff. Barely a year into his second term as president Mutharika, who has previously fallen out with Dr. Cassim Chilumpha, his vice president in his first term, fell out again with Joyce Banda, his vice president for the second term. Having helplessly observed this recurring drama from a distance during the Muluzi years and during Bingu’s first term, I finally thought an opportunity has finally presented itself for me to offer what I considered a lasting solution to the problematic situation.

As Mutharika grappled to deal with a vice president that had been forced out of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), formed her own party and was then by all accounts a member of the opposition, I discussed my proposal with then Attorney General, the late Mackson Mbendera.

My proposal was aimed at correcting the root cause of the problem – the constitutional mess that has been created by the writers of the constitution.  If the president were in the circumstances to ask the constitutional court to examine the provisions of the constitution on the roles and prevailing situations between the president, the vice president, the executive and the cabinet, perhaps this would provide a solution that would correct the problem for future generations.

It is provided in Section 79 of the Constitution of Malawi that there shall be a First Vice President …(who) shall assist the President and who shall exercise powers and perform the functions conferred on the First Vice President by this Constitution and by any act of Parliament and by the President.”

It is further provided in Section 84 of the Republic of Malawi Constitution that if the First Vice President and Second Vice President dies or resigns from office, the vacancy shall be filled for the unexpired period of that term by a person appointed by the President.”

My observations in this regard was and remains that Section 84 is not clear as to what manner a resignation of a Vice President should take or whether a Vice President can be said to have resigned through their conduct. Furthermore, in its current state, Section 84 is ambiguous and the reason Vice Presidents have been able to behave in a manner that undermines government as the section’s silence on the manner which a resignation of a vice President can take seems to offer protection to insubordinate vice presidents who do not hand in a resignation letter even when they strongly disagree with the policies of the President and of the Government.

The section also provides protection to the Vice Presidents to the extent that a Vice President can form their own political Party and become a president of an opposition party, and yet expect to still deputise for the President at Cabinet meetings as stipulated under section 92 of the Constitution.

This is the state of affairs that continues to bring embarrassment to the nation and, because of the confusion and controversy it is causes, it also affects negatively the country’s political and social economic development.

Additionally, it does not appear that when Section 84 was drafted the question of its potential eventual inconsistency with Sections 79, Section 92(1) and Section 92 (3) (b) of the Constitution was considered. The meaning of the word ‘resign’, was also not defined, examined and/or interpreted.

My advice to the president to institute a presidential referral was based on these important legal points. Had this matter been pursued to its ultimate constitution, Malawi today would have had an interpretation of this important constitutional matter and the situations regarding rebellious vice presidents, or those that fall out with their presidents would have been clarified.

Unfortunately, when Joyce Banda ascended to the presidency on the death of Bigu waMutharika in 2012, he did not see it as necessary to continue the referral, and thus Presidential Referral Number 1 of 2011 died a natural death.

I would submit that this reluctance to solve problems with future generations in mind and this tendency to only pursue self interest and only deal with governance matters that have immediate impact on the current leaders personally is the reason we are finding ourselves in embarrassing situations today regarding the vice presidency. This past week, we had a president who even decided childishly to omit even listing the vice president as part of government and cabinet. President Peter Mutharika, frustrated by the situation obtaining with his vice president, has taken it upon himself to defy the provisions of the constitution, and to announce a cabinet, which, according to the edicts of the constitution, is essentially illegal, and thus should be a catalyst for his own impeachment.

Perhaps it is time to resurrect Presidential Referral Number 1 of 2011 and have the courts give us direction on the issue. This would end the embarrassment we have to bear as country both here at home and internationally.

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3 years ago

Can’t we us the private members motion to review the act? Surely DPP, MCP, PP & UDF wouldn’t want their vice presidents start their own parties soon after being sworn in. Please MCP don’t waste your time with impeachment of the president it wont work and it will work to your disadvantage instead treat this issue as a matter of ultimate importance. On recommendation from the president Parliament should be able to impeach the vice president with a simple majority.

guy jobo
guy jobo
3 years ago
Reply to  Mkaika

what if it is the president who forms his party as late Bingu did.we should not be reactive coz of the present situation.This is a matter of national importance which needs retrospecting.From the first multiparty president to date history has shown that no president has worked well with his vice so who is wrong between the presidents and their vices.presidents wants no advice from their vices therefore they get frustrated and the end result is what we have been seeing since 1994.I Know we have to give support to which ever party we belong to but truth should also prevail… Read more »

3 years ago
Reply to  guy jobo

My friend parliament tried to impeach Bingu for ditching the UDF but failed because of some missing parliament procedures! The problem I see here is that it was an error to copy and paste exiting clause of the president to that of a vice. The president is head of crucial govt departments like being the commander in chief of the army and police while the vice is not so there should have been differences. There can not deliberately be a vacuum in the office of the president while we now have gone over 5 months with an idle vice president… Read more »

3 years ago

Good point for us to work on our constitution inorder to eliminate the flaw/s but in addition i would feel the vice president resigning is not an issue but losing out the immunity he has as vice president like his security and all, Peter and his cadets will skin him alive. Who would dare come out of a house where hynaes and lions are waiting just outside? He knows with uncivilized politics of DPP and it’s blind cadets will make his life miserable if not take his life. So in this case with no guarantee of his safety he will… Read more »

Achimanga Auponda
Achimanga Auponda
3 years ago
Reply to  Moya

Not only should the nation be thinking in terms of his personal safety. Consider also how wantonly DPP ministers would steal government money if SKC left government and was reduced to an ordinary person with no access to highly classified dossiers.

It would be a disaster. Anyone pushing for SKC’s removal should be seen as an enemy of the people.

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