Remebering SKC: From corporate corridors to politics

Probably, the country’s worst nightmare since independence in July 1964. After a 24-hour search, the plane wreckage that carried Vice President, Saulos Klaus Chilima (SKC) to the funeral of former Attorney General and Justice Minister, Ralph Kasambara, was found on Monday, June 11, 2024 mid-afternoon in Chikangawa, Vipya Forest in Mzimba, with everyone on board dead. This included the Vice President, former First Lady Shanil Dzimbiri, and eight others. A sombre mood has engrained the nation, mourning one of the country’s most loved politicians.

Saulos Chilima, Mr Chakwera’s running mate, was also sworn in as vice-president at a ceremony in the capital, Lilongwe.

Born on February 12, 1973, Saulos Chilima came into the public limelight as the first Malawian Managing Director of Airtel Malawi and proved a marketing genius, especially during the Mr. Money cartoon brand. Eventually, some started referring to him as Mr. Money due to the popularity of the cartoon mobile money brand. But this was not going to happen for long as in February 2014, Saulos Chilima surprised everyone when he left the lucrative corporate job for politics. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Peter Mutharika, whisked Saulos Chilima from the busy corporate world to politics with many wondering why one would leave a well-paying job for politics, worse enough, to be a running mate for an opposition candidate.  


But Saulos Chilima had a dream. He proved to be a calculative risk taker, no wonder he rose to one of the highest corporate jobs in the country at a young age. Peter Mutharika and Saulos Chilima achieved the impossible when they won the May 2014 election at the expense of Joyce Banda’s People’s Party, and Saulos Chilima became the country’s fifth Vice President. With his boots on the ground, Saulos Chilima’s reputation grew as a performer, especially when he was delegated by President Peter Mutharika to lead Public Sector Reforms as well as disaster preparedness and response. The country grew to love him as a man who was always close to the people and would tread everywhere when it came to making things work.


But as we moved towards the May 2019 elections, DPP’s intraparty fighting put Saulos Chilima and Peter Mutharika at loggerheads. Some in the party wanted Saulos Chilima to contest for the party in the polls and not Peter Mutharika, accusing the latter of political passiveness. These change agitators wanted the party to be in the youthful hands of Saulos Chilima, and this broke the party apart. In response, the main establishment of the party started sidelining Saulos Chilima in both the party and government affairs to the point that he was stripped of his role in public sector reforms and disaster preparedness. This created a deep hole between Saulos Chilima and Peter Mutharika until June 2018 when Saulos Chilima formed the UTM party which initially started within DPP’s ranks as Chilima Movement.


The birth of SKC


UTM party was formed at a time when the country wanted more from Saulos Klaus Chilima who had now become to be commonly known as SKC, from his initials. When he was addressing the country in June 2018 as he was leaving DPP “to its owners”, SKC unknowingly opened a new political chapter in Malawi. In the speech, he talked of people like John Chilembwe – the nationalist killed by the British colonial government in 1915 – as one of the Malawians who listened to the call to serve, and save, his country. SKC was seeing himself in this line of service – his country was calling him for a greater role, and the people positively responded.


In July 2018, when UTM was being launched in Lilongwe, the country was at a standstill. Malawi was witnessing the expansion of SKC’s political dreams, a man they had known and admired as an achiever. Even so, a huge task lay ahead of SKC and UTM. In the political den were other strong and well-grounded parties like the ruling DPP and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). SKC and UTM were tasked to fight against these odds, and overstep DPP and MCP to the presidency. An impossible task, with a country waiting to see how the Chilima-led UTM machinery would do.


A thriller of a campaign!


SKC and UTM began with a political show like no other. From a marketing background, SKC and UTM became the most visible brands in the country. In no time, many cars were painted SKC and UTM. The party’s regalia spread all over the country and Malawi politics was painted red, UTM colours. When the campaign period was launched in March 2019, SKC took UTM to all corners of the country with passionate promises that stretched the imagination of the nation. He talked of the country having electric trains, for example. When some doubted him, he kept calling them to believe, a rhetoric that provided a break from parochial promises that had defined Malawi politics for long. This is how he partly did it:


Regional politics. SKC and UTM defied the entrenched realities of regional politics in Malawi. With MCP and DPP sharing the central and southern regions, respectively, as gardens for their votes, SKC was left to answer where his political base was, and he kept saying his base was Malawi. True to his words, the party indeed managed to gather votes from across the country, especially the swing northern region where SKC was loved beyond measure.


Campaign organization: It was hard to not admire UTM’s organization of its campaign. SKC was always on time during his rallies and would do several rallies in a day leaving people wondering as to what his body is made of. Further, from stages mostly made of wood, UTM came with steel stages and well-printed banners that in no time influenced political opponents to adopt the same. He had quickened the pace of political campaign in Malawi.


Media. For decades, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) was known to be a political mule for the ruling parties. During the May 2019 elections, the public broadcaster continued this trend. But SKC and UTM did not take this route as they went to private media houses as well as social media where it was reaching thousands of voters. In no time, MBC lost its monopoly of political narrative and all parties, including the ruling DPP also started broadcasting its rallies on the same platforms. Singlehandedly, SKC and UTM ended MBC’s dominance of political communication.


Mary Chilima. SKC’s beautiful wife, Mary, approached UTM’s campaign in 2019 differently from the spouses of other candidates. She was an elegant presence, and her fashionable dresses excited the minds of young voters who saw the couple as an embodiment of their future dreams. Mary Chilima famously released a rap song, Tikupatsani, which campaigned for her husband, telling Malawians that everything SKC campaigned for was going to be delivered, among others, 1 million jobs in a year.


Stage antics. SKC’s political antics during the campaign were also the talk of the town. He would walk distances with the people to a campaign venues. He famously ate Usipa – small fish – with market women. He would give people an opportunity to ask him questions during his stop-over rallies. He is also remembered for doing press-ups at a rally, an antic that won him both admirers and critiques.


In addition to his passionate appeal for Malawians to believe in themselves, this is what led to SKC and UTM becoming a huge political brand in the country in just 10 months. Even though he ended up garnering 20 percent of the vote, giving him a third position in the May 2019 election, SKC had moved mountains and sowed a faith like that of a mustard seed in many people’s minds.


Tonse Alliance – MCP and UTM


But as we all know, the May 2019 election was annulled on February 3, 2020 due to irregularities, and this necessitated the formation of the Tonse Alliance in March 2020, together with MCP, an alliance that won the June 2020 Fresh Presidential Election (FPE). The formation of the alliance also showed the political character of SKC. With UTM and MCP coming together – and seven other parties – the big question was who was going to lead the alliance for the FPE. SKC had been the country’s Vice President for six years and was an experienced marketer who had proven to be a deliverer.


However, he was leading a new party that was yet to have widespread grassroot support. On the other hand, MCP was with the inexperienced Lazarus Chakwera in leading government, but with a party that had strong and deep support. Both of these men had an equal claim to lead the alliance. But SKC shelved his ambitions and put his weight behind Lazarus Chakwera in an alliance that was as strong as one can imagine, one DPP and its alliance partner, the United Democratic Front (UDF), could not match. Tonse Alliance won the election, and SKC became the country’s Vice President for a second successive term under a different President.


Since June 2020, SKC has been loyal to President Chakwera even amidst a precipitating difference between UTM and MCP, especially on who was going to lead the alliance in the September 2025 elections. During a rally in Blantyre towards the FPE, SKC claimed that in the next year’s elections, he was going to lead the alliance, a promise that has shaped the alliance with the election nearing, especially UTM supporters of seeing SKC at the helm. However, some members of MCP distanced themselves from this agreement, with recently, President Chakwera himself advancing that he was going to contest for MCP in September 2025, directly dismissing SKC’s claim.


Loyal to President Chakwera, amidst a nation looking forward to SKC’s presidency: This is the political environment that existed until his death was confirmed on June 11, 2024, after the crash. In the last four years of his tenure, SKC never said anything regarding next year’s elections despite everything possible compelling him to, leading to the Nation Weekend of Saturday, June 1, 2024, asking: “What will unmute Chilima?”


“What will unmute Chilima?”


Nothing will unmute Chilima now that he has departed from us, and all we are left with are the wonderful memories of his daring character. Although he will never be around to unmute himself, his legacy will speak for him. He was a man ahead of his times, whose presence on the political scene stirred the still waters and made Malawians hope that their country would one day be better. This hope did not only rest on Chilima’s shoulders, but on President Chakwera as well. Together, they gave us a presidency that displayed unity and dignity despite the scare of MCP-UTM crashing towards the September 2025 election. But the two were a force that crisscrossed not only Malawi’s geography during the campaign but also the minds of the people that amidst political bickering, they still respected each other.


No wonder, President Chakwera was shaking with shock when he addressed the nation midday on June 11, 2024 that the Vice President and eight others had perished in the plane crash. He had lost someone who was with him for a good part of his political career, especially under such tragic circumstances.


Once again, what will unmute Chilima? Chilima’s legacy in Malawi’s history is now in the same breath as his inspiration, John Chilembwe, who despite the fatal colonial blow that ended his life, we still look up to him to this day as the embodiment of the Malawian spirit. The colonials muted John Chilembwe, but his legacy unmuted him. The same will forever be for Chilima.


Wonderful Mkhutche is a Malawian political scientist

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