Why has President Peter Mutharika of Malawi sacked General Vincent Nundwe?

General Nundwe (video via facebook)

Many people in Malawi are wondering why General Vincent Nundwe has been removed as Commander of the Malawi Defence Force (MDF), and replaced with Major General Peter Andrew Lapken Namathanga.

In an interview, General Nundwe said he was not aware of any wrongdoing that may have led to his removal, but he said it was the president’s prerogative to choose who led the army.

However, in a week where the president has refused to assent to bills that Malawi’s parliament passed a few weeks ago (those relating to the new elections to be held in May this year), and refused to sack the Malawi Electoral Commission commissioners, as recommended by the Public Affairs Committee, and when Mutharika had ordered the MDF to use force against protesters who plan to march to State House on March 25th, Media analysts, Governance experts and Political Scientists are saying the decision to fire Nundwe and his deputy are politically motivated.

My word to my successor is that they should always act according to the law

– General Vincent Nundwe

For those who have not been following politics in Malawi in recent months, General Vincent Nundwe has led the army through a time where it has dutifully and lawfully protected citizens from the lawless aggression of the Malawi police, during the protests which Malawi’s citizens have mounted against the government in recent months, calling for electoral justice against the fraud-marred May 2019 elections (which the Constitutional Court annulled in February due to widespread irregularities).

So Nundwe and the MDF are seen as heroes in Malawi, for their professionalism in protecting citizens and not allowing the MDF to be used as a tyrant’s tool that quashes peaceful protests against the regime – as has been commonly the case in many African countries that are ruled by despots.

Thus, if Nundwe was the preferred soldier’s choice to replace General Griffin Spoon Phri when he got appointed, what changed for Nundwe to be booted out? Did the same soldiers who wanted him in to lead them request the President that there be a change at the top? Did Nundwe do something wrong that was a grave breach of his duties to the constitution and to Malawi, or is Peter Mutharika merely looking for a partisan, compliant and spineless officer to push around, one who will try to force the MDF to do his bidding?

In these uncertain political times in the country, I think Malawians need to know.

And if there are no credible or convincing reasons why Nundwe has been removed, then the next government will have a duty to restore him to his role.

Looking at Peter Mutharika’s recent actions, and considering public anger against his unpopular government, especially in light of the constitutional court decision, the world’s eyes will be watching what the new leadership at the army does, especailly since Malawi is scheduled to hold fresh elections as directed by the Constitutional Court.

Minimally, Malawians will be expecting the army to uphold the constitution, and for the MDF to maintain the same level of professionalism and high standards which Nundwe and others before him presided over. And if not, Malawi will be yet again thrown into political chaos and public unrest. Especially since over the years, Malawi’s army has had a legacy of upholding the constitution, even when people outside Malawi expected otherwise. So a sudden change is likely to irk those who have been protesting against the may 2019 rigged election and will most likely work only to increase the intensity and magnitude of the protests. In 2012 for example, when the then president Bingu Wa Mutharika died, General Odillo, a Bingu appointee moved to uphold the constitution and prevent a coup by Bingu’s cabinet (which included Peter Mutharika), who had at the time conspired to prevent Joyce Banda (Bingu’s estranged Vice president at the time, but rightful second in command) from assuming the presidency, protesters only left the streets after there had been a peaceful and constitutional transition of power.

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Who’s idea was the Cash-filled Envelope?

Last Tuesday something curious happened at Sanjika Palace. Some Journalists and media personalities were invited to dine with president Peter Mutharika, and sometime towards the end of the dinner, blue envelopes purported to contain a booklet outlining the president’s vision on media freedoms were handed out to the guests. They opened them, and were surprised to find a pen, a blank notepad, and K50,000 (about US$100 ) in cash contained inside another envelope.

Then began the drama. What was the money for? Isn’t this bribery? Wouldn’t accepting it open a conflict of interest? Why were they not told about the gift prior to the dinner? Or when the invitations came? Why did the minister of information,Kondwani Nankhumwa, lie to them claiming the envelopes contained the president’s vision on press freedoms? Should they accept it? Can they return it there and then without offending the president? Should it be declared to their newsrooms, let alone to the public? Also, why in cash, why not a cheque – why does the whole thing appear like some secret thing?

In a poor country such as Malawi, I can imagine some of the journalists had a difficult moral judgement to make.

Some of the journalists decided to keep the money, including Raphael Tenthani, the BBC correspondent (they claim they will donate it to charity – to pay towards the medical bills of another journalist, Limbani Moya, who is undergoing a kidney transplant in India). One or two returned the envelopes that same night, but as can be imagined, the whole thing looked questionable. Among the journalists who kept the envelopes were some who decided that if they returned the money, palace officials would just share it amongst themselves, so they chose to keep the money and donate it to charity.

Over the last couple of days people on social media have debated the issue vigorously, claiming it was bribery, dismissing Peter Mutharika as corrupt. Comparing him to Joyce Banda and Bakili Muluzi. Very strong comments about the competency of the presidency have been made. Prominent Malawian legal practitioner and lawyer, Professor Dr. Danwood Chirwa who is a head of law at the University of Cape Town called the handing out of the envelopes crimes under Section 25B and 26 of the Corrupt Practices Act, and urged the journalists to return the money.

However, the question remains, who came up with such a silly idea?

Who was it that said, you know what we should do, let’s get some journalists together at Sanjika palace, lets give them some food and drinks, the president will make a speech, and answer some questions from the floor, then towards the end of the dinner, we’ll give the journalists $100 each? Who came up with that idea?

Although I doubt it, I’m inclined to ask: was it the president’s idea?

Or was it the minister of Information’s plan? Since he was willing to lie about it, maybe it was his idea? Was it concocted by one of the president’s advisers? If so the fool should be fired forthwith, because the gimmick wasn’t clever. It was stupid, and may have violated the law.

If he won’t be fired, then for his/her own self-respect, the architect of this scandal needs to quietly resign. The Mutharika government must stop churning out flawed gimmicks, as the ones we saw in the previous administration. These are the kind of things which give African politics, and African politicians a bad name. How can Malawi ever develop when we hold onto questionable practices, and when we are willing to violate our own laws, even at the highest office?

Further, what was the whole thing meant to achieve? Seriously, did Sanjika Palace really think that in the current polarised political environment that the issue wouldnt come out?

Remember how quickly Joyce Banda slipped down the route of bad decisions, like allowing the 100 days celebration to proceed at the expense of Independence Day celebrations? And how from there onwards it was all a list of disasters and flawed decisions. The massive devaluation of the Malawi Kwacha, South Korea Labour scandal, Jetgate, Madaonnagate, Cashgate…

Mr President, do yourself a big favour, please don’t go down that route.