The age of another Mutharika in Malawi

He was, once, the consummate outsider. The first time Peter Mutharika got close to power was seven years ago—the then leader, Bingu his elder brother, had appointed him a presidential adviser on constitutional affairs.

His pressing job was to create legal tactics to save his brother’s minority government from the hovering cutlass of Section 65 and impeachment.

The interesting move at this point would be to note how Peter—who has been elected the fifth post-colonial President of Malawi—returns to State House to head a minority government that is more or less similar to the one he was an adviser for his late brother.

Malawi President-elect Peter Muthatrika and vice president Saulos Chilima
Malawi President-elect Peter Muthatrika and vice president Saulos Chilima

But the story, like Peter himself, is more complicated than one might think. The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) success is not a straightforward victory.

In an election defined by unprecedented levels of ‘anomalies and irregularities’ so much that it had to take the High Court time to consider a vote recount as recommended by Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), the stakes are high that Peter’s minority government will lead a completely polarised nation.

Yet optimists have high hopes. They see Peter as visionary and development conscious as his brother. But critics see him as the other side of his departed brother’s coin: tribalist, arrogant and an extremist.

But what kind of a person is he?

Sam Mpasu, Peter’s classmate at Dedza Secondary School in the 1960s, remembers him as a ‘quiet and studious young man’.

“He was just a quiet, brilliant young man. There is nothing much about him,” he says.

In one of the many interviews he has given to various radio stations, Peter told Capital Radio that he is ‘not outgoing’.

In the time he has been in the political limelight, there has been little known about him. Having been the president’s brother tipped too early as a successor, Peter’s public life was carefully managed.

So managed it was that some in the party complained that he is not engaging. For instance, in December 2011, 60 DPP members of Parliament (MPs) met in Lilongwe where they complained about his conduct. They argued that he is failing to ‘engage with them and is already behaving as an elected president’.

Scholar Martin Mazinga interpreted the 60 MPs gesture as a ‘glimpse of Peter’s leadership style of being detached from his people’.

Could his quiet and detached personality influence his leadership style?

The tragedy with Peter is that he is a politician with a shallow scope for one to gauge insights as to what kind of a leader he can be.

The nearest, of course, could be his conduct while leading the three ministerial positions he served between 2009 and 2012. The challenge, again, with this is that Peter hardly left footprints for an argument about his leadership style.

Until he was moved to the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs which he led was rocked with strikes and boycotts. Two pressing issues—ones that really called for his leadership mettle—emerged in the Education Ministry. One, the question of raising university fees, and two, the academic freedom saga.

The fees issue, the media reported, brought tension between Peter, who supported the hike, and his brother, who did not. The difference led to a sudden disappearance of Peter from the country for close to two months. During the academic freedom saga, Peter shrunk into oblivion. He could not even entertain media interviews.

While serving as minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, Peter’s daunting task was to restore the deteriorated relations with other countries.

Unarguably, given the scandals that rocked each and every ministry he headed and, again, how detached he was both in preventing and addressing them, the job of gauging Peter’s leadership style becomes very tricky.

That is why political scientist Michael Chasukwa warned that ‘voters do just risk hiring an incompetent leader if they are ignorant of the qualities of the candidates’.

“In a democracy, people are likely to vote for a dictator if they do not clearly understand the person’s qualities,” he told The Nation in 2011.

Yet despite that, Peter faces a divided nation searching healing and reconciliation.

If he governs the way he ran the campaign—from the centre—then he will be a darling to those he failed to win their vote. However, governing from the centre will lead to great disappointment within his party. They will find him elusive and frustrating much the same way the United Democratic Front (UDF) felt with Bingu after he got power in 2004.

If he will govern from extreme right, like his brother, he will find it tough.

One thing, however, is certain: Mutharika knows very well he has to change.

He has waited and fought for long to get it. Now he has the chance to help make our politics better and progressive. Welcome to another Mutharika age.

*This article was published in Weekend Nation newspaper

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