Tembo says ‘only God is perfect’: Exclusive

A fortnight ago, a rank outsider, the Rev. Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, was overwhelmingly elected president of the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP). This signalled the end of an era for one of Malawi’s longest-serving politicians, John Zenus Ungapake Tembo. The 81-year-old political gladiator, who has been in politics since 1961, has been at the helm of the MCP since the death of founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda. So what will the future be like for the veteran politician?  BBC’s Raphael Tenthani sat down with John Tembo at his villa in Lilongwe. Excerpts:

So what next for John Tembo?

Here I am.

So what are you going to do next now that you are no longer at the helm of the MCP?

I am going to be myself, in my house. I will read, write and perhaps do some farming.

So are you telling me that you are retiring from active politics?

What I am telling you is that I am no longer president of the Malawi Congress Party. I retired from that, very happily so.

What will be your role in the MCP now?

I am a member of the MCP. I will always be a member of the MCP. I will give the party whatever support a member is expected to offer.

Tembo: I will always be MCP

What is your personal relationship with the new leader, the Rev. Dr. Lazarus Chakwera?

Very good. By the way, I did explain that prior to, during and after the convention that there is no bad blood – as some media people were alleging – between Pastor Chakwera and myself. I even give an example that when my wife was very ill here it was Pastor Chakwera who used to come, sometime with his wife, to pray with me for the recovery of my wife. It has always been like that. I have known him for a long time.

But in the run up to the convention there were these published stories that you actually rejected a cash donation from him while you accepted similar cash donations from the other candidates, like Chief Justice Lovemore Munlo, which kind of gives me the impression that you didn’t like him too much.

No, that is wrong; it is the media which didn’t like him too much. For me, I was going to have a meeting of the National Executive Committee here to discuss the submission of candidates prior to the convention. And Pastor Chakwera sent somebody. I think it was that somebody that mis-reported him because what she said was: ‘We understand you are meeting tomorrow in the National Executive to discuss candidates who are going to compete, maybe to choose a shortlist of them, and I have been sent by Pastor Chakwera to give you this money, K600, 000.’

I said: ‘I don’t receive money of that nature because if we are going to meet and one of the candidates is giving me money it will be misunderstood. So you take it back to him because there is a fund for the convention, there is somebody who is running that fund, that money can be given to the fund directly, not through me because I am going to preside over a meeting of the National Executive Committee.’ Simple, as simple as that.

Now, in the run up to the convention, your name was featuring as one of the contestants. So to say you retired maybe a misnomer, you were pushed out, you didn’t retire on your own terms. What do you say to that?

It depends on what you understand by ‘pushing’, ‘pushed’ and ‘retiring’. So far as I am concerned I have been president of the Malawi Congress Party and my term ended during the convention, not before.

But I was going to run as a candidate during the convention. I did inform – prior to that convention – the National Executive Committee that it was my desire to retire but the Malawi Congress Party National Executive Committee did not accept my intention to retire. They said: ‘No, you better run’. I said: ‘No, I will not run; I want to retire.’

Prior to the voting at the convention, during the opening speech, I also indicated that it was my intention to retire and I am referring the matter to the convention as suggested by the National Executive Committee. This is what I did.

But everybody knew as well as I did that the only way I could run was if the constitution of the Malawi Congress Party was amended, otherwise it will be running against the constitution of the Malawi Congress Party. So the convention accepted this view and said ‘no’ to the amendment of the constitution.

So when the convention overwhelmingly said ‘no’ to your standing, what does this tell you, what does this mean to your legacy as one of Malawi’s longest-serving politicians in the country?

It only means that I exercised my powers as president in a democratic, transparent form.

But some will say this means you over-stayed your welcome…

(Silence, no answer)

Well, after being in politics since 1961 and to have to leave the stage in such a way that people openly reject you, what does that mean to you as a politician?

As far as my term as president of the Malawi Congress Party is concerned, the people did not reject me; they only responded to my desire to retire. That’s what they did.

But the question was put: ‘Should we change the constitution to allow the Rt. Hon. Tembo to stand’ and the convention overwhelmingly said ‘nooo’, that’s a rejection to me…

No, sorry, it is not a rejection. Changing a constitution, amending a constitution, is not a rejection. But really when there is a question to it from the candidate himself to say: ‘I want to retire’ it cannot be taken as a rejection.

You have been in politics since 1961, a very long time indeed, now looking back do you have any regrets?

No, none.

Do you have some things maybe you would think looking back that you could have done better?

I think I have done as well as I could through out. Only God would be perfect but every human being has some things he does well, some things he doesn’t do well, that’s accepted.

Now back to your successor, tell me have you fully endorsed Pastor Chakwera as president of the Malawi Congress Party?

Of course! Absolutely! Not only endorsed, Pastor Chakwera is an elected president of the Malawi Congress Party and I am a full member of the party.

So as a veteran politician, how do you rate the MCP changes of bouncing back to power in next year’s elections?

Every party registered, let alone the Malawi Congress Party which is a foundation of politics in Malawi, hopes to win an election, the next election.

So if your prediction is right that the MCP will bounce back to power with Rev. Dr. Chakwera at the helm, yourself having attempted to be president of the country via the MCP not once but twice, can we say you were the stumbling block for MCP chances of regaining power?

(Silence again, no answer)

Lastly, the Right. Hon. Tembo, President Joyce Banda came to power by accident of fate after President Bingu wa Mutharika suddenly died in April last year, as a veteran politician what’s your rate card for her?

I think she is doing well. She started very well when she amended some of the parts of the Constitution, or powers or directions of the government which hurt people as directed by government, the previous government.

So she is doing very well. And look now the country is seeing a lot of changes. That is a good thing because people were complaining.

But she has only been in power for only one year now. We have to see how she performs in future. But as of now the country is peaceful, people are not fighting as is common in some countries.

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