Albert Sharra

They say time flies and for the newly elected Malawi president, Dr Lazarus Chakwera, time is already racing against him. One thing is clear, Malawians are still waiting for the arrival of the highly touted new dawn, not as an inscription on paper, but a real change in the people’s lives, particularly the rural masses and the youths.

Since being sworn-in as Malawi’s sixth president on June 28, 2020, Chakwera has spelt out his ambitions for the country through speeches delivered during swearing-in and inauguration ceremonies, including the swearing-in ceremony of his maiden cabinet. In all these speeches, Chakwera, who is a renowned pastor, stresses his interests in promoting nationalism and nation-building. This was, however, expected. The former government led by Professor Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) fared poorly on this front.

Chakwera the “new bride”

Like a new bride, Chakwera took advantage of his inauguration ceremony speech which coincided with Malawi’s 56th Independence celebration on July 6, to underpin his promise for a new path for Malawi. In a well-written speech, which inspired many Malawians, the president promised to fight corruption, empower oversight and governance institutions, among others. What was more appealing, however, was how he explained how his government plans to empower citizens individually.

He said: “So long as I am President, I will insist that no new Malawi must be built except that which is built by Malawians. The collective ownership of our problems and collective participation in fixing them is the bedrock of our Tonse [together] philosophy.

“When we promise to create one million jobs, we do not just mean that we will create programmes to employ you, but also that we will challenge you to stop seeing yourself as a job seeker and start seeing yourself as a job creator.

“When we promise to ensure that every household can eat three meals a day, we do not just mean that we will give you cheap fertilizer to increase food production, but also that we will challenge you to work three times as hard in your fields as before.”

Reading through the lines, it was obvious that the speech dived deep to clarify one of the major promises made by the main partner, the United Transformation Movement (UTM), which before going into an alliance with Chakwera’s party and others, promised Malawians one million jobs within a year. With a youthful population, this promise carried with it thousands of votes which helped the Tonse Alliance to thoroughly defeat Mutharika whose government’s job creation philosophy rested in the community colleges project, a replica of an American initiative, but structured around graduating youths with technical skills, a concept that has not worked so well in Malawi so far.

To date, the pragmatism of the one million jobs promise remains contentious. Chakwera’s inauguration speech has only left job seekers musing about how to become a job creator in a land that has disappointed many potential citizens for years. How the new government will make this feasible is something everyone is waiting to see.

“Jobs for the boys”

Interestingly, hope still flies across the landlocked country. The Tonse Alliance has cultivated in the populace a sense of ‘faith’ and that things will change for the better. This is important, particularly that Chakwera’s tenure comes at a time when the country was stuck in stagnation and hopelessness. Since the dawn of democracy, of course, with an exception to some years of Bingu Wa Mutharika’s rule, political leadership in Malawi only gives hope to the few, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Fifty-six years since independence, Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world with an estimated 16.9% of GDP in 2019.

Interestingly, the call for change has been there in Malawi, but the ‘how to’ question has been a parable that even the ruling political party members have grappled with for many years. Even in the former ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the need for change by few members of the party is what lit the charcoal-burner that finished the Mutharika dynasty in 2020.

It all begun in 2018 after DPP founder, the late Bingu Wa Mutharika’s wife, Callista Mutharika, asked Bingu’s brother and DPP leader Peter Mutharika to retire from politics and pave way for the youthful leaders ahead of the 2019 elections. She was advocating for the candidature of Saulos Chilima, who was the Vice President to Mutharika then. The young Mutharika poached Chilima from the private sector to be his running mate during the 2014 elections. The combination saw DPP beating an incumbent President Joyce Banda. Chakwera who was representing Malawi’s founding party, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) for the first time, came out second.

Having failed to convince Mutharika not to contest in the 2019 elections, Callista and other senior members of the DPP quit the party and together with Chilima formed UTM. The party contested in an election for the first time in 2019 with Chilima as its torchbearer. The youthful politician came out third with 20% votes. Chakwera who partnered Banda came out second with 35% votes while Mutharika defended his ticket with 38% votes.

A sham election

However, while Mutharika thought it was over, Chakwera and Chilima challenged the election results in court. On February 3, 2020, five High Court judges sitting as the Constitutional Court annulled the 2019 presidential election results citing ‘widespread, systematic and grave’ irregularities, including significant use of correction fluid on results sheets. The court argued the correctional fluid affected the credibility and integrity of the elections. The court went on to order a fresh election within 150 days. It also clarified what ‘majority’ means in an election, a legal opinion which gave birth to the 50+1 system of electing a president in Malawi.

In a country where citizens vote by regions and tribal lines, it was obvious that none of the top four political parties could achieve a straight victory. This gave birth to alliance talks. The opposition went into a nine-party alliance under the banner Tonse (together) led by Chakwera as president and Chilima as Vice President. Mutharika partnered the first democratically elected political party, UDF, which is led by Atupele Muluzi, son to Bakili Muluzi, founder of UDF and Malawi’s first democracy elected president.

The opposition built a strong force against DPP. The rhetoric that decampaigned Mutharika was that of corruption and nepotism, particularly the fact that his government favoured people from the Southern Region, the DPP’s backyard. From ministerial appointments to heads of parastatals, people from one region dominated the positions. This strengthened the call for change and when Malawians came out in their large numbers to vote in the re-run presidential elections on June 23, 2020, they voted for a ‘change’ and gave Chakwera-led alliance a whopping 59.33% against Mutharika’s 39.93%.

Searching for change

The government has changed, yes, but maybe not the systems and political ideologies. This is true if read from some of the earliest decisions by the new government. For instance, when Malawians yearning for real change were shocked with Chakwera’s first cabinet released on July 8. The cabinet appointments drew ire from Malawians who took to social media to express their disappointment and disgust accusing Chakwera of appointing his family members and other individuals with a tainted past.

Chakwera’s running mate during the 2019 elections Sidik Mia is serving as the transport minister while his wife is deputy minister of lands. Ministries of labour and health have Ministers who are a brother and sister while the information Minister is sister-in-law to the deputy minister of Agriculture. Such a list cast doubt on many Malawians that the much-touted change was finally in.

Regionalism which dominated Mutharika’s era rears its ugly head in the new cabinet. Over 70% of ministers in the cabinet come from Central Region of Malawi, the stronghold of Chakwera’s political party.

Reacting to the cabinet on his Facebook page, Professor of Law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Danwood Chirwa, explicitly said: “This is probably the most incestuous cabinet since 1994. I would score it [cabinet] 30% with 50% being the pass mark”.

His strongest reservations were on that the cabinet includes individuals who are alleged to have had a hand in the historic 2012 corruption scandal dubbed ‘Cashgate’ in which huge sums of government money was siphoned through awards of dubious contracts.

“How can one talk of being serious about corruption, yet cashgate masterminds and beneficiaries are part of the government?” he wonders.

Of course, no matter how much the new government can fight corruption, sparing others just because they are part of Tonse Alliance is a thorn that can haunt the alliance in future. The mistake begins at its association with individuals who are alleged to have stolen public money or whose character is questionable.

Other critics have described the cabinet as a ‘Thank you’ cabinet. Of course in politics, those who contribute more are likely to get positions in the new government.

Despite the outrage, Chakwera defended his cabinet.

He said: “I believe that a just society is not only one in which familial, regional and marital ties do not qualify you for service, but also one in which those ties do not disqualify you for service.

“The only thing that counts is merit, but here I must hasten to add how merit is defined in our Tonse Philosophy, because far for too long, we have defined merit wrongly in this country. For far too long, we have reduced merit to academic credentials and social media populism, but I think it is now indisputable that we have many educated and popular people who are either untested or failures in political leadership.”

“To be Minister of Government is to accept the responsibility of national and political leadership. That responsibility should only be offered to someone on merit, where merit means a proven record to lead people effectively in producing results in the face of formidable odds and political complexities. No one in this cabinet does not pass that test.” 

Although the president justified his appointments, people’s reservations remain and will only erupt into another frenzy with the next mistake. What everyone knows is that the cabinet is a handsome reward to individuals and institutions that contributed to the journey that ousted Mutharika’s government. That will not be an issue if the cabinet delivers but will be a vindication if future appointments will be devoid of regional lines. Ethically, the five-month probation period given to the ministers will not address regionalism or favouritism image created by the appointments.

The fight against corruption – a daunting task

Fighting corruption is another issue that will haunt the new government if it takes a snail’s pace or uses it for political persecution. So far, few arrests have been made with the prominent one being that of Mutharika’s head of security, Norman Chisale, and other senior government officials on allegations that they had a hand in importing thousands of metric tons of cement duty-free using Mutharika’s name. 

However, the new government has a record to beat. Mutharika’s government started well in prosecuting cashgate cases but failed to finish the race during its five years in power. Most suspects are walking freely on the streets of Malawi and it is upon the new government to prove they are in for business.

It will not be easy, particularly that they took over the running of the state at a time COVID-19 is ravaging the country and the agrarian economy is staggering. Lockdowns which have helped to slow down infection rates elsewhere are faced by a legal challenge obtained by Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC). The country’s archaic laws also limit what the government can do in restricting public movements. Until a constitutional court case on lockdown is a concluded, nothing can be done. So far 67 people have died of the pandemic and scarier is the fact that over 223 health workers have tested positive of the virus and this is likely to collapse the response.