In life, there are times when the things we value the least, and care the less, becomes the the most significant part of our story. And history and posterity.
Posterity, as they say, is the best judge.
Two years ago, Malawi and the majority of her citizens were at a political crossroads, and the country was in a quagmire.
Malawians so badly needed change, but there was no solution insight to ignite that change.
Then, the bench happened.
Before Malawians voted during the Tripartite Elections on 20 May, 2019, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president Lazarus Chakwera, the ‘Driver’ and UTM Party leader Saulos Chilima, the ‘Mechanic,’ were like parallel lines that would never meet.
Yet, a bench, united them. And, changed the game.
This is not the bench of Five award-winning High Court judges, who were presiding over the case in the Constitutional Court where the two were challenging the results of the Tripartite Elections, after the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) declared the then ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)candidate Arthur Peter Mutharika as winner.
Neither is it the bench of Seven Supreme Court of Appeal Judges, who dismissed the MEC appeal grounds as ‘embarrassing, fictitious, convoluted and distasteful’.
A bench, outside the court in Lilongwe became a regular feature in photographs as the historical electoral case progressed.
Photographs of Chilima and Chakwera on that bench during the court breaks were going viral at the time.
The two earned social media ridicule, especially DPP supporters, who felt the court case was just a waste of time, and since previous attempts to reverse the MEC declaration of results in the courts had previously proved futile.
Some commented on social media that Chakwera and Chilima seated on the bench looked like the unemployed at the labour office.
For them, the one working was Mutharika.
Others, likened it to a bench during a football match. Chilima and Chakwera, in that regard, were substitutes who could just watch the game and if the coach willed it, they would never play.
At some point, pictures of the two on the bench went viral.
Walking past the bench was Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale, who was the lead counsel for the respondents MEC and Mutharika.
That picture was hilarious, as Chakwera and Chilima seemed to have been back-biting about Kaphale, who was facing their lawyers led by Mordecai Msisha and Chikosa Silungwe.
Oh that bench!
The carpenter who made it may have used his time, would have used his skill, expertise and adroitness to make a casket, door or any other piece of furniture, but he used to make the bench from where the decision to put up a united force at the Fresh Presidential Elections (FPE) may have been conceived.
The sad part is that nobody knows the name of the carpenter who made that bench. And, the unfortunate part, again, is that even the carpenter who crafted that legendary and iconic bench perhaps, does not even know the critical role his work of his hands changed the game forever.
Maybe, just may be, without that bench, Chakwera and Chilima would not have come together as a team. Divided, the two would have gone to the polls individually and that would have given Mutharika an edge and an added advantage to sail through the Constitutional Court sanctioned elections past Chakwera and Chilima, respectively.
“Padakapanda kalipentala ameneyo kukhoma benchi imene ija bwezi pano DPP idakalibe m’boma, komanso a Dzonzi akadalibe makaniko wa adadi,” my friend, Kondwani Kamiyala who goes by the moniker KK, once remarked, and I agree.
Without that bench, President Chakwera and his Vice, Chilima would not have been talking about the minibus parable referring to themselves as driver and conductor.
Before they found themselves discussing issues on that bench, Chilima and Chakwera shared very few similarities.
Politically, they were both fighting to wrestle Mutharika out of power, yet in their campaign rallies, they used to decampaign each other.
They had only one common enemy in Mutharika.
Both Chakwera and Chilima are former students of Mtendere Secondary School and the Chancellor College where Chakwera studied philosophy while Chilima did economics.
The two distinguished gentlemen rose to high political office from nowhere, with Chilima straight from a marketing career at Airtel Malawi to become Vice President in 2014.
Chakwera resigned from his position as president of the Assemblies of God church to lead the opposition MCP.
But, Chilima and Chakwera had their own differences, which only the bench at the court tore apart.
At the 2019 polls, Chakwera was leading the oldest political party in the race, while Chilima’s UTM Party was representing the youngest political grouping, which he formed after parting ways with the DPP.
While Chakwera’s MCP is seen as a conservative party, the UTM Party is renowned for its radical and liberal ideologies. The UTM Party was largely popular among the youthful population across the country, while the MCP claimed support, especially from the Central Region.
It was, therefore, not surprising that the two parties did not enter into a pact before the tripartite elections.
As fate would have it, on 27 May 2019, MEC chairperson, retired judge, Justice Dr. Jane Ansah announced Mutharika won the polls with 1 940 709, representing a 38.57 percent, followed by Chakwera with 1 781 740 (35.41 percent) and Chilima 1 018 369 (35.41 percent).
Other candidates Austin Atupele Muluzi, Peter Kuwani and John Chisi got their own shares of the votes.
The DPP won 62 parliamentary seats, MCP 55 and UTM Party 4 – DPP has since lost three seats due to irregularities – while MCP has lost one seat due to the death of Karonga legislator Cornelius Mwalwanda who succumbed to Covid-19.
A few days later, Chilima and Chakwera challenged the polls in the courts, citing a plethora of irregularities and infringements of several political rights engraved in the Constitution.
Thus, began the MCP-UTM Party unification. It was by public demand. Not just a popular decision.
The bench was an informal meeting for the two leaders before and after court sessions, and during breaks.
Their lawyers, brought together witness like Daud Suleiman who wowed the court with a simulation of how a ghost user tampered with the Electoral Management System and Mirriam Gwalidi who testified on discoveries made on the irregularities in complaint handling, collection and sealing of ballot papers.
The case had its own hilarious moments, like when Chief Elections Officer Sam Alfandika had to sweat a lot as the petitioners’ lawyers grilled him during cross examination.
If the two leaders were not in the courts, or on that bench, they were on the streets, joining the Anti-Ansah demonstrations organized by the Human Right Defenders Coalition. It became clear that the two leaders were now speaking the same language, as hints for joining forces became apparent.
As the case proceeded, Chilima and Chakwera started making hints on an alliance. The discussions from the bench at the court was heightening to the boardroom.
In January 2020, as they awaited the Constitutional Court ruling, the two leaders hinted at a common political front to oust Mutharika.
“We are always ready to work with others as long as we can accommodate one another.
“It will also depend on our motivation for that alliance. So, yes, an alliance is possible,” Chilima said.
On his part, Chakwera hinted: “Unity is a signature pillar of the Chakwera Hi-5 agenda.
“Forming an alliance will bring Malawians together after the ruling.”
On 3 February 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the two.
It called for fresh elections to be held in 150 days, asking the Public Appointments Committee of Parliament to investigate the conduct of the MEC commissioners.
After some ironing, Parliament set 23rd June, 2020 as the date for the fresh elections.
It was on April 2nd 2020 that the seed sown from the bench at the court bore fruit, as the Tonse Alliance was launched bringing together the MCP, UTM and seven other parties.
This was the winning formula to get the 50+1 percent of the votes, following the Constitutional Court ruling. And, truth be told, without that bench, Chakwera and Chilima could not have a chance to sit closer, just the two of them, to talk and agree on a possible political union.
The rest, as they say, is history, as Chakwera and Chilima became President and Vice-President respectively.
Chakwera garnered 59 percent of the votes, against Mutharika’s 40 percent.
The question, then, can the bench find its way into some Malawian museum to tell the story of unity and resilience for political rights and freedoms?
My plea, therefore, then, is, whenever President Chakwera and his Vice, Chilima got themselves vexed against each other; whenever their political executive parasites try to separate them apart, they should always remember that bench.
President Chakwera and Vice President Chilima should always remember that, through that bench, Malawians got what they really wanted – change.
That bench is a legend. It changed the game, forever.
Bench, Oh bench!
That High Court bench, the bench that Chakwera and Chilima sat on, every day during the trial, is a cream.
Only that bench heard and know what the ‘driver’ and his ‘mechanic’ agreed. That bench, knows it all for it heard everything.
Bench, Oh bench!
“Vacate the bench of rest and play the game of the bests. Keep on marching; no more benching.” – Israelmore Ayivor – The Great Hand Book.
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