Ode Bingu wa Mutharika: The dictator a victim of his own delusions?

Malawians are mourning their former president Bingu Wa Mutharika with mixed reactions. There are those who are genuinely mourning him. Yet there is also a segment that is openly celebrating his death. Even those he perceived as his friends – members of his own party – are celebrating, with some describing his death as “liberating.”

But what really went wrong for a man who is credited with putting his country on the world map for positive developments to be mourned with such indifference? Obviously it is the dictatorial tendencies of his last two years in office.

Indeed towards his end, there were those who openly wished and prayed for his death. Simply log on to the archives of Malawi’s online publications and get shocked with the comments. It is little wonder that when he finally died, it was like a wish being granted to many Malawians.

President Banda views Mutharika's body

Bingu Mutharika has been called arrogant, dictatorial, insensitive and more. Sadly he was regularly called an idiot by the general population. One respected catholic cleric even went as far as referring to him as “chindele chakufikapo”  in a homily at which he (Mutharika) was present. Chindele means idiot.

I have often argued that the quality of Mutharika that caused so many problems to Malawi is actually the last one. He was a miscalculating man who could not come to terms with the fact that the conditions conducive to dictatorship could no longer be installed in modern Malawi.

Usually dictators thrive on fear. When Malawi’s former dictator Kamuzu Banda spoke there was no voice to speak otherwise. His utterances at public podiums were decrees. One of my teachers said whatever the “Ngwazi” said became law. And I grew up believing this. He was the genuine dictator.

But how did the then Ngwazi pull off this feat; a feat that Mutharika tried and failed?

He had set effective systems in place to control dissent. Remember how you could not tell if even your wife was Kamuzu’s spy – how we were always suspicious of one another? He also controlled all available media – one newspaper, one radio station, and no internet. He had the courts in his palm. He even created a parallel justice system called the Traditional court, which was the path followed for political persecution. In other words Kamuzu had a system that could spy on all citizens effectively, and convict and sentence them accordingly.

Mutharika must have dreamed of being a dictator for decades whatever attraction there can be to this system of leadership to a sane man. He must have admired Kamuzu for decades and all along must have said “I want to be like him.”

But when the chance presented itself for Mutharika to achieve his peculiar dream, the world had changed. While former African dictators had a one party rule to their advantage, the modern world has effectively dealt with that system. The chance that Malawi can return to one party rule is so slim it could even be inconceivable.

Kamuzu even had the Cold War on his side, which made the west reluctant to cut aide to African dictators. This was not possible during Mutharika’s rule. Any attempt at taking away people’s rights is now met with swift withdrawal of budgetary support, which Malawi needs desperately.

While dictatorship thrives on frustrating the flow of information, Mutharika found a Malawi already equipped with internet, cell phones and several independent radio stations. He also found a population that was no longer timid; a population emboldened by a previous success, namely preventing Mutharika’s predecessor, Bakili Muluzi from changing the constitution in order to seek a third term in office.

With all this in mind, you would think a smart man would know that a new dictatorship cannot be created in Malawi. Mutharika failed to apply this logic. He proceeded and failed dismally to inculcate fear in all Malawians. He tried to silence vocal groups with bribes and violence, only to see stronger groups emerge to oppose him vehemently.

Towards his end one could read the frustration in his eyes. In his last speeches, you could actually detect that he had ceased to think of himself as the all-conquering hero and lion whose roar must induce only submissiveness from all that hear. At one time he was uncharacteristically begging tobacco buyers whom he had long bullied to no avail, to consider their prices. Before then he had forlornly ordered them to reduce.

And if the words dying of a broken heart could be made literal, perhaps Mutharika’s heart could take no more. It did not break, but simply stopped, perhaps succumbing to the pressure he had been subjecting it to; quarrelling with the whole nation, tobacco buyers, donors, and all the table banging that accompanied this.

And all this misery, I believe, could have been prevented had he been aware of the simple TRUTH that YOU CANNOT CREATE A DICTATORSHIP WHERE INFORMATION FLOWS FREELY. Forgive me, MAY his soul rest in peace. But I doubt if he was the smartest man in the world.

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