There is a little known African proverb which says Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.
It’s a metaphor which has been interpreted to mean people can achieve great things as a group rather than as individuals even when faced with danger; its the classic proverb meant to encourage collective action against innumerable or otherwise monumental challenges, even when there is danger (symbolised by the crocodile) and an obstacle or uncertainity of large proportions (i.e. the river).
But the metaphor can also be invoked to mean if someone undertakes an action together with a majority, they are unlikely to face the wrath of the masses (symbolised by the crocodile) sometime down the line since when making the decision, the person didn’t think only about themselves but took the decision (i.e. crossing the river) together with the crowd.
However, the kind of ‘crowd’ (and more generally partners) one chooses to mingle or intertwine themselves with when faced with a challenge matters.
While some crowds can elevate you, and propel you to greater heights far beyond your original standing, other partnerships can pull you down or even destroy you altogether (‘feed you to the crocodiles’). Knowing one from the other can be the difference between survival and catastrophe.
Malawi has recently experienced a monumental and historic moment in its democracy. In a landmark judgement, Saulos Klaus Chilima & Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera v Arthur Peter Mutharika & Electoral Commission, a unanimous bench of the High Court of Malawi sitting as a Constitutional Court nullified the country’s May 2019 elections and ordered that fresh elections be held in 150 days. Malawi is the second African country to nullify a presidential election, after Kenya. The court further held that a proper interpretation of section 80(2) of the Constitution of Malawi requires that presidential candidates garner 50% + 1 votes to be duly elected, effectively striking down the first past the post system for presidential elections.
However, now that the Constitutional Court has clarified the 50% +1 issue, it means it will now be difficult for any political party to win an outright majority in an election. It means parties must enter into alliances to be able to form a government, as is the case in many other countries around the world.
Critically, it also means Saulos Chilima and his United Transformation Movement (UTM) party will most likely become the kingmakers. This gives him a lot of influence because it means whoever he decides to work with will have to offer concessions or policy promises which appease the UTM block, which only has 4 MPs in Malawi’s 193 member Parliament.
There has been speculation that Saulos Chilima is open to working wth the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Peter Mutharika, the same party from which he resigned in 2018. In particular, several sources have told me that senior advisers around Chilima think it is feasible and not preposterous for UTM to get into an Alliance with DPP to contest the upcoming fresh elections, which the Constitutional Court ordered should be held within 150 days of its judgement.
Mind you, this is the same DPP which has been called by some Malawians as “our common enemy”. It is the Same DPP which has presided over numerous corruption cases, over accusations of nepotism and cronyism; a government that tried to intimidate those protesting in the streets and labelled them terrorists, shielding police officers when they committed sexual assault and raped women and girls in Msundwe. The DPP government has abandoned our hospitals in Malawi as people die because of inadequate medical care and lack of medicines while party cronies swim in unexplained wealth, and can afford medical attention abroad; this is the party that said nothing regarding an attempted bribery of the judges presiding over the Constitutional Court case – resulting in an unknown magistrate quashing the warrant of arrest of one of the suspects of the bribery (later the warrant was restored by a High Court Judge).
But most of all, the DPP government has presided over a corrupt, rotten and unprofessional electoral body, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) which the Constitutional Court revealed conspired with DPP to defraud the people of Malawi, of a free and fair election.
Is that really the kind of party Chilima now wants to associate, let along re-align with?
When Saulos Chilima left DPP, he insinuated many things about his old party’s excesses. Among the things he said were the following words, which many thought pointed to the rot within DPP. In an interview with Reuters News Agency, Chilima said: “I have been vice president for the last four years. I’ve had no support within to fight corruption, so the best way is to run for the highest office and then take corruption head-on”
I have been vice president for the last four years. I’ve had no support within to fight corruption, so the best way is to run for the highest office and then take corruption head-on
So contrast those words with the murmurs that a UTM – DPP alliance is still on the cards, and it’s easy to see why some of his supporters are livid.
Whether he realises it or not, this is the moment when ‘the dark side’ attempts to coerce an upstanding leader who up until now has made more right moves than wrong ones; this is the moment dark forces attempt to seduce someone into lowering their political standards against their better judgement, with potentially catastrophic consequences; a wanton and reckless decision devoid of any wisdom or forethought, one that would destroy their reputation, including any good fortune, high esteem held or respect the public had of them.
Here, a bit of context is necessary in that most of the people around Chilima have never held political office, either as elected representatives, or by being appointed to an official role besides an elected representative. So you’d think some of the advice they give will at best be taken with a pinch of salt.
But Chilima’s predicament is not unique to him or indeed Malawi. Many other leaders throughout history and in literature have been faced with challenging situations of one type or another.
This is the moment narrated in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, when Jesus no doubt exhausted and hungry from fasting forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, is taken by the devil to a very high mountain and showed all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. The devil says to him in Mathew 4 verse 9: “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” to which Jesus replies: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only”
When Geroge W. Bush was president, the unholy cabal of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other hawks convinced the malleable Bush with feeble if not dodgy intelligence that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). A decision to go to war led to the deaths of over 300,000 Iraqi civilians, (500,000+ people according to other estimates[Washington Post]) and forever labelled ‘Dubya’ , as he was nicknamed, as the US president who took the US into a phoney war. Not only did the Iraq War completely destroy large parts of Iraq, but it spurred hatred against the US in the region, and directly led to the rise of extremist groups, including that known as ISIS.
This is the moment Nick Clegg, former leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats Party made the ultimate political error by allowing the UK’s Conservative Party under David Cameron (with whom the Liberals were in a coalition government, following an election that produced a hung parliament) to overrule his most important policy commitments on University Tuition fees; a mistake so grave it angered his party’s core supporters who punished the Liberal Democrats at the next election (held in 2015); his party’s MPs were fumigated from parliament like rats flushed out of a rat hole. They lost a whopping 49 seats and Clegg resigned as leader!
This is the moment in July 2011 when faced with demonstrations in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Karonga, Bingu Wa Mutharika ordered a crackdown instructing riot police to fire teargas and live bullets in confronting them, leading to the deaths of 18 people. Malawians never forgave Bingu for that one single act.
It is akin to the moment Aung San Suu Kyi, once celebrated internationally as a champion of democracy, ignored widespread allegations of mass murder, rape and forced deportation in Rakhine state in Burma, and did little to act and protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims, even after a UN fact-finding mission investigated the allegations and found compelling evidence that it said the Burmese army must be investigated for genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.
Malawians have been taken for fools for a long time, and their peaceful nature and hopeful trust in strong-men (“abiggie”), abused by politicians of all colours; the kind who make false promises (“I will turn Malawi into Germany“) that can’t possibly be fulfilled.
But if there is one certain thing the recent protests in Lilongwe and across the country have shown, it is that Malawians will no longer be taken for fools. Going forward, no one will take the people of Malawi for granted anymore: Not donors, not foreign election observers, not local political parties, not local party leaders, not chiefs, not foreign investors, not Chinese investors …. NO ONE!
So, whatever Saulos Klaus Chilima decides to do now, whether to listen to the blue imp perched on his left shoulder whispering falsities into his left ear, or whether to heed the red imp on his right shoulder, he can be certain without a shadow of a doubt of one thing: that the Malawian people are watching his every move. And that what he does next will most-definitely be his legacy that will define him forever.