President Mutharika has his work cut out for him

There have been mixed reactions to Peter Mutharika’s election as Malawi’s new president. For a country that went into the elections in a climate of distrust, and which is already suffering from a freeze to donor aid, this has obvious domestic and international implications.

The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) had referred the final decision of the election results to the High Court – a decision that, according to the two-thirds of Malawians who did not vote for Mutharika, does not represent the will of the Malawian people.

Although these protestors have since gone quiet they remain unsatisfied with the court ruling, since their claims that the election was fraudulent were merely parried away by the High Court.

Malawi's President Peter Mutharika
Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika

Private practice lawyer Shepher Mumba of Blantyre-based firm, Golden & Law, and Bright Theu, a legal expert at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in The Gambia, argued that the decision for an election recount is within the legal mandate of the MEC.

In opinion pieces published by Malawian news site, Mumba and Theu questioned why there had been a notion that the MEC had no power to order and undertake a recount of the votes.

Considering that Malawians voted along regional lines in the 2014 election, which sees a continuation of the 1994 and 2004 voting patterns, Mutharika has before him the colossal task of uniting the nation.

He will have to convince the over three million voters in the northern, central and eastern regions of Malawi that his leadership style will be different from his brother’s autocratic and nepotistic rule, which had led to violent protests on 20 July 2012.

His brother, Bingu Wa Mutharika, had also won the 2004 election by a lower margin of 34%. He nevertheless succeeded to rally Malawians behind him before losing their trust again.

The former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government in which Mutharika was once the minister of education adopted the so-called ‘quarter system of selection’ into public universities, whereby an equal number of students were allowed from each district.

This decision had made his brother and his government very unpopular among Malawians from the northern region. They believed that the policy was targeting them.

Only 22% of northerners voted for Peter Mutharika in the 2014 election: a huge contrast to the nearly 100% vote for the late Bingu Wa Mutharika in 2009. The quarter system is therefore a make-or-break policy, and how Peter manages it will be crucial for his leadership.

Mutharika’s second uphill task is to mend relations between his government and the West, particularly the British government. Malawi’s relationship with western donors went sour towards the end of the DPP rule in 2012, which led to these donors withdrawing aid.

Bingu was a fierce critic of the West, infamously telling donors ‘to go to hell.’ The former DPP’s government foreign policy rather looked to the East.

Malawi’s recently sworn-in president was also the foreign minister in his brother’s government. In his inaugural speech, he was quick to inform western donors that they were not Malawi’s only friends – mentioning Brazil, India and China, three of the BRICS countries, as Malawi’s new darlings.

As these two continue to bay for one another’s blood, Malawi remains the loser

So far the donors have adopted a ‘wait and see approach’ – particularly because of the DPP’s past mismanagement of public resources.

Mutharika’s brother was accused of wrongful enrichment when an official at YMW Property Investment Company revealed that Mutharika’s wealth was valued at approximately US$152 million. Many Malawians believe that the new president used this money for his campaign.

In addition, an audit by the Auditor General shows that the former DPP government failed to account for a sum of about US$226 million.

The donors’ conditions that had been given to Banda’s government still stand, since they require certain benchmarks to be met to restore confidence in the public finance management system.

Finally, relations between former president Joyce Banda and Mutharika have never been good, and this could affect the performance of his government if not resolved.

The distrust between them had worsened after Bingu’s unexpected death in April 2012, when former vice-president Banda (founder of the People’s Party) ascended to power. At the time, Peter and his DPP colleagues had tried to stop the legal ascension.

In a live broadcast of his inaugural address, Mutharika said: ‘Let me say I regret that my predecessor, the former president Dr Joyce Banda, has declined to come here and hand over power to me. I was looking forward to shaking her hand and bury the past. I came to her with an olive branch in my hand; don’t let it drop from my hand.’

Soon after the MEC had declared Mutharika winner, the state-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s radio station and television channel started running an advert with an extract of Mutharika’s speech, in which he recounts the ‘atrocities’ he suffered under Banda’s rule – citing arrests, teargasing and other incidents.

As these two and their parties continue to bay for one another’s blood, Malawi remains the loser as it delays progress towards achieving the country’s development goals.

Unless the DPP repairs its relations with the West, keeps extending the olive branch to Banda and makes a deliberate effort to unify the fragmented regional divides, the new government will not be able to achieve the political and economic stability needed for the country’s development.

Baldwin Chiyamwaka, Consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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