26 August, 2013

Malawi Congress Party’s Resurrection? Exit John Tembo (Spent Force), Enter Dr. Lazarus Chakwera (Voice of Reason)

by Harvey C.C. Banda

The election of Rev. Dr. Lazarus Chakwera as Malawi Congress Party (MCP) President during the party’s convention held on Saturday, 10th August 2013 in the Capital City, Lilongwe, is good news for the party ahead of the tripartite elections scheduled for May 2014. Dr. Chakwera replaced long-time President, John Zenus Ungapake Tembo. The latter was, so to speak, a spent force in as far as party leadership is concerned, having failed to lead the party to victory during the 2004 and 2009 general elections. Chakwera out-smarted the other ten presidential candidates in a strongly-contested election. This article looks at MCP’s potential in the coming elections with the injection of Dr. Chakwera, who is politically-inexperienced, but a force to reckon with as far as leadership skills are concerned. It is worth noting that Rev. Dr. Chakwera is the former President of the Assemblies of God in Malawi. The article argues that the election of Chakwera marks the political resurrection of MCP having been politically dead for almost two decades. MCP has been in opposition since 1994.

Rev. Dr. Lazarus Chakwera (Photo: Maravi Post)

John Tembo was at the helm of the party for more than a decade largely through political maneuvering and not that he is a people’s favourite. In fact, within the party, there has been a lot of resistance against his leadership. Since 2009 or so, MCP Members of Parliament (MPs) have been calling for the ‘new blood’ (younger generation of politicians) to take over party leadership, with a view to taking the party to victory during the general elections. He has for a long time rejected such calls, claiming that those agitating for such change should ‘wait for their turn’. As a result of such dictatorial tendencies, MCP experienced a lot of defections of its members to other political parties, namely the United Democratic Front (UDF) then under former President Bakili Muluzi and currently led by his son, Atupele Muluzi, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The latter was formed in 2005 and led till 2012 by former President Bingu Wa Mutharika.

Consequently, the party which was mighty and formidable at the beginning of multi-party politics in 1994 was, actually, torn asunder because of these defections. It became practically dead, a perpetual opposition party, with little hope of ever taking over the government once again. Yet this is the party with the most structures in every corner of Malawi, including on the Likoma and Chizumulu Islands, compared to other shallow-rooted political parties. It is also a party solidly built on the popular four cornerstones, as espoused by its founder, late Dr. Kamuzu Banda: unity, loyalty, obedience, and discipline. Dr. Chakwera joins such a party at an opportune time with only eight months before the elections. The campaign period has not yet officially begun. In fact, one could argue that it would have been healthier if the convention were held some time back.

In his acceptance speech, Chakwera started with a prayer: “let us pray by singing the Malawi National Anthem as you know it is, in fact, a prayer”, exposing the reverend in him in the process. He showed that he is a visionary and practically-oriented leader, something which MCP has lacked during John Tembo’s reign. He kept on referring to the sound policies, for example, on agriculture, left behind by Dr. Banda – a sure foundation on which not only the MCP, but also the Government of Malawi must build.

It would be proper for one to argue that MCP’s leadership transformation will send shivers to the other political parties in Malawi, especially those that are seemingly not well rooted in as far as leadership is concerned. In such parties, the leadership has merely been imposed by its founders. Examples here are the UDF led by Atupele Muluzi, son of Bakili Muluzi, its founder, and the DPP led by Peter Mutharika, younger brother of late President Bingu Wa Mutharika.

In my view, Chakwera’s election to the highest position in the MCP should be food for thought for MCP itself and other political parties in Malawi. They need to realize that in a democratic dispensation, all you can do is to attempt to resist change, but when time is ripe you cannot prevent change from taking its course! John Tembo went to this convention with the intention to run for the third time. Delegates had to make a bold decision: “the constitution of the party (MCP) must be respected; no third term!” they agreed. As a result, his name was dropped right there, before elections began leaving eleven other contestants to battle it out. I personally find this embarrassing. I do not know about others.

John Tembo’s tragedy could have been avoided if we are to learn from history. During ancient Greece, Peisistratus met the people’s wrath and resistance despite himself being a benevolent tyrant: People preferred democracy over tyranny. If this lesson is too remote from the present, why couldn’t John Tembo learn from former President Bakili Muluzi’s foiled third term bid in Malawi in 2003?

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