Thandika Mkandawire, one of Malawi’s premier academics once observed: “Something happens to intelligent people when they become politicians.”
The history of Malawi has Bakili Muluzi choosing Bingu wa Mutharika, whom he thought was going to be a ‘puppet for him’. In the event, things did not turn out that way. Bingu turned out to be his own man and built up his DPP; the UDF has been left as a small party.
The Guardian (26 July 1976) reminds us that when Obote wanted to choose a military leader he chose Idi Amin. Obote could have chosen Brigadier Opolot or Brigadier Okoya, but he chose Idi Amin, a man he had protected from the Kenyans, (Id Amin was wanted in Kenya at one point for leading a platoon that was involved in atrocities against the Turkana tribe). Obote thought Amin was his man. Encyclopaedia Britannica says of the events in Uganda when some African Ugandans were welcoming an uneducated man, ill-suited to be president into power:
Amin promised a return to civilian government in five years, but problems with his leadership were soon apparent. Amin had little Western-style education and virtually no officer training, so he often resorted to arbitrary violence in order to maintain his position. In one incident, he destroyed the one potential centre of effective opposition by a wholesale slaughter of senior army officers loyal to Obote. To win more general support among the Ugandan population, Amin ordered all Asians who had not taken Ugandan nationality to leave the country in 1972. His move won considerable approval in the country because many Africans believed that they had been exploited by the Asians, who controlled the middle and some of the higher levels of the economy, but the action isolated Uganda from the rest of the world community. Although a few wealthy Ugandans profited from Amin’s actions, the majority of the commercial enterprises formerly owned by Asians were given to senior army officers who rapidly squandered the proceeds and then allowed the businesses to collapse.
Yes, we the people cheer politicians when they make popular moves. Little do we know that the moves will come to bite us. Imagine what the Ugandans went through when they realised after the Asians left that they were left with few good shops, an army ruled by a thug and which went around killing civilians and a miserable economy which took decades to revive.
And then there was Bingu wa Mutharika’s best laid plans for his succession; the good Lord intervened, and he instead was succeeded by Joyce Banda, despite his supporters attempts at keeping him alive and subverting the constitution. Joyce Banda, the constitutional VP was dusted and became president.
And so we come to the present.
Running mates are not mere entertainment fodder. In Malawi things have become so politicised and yet so trivialised in the public that we take everything as entertainment. Of course underneath it is all deadly serious. And I mean deadly serious.
How then do we explain the fact of a constitutional expert, Arthur Peter Mutharika, choosing a man like Everton Chimulirenji, a man whose name even Goodall Gondwe, Peters own drinking friend could not remember? Hey, do not get me wrong: Everton is a nice man by all accounts. But he is not, just as I am not premier league player material, presidential material. I repeat Everton Chimulirenji is a nice person, a nice business man, a good MP. But: I am sorry, he is not VP or presidential material.
This even reminds me of Thandika’s statement above: what have the DPP biggies, like Goodall Gondwe, Bright Msaka, Kondwani Nankumwa, Mwanamveka, wa Geffrey, Tembenu and others said about it? In public: nothing. In private: we hear that there has been a lot said.
And what has the ordinary Malawian said well, perhaps he will get his voice at the ballot box. But what of the various church leaders, business leaders and other civic leaders?
Many of them recognise and remember what happens to governments when they are taken over by people who are ill-suited to govern. I have given the example of Idi Amin above. Events in the Gambia should be recalled. Here a lieutenant took over the government, leading to years of misery for Gambians. In Liberia a master sergeant took over the government, leading to years of misery for Liberians. Let us recall the 1990s two Liberian Civil Wars in which children became soldiers and millions were displaced.
So, if our political leaders, including Arthur Peter Mutharika know this, why do they insist on making the wrong choices just because it suits them. When Mutharika says he has chosen Chimulirenji because he knows the difference between a ‘vice’ and ‘deputy’ we should remember Thandika Mkandawire’s observation. It is not about knowing the difference between vice and deputy, Mr President: It is about the future Malawi. Mr president, if you are prepared to choose an ill-suited candidate just because you want peace of mind, answer this question: what happens if that person becomes president. You want someone you jump to your tune. What happens if you are no longer there? Whose tune will your puppet dance to?
One could argue that Arthur Mutharika was not aware of the consequences of his actions. Only if he has lost his memory. Is this not the same Peter Mutharika who wrote in 1998?
Internal, external and historical factors have conspired to create the capability deficit that many African countries presently experience.
Internal political instability, bad governance, misguided economic policies, civil disorders and inadequate infrastructures have in the past contributed to Africa’s capability deficit. Over the past decade, however, the African states have begun to understand that societies that democratize, respect human rights and uphold the rule of law tend to create the kind of stability that is conducive to economic development They must now develop institutional mechanisms that are consistent with this new understanding. (@ https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1517&context=law_lawreview)
No. Peter has not forgotten. But he has forgotten his duty as a president. A duty to see Malawi go forward through education, enlightenment and progress.
And that last question about Peter Mutharika’s memory should remind us of the last days of Dr Banda.Dr Banda was surrounded by people who, we are told, wanted to take over his crown. In pursuit of this the shielded him from his people’s suffering and only fed him the ‘good news’. They also made sure all access to the president was through them. Some think that their aim was that, to be sure to inherit the crown when Dr Banda died, they had to have all the entrances and exits to Dr Banda covered.
Perhaps then what we hear coming from State House is correct. It is reported that President Mutharika depends on a select few advisers. It is reported that these advisers, like Ben Phiri, Norman Chisale, Gertrude Mutharika and others, have their own political ambitions. It is further reported that President Mutharika does not make any political moves without consulting his inner circle. We can assume therefore that the inner circle were in favour of his Chimulirenji choice. We can also be sure, since they are clever politicians, aware of his deficiencies. And we also hear that, in the event of the president dying in office, his wife or Chisale or Ben Phiri would become the VP and look after Chimulirenji. But what would happen if Chimulirenji refused to be a puppet then, just like Bingu refused to let Muluzi ‘ring the bicycle bell’ for him? Would Chimulirenji have the vision to develop Malawi? Just look at what another man who is ill-suited to be president is doing to his USA and the world. I speak of Donald Trump.
The question is therefore: why would Arthur Peter Mutharika and his advisers gift Malawians with a running mate who would struggle to run Malawi if he was incapacitated. Chimulirenji has himself stated, like a man speaking in a one-party state, that he is there to follow Mutharika’s wishes. If it is his conscious wish, how can a constitutional lawyer want to make a choice that may reduce ‘capability’ in Malawi? It only makes sense if the choice was made by his advisers for their own selfish ends in the event of the presidents incapacity. As we have seen above, these plans by leaders to install puppet leaders who they can control or who they think will protect them in future has led to tears for the leaders and their countries.
A learned gentleman like Peter Mutharika should have paid attention to the needs of ‘capability’ building.
I have lived and worked in Malawi. Older Malawians have seen what happens in Europe (Yugoslavia) and Africa (Liberia, Somalia and Zimbabwe) when politicians who lack ‘capability’ capture countries. I hope Malawians will not let their beautiful state be captured by a kitchen cabinet of power-hungry men and women. Most Malawians would live to regret it because it would be a suicidal choice.
- Sean T. Burns worked in Malawi between 1997 and 2005