17 April, 2012

Exit Big Man Mutharika, Enter Big wo(Man) Banda?

by George A. Mhango

The events that have taken place in Malawi since 5th of April 2012 caught most by surprise. What started as a normal day in a struggling economy suddenly turned into drama, confusion and dilemma as the nation learnt through one of the prominent private radios that president Bingu wa Mutharika had collapsed while holding a meeting at the State House in Lilongwe (his official residence). He was then quickly rushed to Kamuzu Central Hospital, about 8km from his residence, where it was reported that he had a cardiac arrest. While the nation stood in shock, it was rather strange that State broadcasters proceeded with their normal programming as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, rumours and international reports started flying all over the country as well as in social networking websites that the president of Malawi had died. It was not until on 7th April 2012 that the government officially announced that Bingu wa Mutharika had died.

The events preceding the official announcement were very interesting though. It was blatantly clear that the old regime was trying to do last minute maneuvers in order to save their selfish political interests. In fact, it has now become an open secret that soon after Bingu’s collapse, the Cabinet began to conduct a series of meetings with an intention to circumvent the constitution and place Bingu’s younger brother, Peter, as president. With the blackout on state broadcasters regarding the state of the president, Malawians began to press for information. First to make the call was the former head of state, Bakili Muluzi who earlier in the day on 6th April 2012, wondered why government was not making a statement despite announcements by international broadcasters about Bingu’s death. He further called for the need to follow the constitution in managing the transition. His concerns were echoed by a joint statement by a coalition of opposition parties who warned the Democratic progressive Party (DPP) government that any attempts to rape the constitution would be met with stiff resistance.

But it was not until late in the night of 6th April 2012 at around 23:00 hrs, after immense pressure from the public, that finally the (then) Minister of Information flanked by some DPP gurus appeared on state television and radio purportedly to update Malawians on the condition of the Head of State. What was surprising, however, was that the whole statement had nothing to do with the health of the President but a vehement dismissal of the possibility that Joyce Banda, then the Vice President, could assume the highest office since she had ditched the party that elected her to that office(1). At this point it became more than obvious that Bingu’s lieutenants were ready to go for the onslaught. However, realizing that information about the demise of the head of state had circulated in the country through alternative sources, some members of DPP went on one of the private radios to uncover the scheme by senior DPP members to bypass the constitution in managing the transition. This led the Chief Justice, the Chief Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet and the Army Commander to expedite the transfer of power to Joyce Banda in order to heed the call by Malawians that the constitution should prevail.

Of course, the most important lesson that the transition in Malawi conveys is that peaceful transfer of power in Africa is possible. The fact that Malawians dislocated efforts of masquerading lieutenants of the former president in their bid to rape the constitution shows that Africa possesses the political agency requisite for the advancement of the cause of democratic deepening. Through the inspiration drawn from the Arab spring which was epitomized in the 20th July 2011 nationwide demonstrations, Malawi has demonstrated that post election power transfers can be done peacefully even in the midst of serious contestation. Viva Africa’s constitutionalism!

But again, this discussion will be incomplete if Malawi’s security sector is not acknowledged. The professionalism with which the Malawi Defense Force (MDF) conducted itself during this tricky power transition was by far unprecedented. I make this point considering how military juntas are fast overthrowing legitimate regimes in Africa on what I feel are trivial grounds. The MDF’s decision to quickly undertake their constitutional mandate to protect the residence(2) of Joyce Banda on 5th April and their relative swiftness in protecting state media houses was seen by many to be a prudent step by the Army Commander in order to safeguard the nation against the DPP machinery that was bent at fulfilling its clandestine agenda. Furthermore, the Chief Justice and the Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet made their positions clear that the constitution was going to be followed in the transition with the Chairman of the Malawi Law Commission emphasizing that if the president was incapacitated, the Vice president was supposed to assume office.

Nevertheless, despite a general sense of relief from the economic and governance ills resonant with the Bingu regime, important questions remain in the minds of ordinary citizens and experts alike. These stem from the fact that the nation is yet to unshackle itself from the tentacles of patronage politics considering that the tactics of these politicians have been the same overtime. Joyce Banda is a product the UDF political machinery where Big Man Muluzi mentored Big Man Mutharika. This raises concerns about the safety of the new president in a political system that subsists on the disbursement of favors to recycled politicians who sustain their careers by aligning themselves with the ruling party-of-the-day. Such politicians, who cannot stand the smell of opposition politics, are ready to defect to government even without seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate. Interestingly, soon after the official announcement of Mutharika’s death, and the ascension of Joyce Banda to the presidency, a few dozen DPP MPs and Cabinet ministers have announced their willingness to work with the new president’s People’s Party (PP). This shows their temporary allegiance to Mutharika in that, even as the country is still in the period of mourning the departed president, these politicians are busy realigning their allegiance just to safeguard their interests. It is this ‘politics of the belly’ that should begin to worry the nation if Malawi is to successfully move towards serious governance reforms. Otherwise, Joyce Banda risks becoming another big patron in Malawi’s politics as long as she is surrounded by the same opportunistic kingmakers. The irony is that the presidents that have served in democratic Malawi have always performed very well in their first term of office and messed up in their second term. Remember that patrons are made and not born. That said, we can only hope that the spirit of constitutionalism that has prevailed during the transition can continue to shape the culture of citizenship in Malawi so that the nation remains vigilant in safeguarding these hard-won gains.

(1)In Malawi, both the president and the Vice President are elected on the same ballot such that it is not possible for the president to fire his/her deputy.
(2)All along The Police Service was the one responsible to security at the Vice President’s residence

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