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An Unchecked President in Malawi?

18 December 2010

There has been some comparison lately between President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi and the former dictator, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The comparison doesn’t emerge from thin air: Mutharika’s government has attacked critical Catholic clergy (the same civil society group that challenged Banda to transition to multiparty democracy in the 1990s); he continues to push for the ruling party’s next presidential nominee to be his brother, Peter; and Mutharika recently fired his Vice President from the ruling party (but not from office) — the last of these causing MPs of the ruling party (the DPP) to resign from the party.

Add to that a new fight between the President and the Malawi Law Society over procedures the government claims to be part of an audit of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC). Just yesterday, I saw a copy of the Malawi State House’s press release on the suspension of the MEC [gated]. In it, the State House says that the President has free will to suspend the officers of the commission and to require them to surrender their passports. (To give some context, an audit revealed 1.4B Kwacha or ~9.3M USD of the MEC budget is unaccounted for.) What I found really striking was how much power the government was recognizing in the challenge of the Malawi Law Society, given its belligerent language in the press release:

It is not difficult to see the malicious manner in which the focus of the Public is being deliberately diverted from the fact that this administration is taking steps to deal with a case of suspected serious fraud, to focusing on claims by individuals with private agendas, cloaked in the guise of the Malawian public, bent simply on scoring cheap political points…

…the Malawian public needs to understand that it is not illegal to suspend the entire Electoral Commission when serious fraud is suspected, and neither is it illegal for the government to withdraw passports from the members of the Electoral Commission. Any assertion whether by the Malawi Law Society, or anyone else to the contrary is an exercise in futility and an unfortunate attempt to mislead the Malawian Public.

In a clear betrayal of their sense of duty and patriotism, commentators appear to be more interested and ready to fault the government in taking steps that will ensure that this grave situation is addressed than to be alarmed at the fact that MK1.4 billion of the country’s much needed funds were unaccounted for. It would behoove such commentators to spend more of their time considering the seriousness of the matter at hand and seeking ways which could prevent the same in the future, than to simply jump on the critics bandwagon appreciating neither the Law nor the actual facts of the matter. Common sense surely dictates that if Malawians need to be represented in this matter, it should be in efforts to call the Malawi Electoral Commission into account and not in frustrating efforts to this end.

For media coverage on the government vs. Malawi Law Society feud, the Lilongwe Times and the Daily Times offer some reports.

Ph.D. Candidate and Malawi Political Science Researcher Boni Dulani suggests President Mutharika has always been this way, but was only inclined to show his true colors once he had secured his second term. Normally, I would expect elected officials to act differently in their final term of office, as they will no longer have an electorate to answer to. However, though Mutharika himself will not run for president in 2014 (constitution limits presidents to two terms in office), he wants his brother to win — and his brother has the same last name. What I find surprising is how Peter Mutharika isn’t trying to hold back some of his brother’s actions as they will undoubtedly hurt him at the polls in 2014. Certainly, some of what Bingu is doing has helped Peter’s candidacy (getting Joyce Banda out of DPP being the most helpful), but there’s a point at which these actions will paint Bingu as totalitarian, running Peter the risk of losing in 2014 because “Mutharika” is a dictator.

A journalist in Malawi (under the pen name Francis Chuma) writes a particularly scathing report, Malawi: a monarchy in the making?

In closing, I’ll just say this: his given name is Bingu Mutharika. He changed that to Bingu wa Mutharika. As president, he is referred to as His Excellency Bingu wa Mutharika. Somewhere in the past few years, “Professor” was thrown in the middle to extend his name to: His Excellency Professor Bingu wa Mutharika. In late 2009, he was anointed Ngwazi (conqueror of conquerors in Chichewa — a name also used by Banda, the former dictator) and he is now His Excellency Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika. I’m always skeptical of name/title-lengthening…

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