Question: who decided to make Dr Hastings Banda life president? It was Aleke Banda who championed the idea. A lot of you did not know that, did you? I am sure you thought Dr Banda declared himself life president. I did not know either until earlier today. You will also be surprised to know that it was the people around him, not necessarily Dr Banda himself, who decided that the Malawi Congress Party should be the only party in the country.
Here are some more interesting nuggets I learned today from my friends at nyasanet forum: Dunduza Chisiza suggested that the title ‘Ngwazi’ be bestowed on Dr Kamuzu Banda. Mr Chisiza chose this title in memory of the historic Kambondoma ‘Ngwazi ya baHenga’ Mhango. The title ‘Ngwazi’ is believed to be a Ngoni or Tumbuka word coming from the verb, ‘kugwaza’, which means ‘to have done something of merit’. In short, the title ‘Ngwazi’ means ‘Victor’ or ‘Conqueror’ or ‘Winner’.
Dr Banda eventually turned into a dictator. In fact some people believe he is the worst dictator on record in southern Africa. Under his leadership, dissent was stifled and opponents killed. A lot of things contribute to the making of a dictator, primary of which is the ambition of the subject himself. But there is no question that citizens also have a significant role in the making of the dictator. Nobody knows how much the bestowal of titles like ‘Ngwazi’ and ‘life president’ contributed to the making of Dr Banda the dictator. Nobody knows how much these accolades allowed Dr Banda to maneuver himself into the supreme leadership of the land.
Malawi is especially vulnerable to dictatorship because we are a culture that traditionally requires a dictatorial leadership. If we do not have a dictator we will make one. And, Godknows, after we have successfully turned a good leader into a dictator, we always sit back and complain as to why ‘Africa seems to be full of dictators’. History shows that we have tried to influence every president we have had to turn himself into some form of a dictatorship.
Dr Bakili Muluzi took over from Dr Kamuzu Banda in 1994. There is no question that Dr Muluzi was a real democrat. Much of the democratic culture we enjoy today in the country was entrenched during the presidency of Muluzi. But even Muluzi the democrat decided he was going to try for a third term. What happened? Because people around him told him that he was so special that if he left the presidency nobody will be able to fill his shoes. It is believed that much of this misguided advice came from the people of Chiladzuro, Machinga and Karonga. After 10 years of being surrounded by people who do nothing but praise you, you start believing in your own superiority. So Muluzi succumbed to this idea and started sending strong signals that he intended to stand for the presidency for the third time.
Aleke Banda, who now had the benefit of experience, opposed Muluzi’s third term bid. It was because Muluzi did not like those, in his own party, who opposed the third term bid that he picked an outsider to succeed him. That is how we got President Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bingu wa Mutharika started so well as president but ended on a bad note. Sometime during his first term in office he fell out with his vice president, Dr Cassim Chilumpha. His Minister of Justice Ralph Kasambara advised him to ask the courts to declare that Dr Chilumpha had ‘constructively resigned’; a very strange and interesting phrase, which was probably a Malawian invention. Mutharika failed to get rid of Chilumpha until the 2009 elections.
Historians will for a long time debate why Bingu Mutharika changed through his years at the helm of the country. Some have speculated that the death of his beloved wife removed the much needed balancing force in his life; yet others point to the bad advice from people around him which started from around the time Chilumpha was being forced to constructively resign.
I am sure by now you have noticed something very interesting in this short narrative of our presidents’ history in office. During Kamuzu’s time it was easy for people around the president to give the president too much power and cement his dictatorship. However from Muluzi onwards it has become difficult, perhaps almost impossible, for presidents to accumulate power. Why?
The answer can be found in that unique document called ‘The Constitution’. We now have a robust constitution that protects the people and ensures separation of powers in government. Under this constitution, no branch of government can on its own grab powers from other branches and consolidate it in its hands. Our constitution is working fine and we must do everything to protect it.
It therefore comes as a surprise that the current Minister of Justice and Attorney General Hon Ralph Kasambara would be telling the nation that Malawi will be better off if a president is allowed to fire the vice president. It is not a coincidence that Hon Kasambara was also the one who advised Bingu to fire Chilumpha through ‘constructive resignation’.
I learned long time ago that nothing in politics is unplanned. Recently, when US Vice President Joe Biden told a TV network that he would prefer to allow gay people to be married, few political experts doubted that his boss’ position on the subject must be similar. And as it turned out, they were correct. Never downplay whatever top government officials say in public – even if they claim to speak in personal capacity. It could be that they are sending out signals to test people’s reaction on an important subject.
So as Mr. Kasambara sends out these signals, Malawians must take him seriously. It is ironic that after Malawi has just passed through an agonizing transition period that only succeeded thanks to the constitution, the government should start thinking of tampering with the very document that saved the day. Without this law, Joyce Banda would have been fired as vice president, and who knows who would be in charge today! The constitution saved the nation. The checks and balances are working!
Why does Mr. Kasambara believe that having a president fire the vice president would be better for the country? What is it that did not work properly in the past that will be corrected if the president is now able to fire the vice president? The nation must demand answers to these questions.
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