The Death of a Dictator: Malawi's Tortured Political Transition

No comedian could conjure up such a political circus. It could only be scripted by an utterly bankrupt government, by an irredeemably shameless, crass, corrupt, and vile cabal desperate to cling to power at all costs, damn the constitution, damn the country. And so they refuse to announce the death of a president, a much-despised and hated dictator, even as the entire world’s media announce his death. On the streets and in the blogosphere few in the country and the diaspora mourn his death. Indeed, many openly celebrated the news as some kind of divine deliverance in this Christian Easter season. That is the political tragicomedy that has unfolded in Malawi over the past two days. 

Yesterday morning, the octogenarian tyrant, 78 year old President Bingu wa Mutharika, suffered a massive heart attack. He was rushed to hospital in the capital city of Lilongwe, where efforts to resuscitate him failed. What followed can only be described as macabre even by the fiendish imaginations of some of our continent’s notorious power-hungry political elites. For the rest of the day, the ruling party’s inner clique conspired to buy time, to lie to the nation, to the world, by preparing to send the President’s dead body to South Africa apparently for medical attention, so stated the bland official announcement. 

In reality, they wanted to regroup, to seize power. It was also a damning, if sadly befitting farewell to the reviled, failed president: so severe is the medical and energy crisis in the country that the local hospital could not conduct a proper autopsy or keep the body refrigerated. Thus, belatedly in death, the president finally encountered the collapse of social services that he and the political elite rarely have to deal with. As social services have collapsed, members of the tiny elite can afford to fly to South Africa for medical attention and educate their children abroad. The President’s ignominious end should serve as a warning to them, to rebuild and sustain local social services if nothing else for their own good. 

Mutharika: The Dictator is dead

By the time of writing, no official announcement has yet been made of the President’s death within the country. But of course everyone knows he is dead. What Malawi’s pathetically myopic leaders fail to realize is that it is no longer possible in today’s world of instant communication, of Facebook and tweeter, of global television broadcasts from CNN to BBC World to Aljazeera to numerous regional African media networks, to keep such momentous news from the public. They are living in a world that is long gone, a world where once the hapless masses could be kept blissfully uninformed. 

The official silence is ominous in so far as it indicates that a powerful clique within the ruling party is desperately and despicably trying to prevent the Vice-President, Ms. Joyce Banda, from assuming office. They have apparently been meeting since the President’s death to plan their seizure of power, which would amount to a coup. The Malawi constitution is very clear: in the event of the President’s incapacitation or death, the Vice-President takes over. This is non-negotiable.  The problem is, from the view of the ruling party, the Democratic People’s Party, a year after the 2009 elections the President and the Vice-President fell out. In her pathetic press conference today, the Minister of Information claimed Ms. Banda cannot assume the presidency because she quit the DPP and formed another party. By that logic, President Mutharika should have lost the presidency when he quit the ruling United Democratic Front under which he run and was elected to set up his own  party after he fell out with his predecessor, President Muluzi.

The cause of the fallout between President Mutharika and Vice-President Banda dogged and drowned the Mutharika Presidency. The President was determined to be succeeded by his younger brother, Peter wa Mutharika. Vice-President Banda objected. When she was kicked out of DPP, she proceeded to form the People’s Party, but she was effectively sidelined from all official functions. Predictably, as the President’s dynastic ambitions became more evident to the population and the international community, and opposition grew, the more unpopular and authoritarian the President became, while the opposition including the Vice-President rose in popularity. This resulted in the mass protests of July 2011, in which 18 people were killed, the worst massacre in postcolonial Malawian history.

Public disaffection against President Mutharika’s incompetent dictatorship, which deepened as the country went into a stunning economic tailspin of skyrocketing inflation, widespread shortages of basic commodities and fuel, and crumbling infrastructure, led to growing calls for change. A few weeks ago the much-respected Public Affairs Committee, a coalition of civil society and religious organizations, called for the President to call a referendum or resign within three months. The beleaguered, but arrogant autocrat belligerently dismissed the calls as he has done against all criticism from friends and foes. In fact, he responded by accelerating the arrests of opposition leaders, and further suffocating Malawi’s shrinking democratic space.

President Mutharika’s rapid descent into authoritarianism after the 2009 elections can be attributed to many factors rooted deep in his personal and political biographies, as well as the nature of the country’s political class, and its institutional environment and arrangements. His dynastic ambitions reflected both the advances and limits of Malawi’s democratization. A third term was ruled out because former President Muluzi had foreclosed that option following his failed unconstitutional third-term bid. Ironically, Bingu wa Mutharika, who President Muluzi saw as a pliant successor, benefitted and learned from the latter’s failure. He sought to be succeeded by his own brother.

Undergirding whatever motivations for personal and political grandiosity the President may have harbored, surely he was also inspired by the need to protect his ill-gotten wealth. Within a few short years in power, this man of previously modest means (at one time he operated a taxi to make ends meet) became fabulously wealthy. This wealth was certainly not accumulated from his presidential salary. So did the cronies around him. It is this primitive accumulation he sought to protect through dynastic succession, and which the few beneficiaries of his regime are determined to protect at all costs. 

What is disheartening, but not so surprising, is that the official opposition parties have been remarkably silent over the past two days. This reflects the deeply fractionalized and unprincipled nature of the Malawian political class. In so far as Vice-President Banda is the only likely winner of any constitutional transition, the other political parties and even members of the ruling DPP, are busy hedging their bets until  the likely trajectory of the new political dispensation becomes clearer. Many will abandon their highly personalized parties and join the new President’s party as happened after 2004 when President Mutharika left the United Democratic Front that had sponsored him. 

In the meantime, there are reports that civil society organizations including the Malawi Law Society, former President Muluzi, the Chief Justice and some military leaders, as well as the major western countries including the United States and the United Kingdom are calling for a quick transition of power to Vice-President Banda, which will make her Africa’s second female president. Such calls must be heeded. Any other transition will amount to a coup and must be vigorously resisted by the people of Malawi, and should not be recognized by the Southern African Development Community, the African Union, the Commonwealth, and the United Nations. Indeed, those plotting such a coup must be sanctioned and brought to justice. 

President Joyce Banda will have her work cut out for her. She has to heal a deeply troubled and divided nation. She must revive the economy. She must restore democratic governance. She must revitalize Malawi’s external relations. She must reclaim Malawi’s place in the trajectory of a rising Africa. This is a tall order indeed. It will require surrounding herself with competent, honest ministers and advisors. It will be hard, but she must resist Malawi’s perennial pitfall of rewarding political prostitution and recycling old, corrupt, and discredited politicians whose only fidelity is to alleviating their personal poverty not national poverty. It means upholding the division of powers between the three branches of government—the presidency, parliament, and judiciary—and respecting the independence of the media and indispensable role of civil society. 

Rebuilding relations with the international financial institutions and western governments that have historically provided large amount of development and budgetary assistance, whose withdrawal since 2010, sent the economy into a debilitating economic crisis can only be a temporary measure. For its long-term future, Malawi needs a bold vision of sustainable development befitting the successful economies and opportunities of the 21st century, at whose heart must be the development of the country’s human resources. 

Such a future is only possible for this stunningly beautiful country with its hard-working people if the transition from the authoritarian and inept regime of late President Mutharika to President Joyce Banda is handled well. Otherwise Malawi is doomed to years of prolonged conflict and poverty. That is why a coup of any type must not be allowed to succeed.

, is Presidential Professor of History and African American Studies, and Dean, Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, USA.


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