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Uncertainty Reigns as Malawi Loses a President

Uncertainty Reigns as Malawi Loses a President

Photo by Michiel Van Balen

For the past year, far from the front pages of Western newspapers, the southern African country of Malawi has faced increasing political and economic turmoil, mainly at the increasingly oppressive hand of President Bingu wa Mutharika. So when news hit Twitter yesterday that the septuagenarian president had collapsed from a massive heart attack, it was understandable that many Malawians tweeted the news with happiness. But as the reports between news agencies started to conflict – at the time of this writing, local news sources are reporting that Mutharika has died while Western news agencies are reporting he is in critical condition – a mood of uncertainty took over as people started to take in the Mutharika’s complicated legacy and the real possibility that the turmoil is very far from over.

There was a time when news of Mutharika’s demise would have met a very different response. When he was elected to office in 2004, it was hoped that his high education and World Bank credentials would help boost a country better known for severe poverty. The election itself was seen as an important step in consolidating Malawi’s democracy and Mutharika’s approach of fiscal responsibility and economic reform pleased foreign aid donors. Supported by generous aid and blessed with favorable harvest conditions for several years, he encouraged food security with wide subsidies for small farmers which lowered the number of Malawians living under the lowest poverty level. Thus, when he ran for a second term with Vice President Joyce Banda in 2009, the ticket easily won the election by a wide margin. For a while, the fairy tale continued. In January 2010, Mutharika announced that the once food dependent nation would send 150 tons of rice to post-earthquake Haiti and became the first leader of Malawi to chair the African Union, both points of pride for many Malawians. But even as some lauded the progress Malawi had made, others warned it might not be as golden as it seemed.

Poor harvests in late 2010 along with the continuing consequences of the global economic crisis and declining exports soon started to impact Malawi’s economic success story as the population struggled under growing inflation and significant rises to the cost of living. Mutharika began to falter politically too as he tried to groom his brother, Peter Mutharika, to succeed him in the presidency over his vice president, leading him to fire Banda from her position in the ruling party and try to oust her from the vice presidency in December 2010. Although the courts upheld the constitution and prevented Banda’s dismissal from the government, she was left out of the most recent cabinet and her newly formed opposition People’s Party has faced numerous crackdowns by the government.

Yet all this merely marked the calm before the storm. Crackdowns on the press and freedom of assembly increased in the first six months of 2011 but major protests would not come to the streets of Malawi until July when, like so many other protests movements last year, they were met with a heavy hand by the government. In three days of protesting, police killed 19 demonstrators and injured hundreds more. Although Mutharika appealed for calm, the cycle of pro-reform protests being met with a harsh government response and new draconian laws became common. The result has been a significant drop in Malawi’s international rank in human rights, press freedom, and political freedom leading to suspension of much needed aid from Britain and the US.

With that background, it is understandable that some people treated the news of Mutharika’s apparent death with relief. Whether Mutharika is dead or alive, it appears clear that he will not be able to continue to perform his presidential duties. Malawi’s constitution is clear on the line of succession; Banda should assume the presidency. But as she is no longer a member of the ruling party and does not have the support of the cabinet or the parliament, it is unclear if this will happen. Even if Banda does take office, how long she will choose or be allowed to stay is debatable.

With elections not scheduled until 2014, Malawi is now facing a completely unclear political future with a legacy of new laws and police methods that firmly place the security of a few over the rights of most. In other words, everything is on the table. As a result, Malawi may be facing its biggest challenge yet if it doesn’t want to lose all the progress it has made since establishing multi-party democracy in 1994.

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UPDATE #1 – The drama deepens

A day later and international news agencies are now reporting that Mutharika has died as confirmed by unnamed medical staff and cabinet members. However, the Malawi government isn’t giving it up that easily. The official position of the government remains that Mutharika is in critical condition.

Then there is the small issue of the constitution. Banda, Malawi’s Chief Justice and civil society groups all called for a smooth transition as laid out in the constitution which would give Banda the job. News also came that most of the cabinet agreed to back Banda. But there are members of the cabinet who disagree. At a press conference late in the day, Malawi’s Minister of Information, Patricia Kaliati, claimed that not being a member of the ruling party made Banda ineligible to succeed to the presidency and it was up to the cabinet to decide how to proceed. She was joined by the ministers for health, sports and local government. Again, they declined to give the condition of Mutharika but claimed that there was no need for Banda to take the office as “there was no vacancy.” There are also rumors that several ministers are seeking an injunction to prevent Banda from swearing into office, although it is unclear if actual papers have been filed with any court.

It should be noted that the president and vice president are directly elected by population and there is no mention in the constitution of party affiliation impacting the right to stay in office or give grounds for impeachment. This is not stopping them from making the argument, but given the wide support Banda appears to have, it appears unlikely that the courts would uphold any attempt to block her from assuming the presidency unless circumstances drastically change. However that does not mean that a protracted power struggle couldn’t destabilize Malawi further. As a young democracy, how this constitutional crisis plays out could have lasting ramifications for the country’s democratic prospects.

Finally, new details have emerged about the chaotic hours following Mutharika’s collapse. Andrew Evans of National Geographic offered a firsthand account of life in Lilongwe as news broke of the president’s death and the general lack of sadness over his demise. Also, medical sources from Kamuzu Central Hospital where Mutharika was treated have cleared up the mystery about why he was flown to South Africa even after it was clear that he could not benefit from further treatment. Apparently the power shortages Malawi has been suffering through for months meant that the state hospital lacked the basic electricity to keep his body refrigerated, let alone allow a proper autopsy to be performed. That is a pretty long fall from Mutharika’s days at the World Bank and yet oddly seems fitting for the end of his autocratic reign over Malawi.

UPDATE #2 – Start of a new era

Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s new president on April 7. She becomes the third female head of state for Africa after Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

Banda has an impressive resume as a women’s right advocate and is responsible for raising the profile of gender issues throughout the country. However while she remains a popular figure regardless of the tumultuous politics she has been involved with over the last two years, there are still doubts about whether she will be able to navigate the economic crisis Malawi finds itself in.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa