What to make of the violence in Karonga?

Several people have been injured in the political violence in Karonga

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There has been a spite of violent incidents in the run-up to the Karonga Central by-election, which takes place on the 10th of this month. People have been hacked by unknown criminals and political flags uprooted. There have been at least 8 cases reported and as is usually the case with these things, the blame-game has begun.

UTM supporters say the violence is perpetrated by MCP supporters, and that consequently it shows that MCP as a political entity has not changed from the violence that defined it during the days of Kamuzu. But MCP denies this ‘inflammatory language’, and says there is no evidence that its supporters were responsible, and in fact some MCP supporters have been wounded recently in the clashes.

But what is driving it?

Indeed, both the current leaders of MCP and UTM have in the past denounced political violence and have said it has no place in a democratic state. Two days ago, MCP’s Secretary General and Eisenhower Mkaka, who is also Minister of Foreign Affairs, strongly condemned the violence and escalating political tensions.

Last Saturday, at a Mulptiparty Liaison Committee meeting, all the 5 contestants in the by-election, reaffirmed their commitment to promote peace amidst escalating political violence.

In September, when the violence reared its ugly head, UTM put out a statement saying “Political Violence & intolerance are the very evils UTM has fought against since its inception & will continue to do so until political diversity ceases to cause instability in Malawi”

There has also been accusations that Citizens for Transformation (CFT)’s ‘Commander in Chief’ who is also the Minister of Civic Education and National Unity, Timothy Mtambo, made statements regarding Frank Mwenifumbo, the UTM candidate, which incited violence and which comprise hate speech during his campaign tours in support of the MCP candidate.

The Karonga by-election was triggered by the death of the area’s last MP, Dr Cornelius Mwalwanda – who died in July this year, several days after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Following the latest spite of violence, Karonga Police Station has put out a statement appealing to political party leaders to discipline their supporters, so that such incidents do not happen again. Speaking to the media, Officer In-charge Assistant Commissioner Sam Nkhwazi said those breaking the law will be arrested, irrespective of which political party they belong to. He added that Karonga Police will tighten security measures and roll out additional patrols during the campaign period to ensure a peaceful environment free of intimidation or violence.

Four political parties will contest the by-elections, namely UTM, whose candidate is Frank Tumpale Mwenifumbo, MCP, whose candidate is Leornard Mwalwanda, MMD whose candidate is Nellie Sichali, and DPP which is being represented by Ernst Mwalughali. There is also an independent candidate – Shackie Mary Florence Nthakomwa, who stood for UTM in the 2019 elections, but left amidst accusations that UTM’s top brass was favouring Mwenefumbo, a recent UTM member, as the default candidate for Karonga Central even before the primaries.

However, while the other contestants may claw away some votes, political analysts in Malawi agree that the real contest is between Mwenifumbo and Mwalwanda.

Thus, given how close the race is between the two main contestants, it is likely that some lone supporters on either side, acting on their own misguided initiative, and possibly driven by a desperation to gain approval (or some form of recognition) from party operators – may be responsible for at least some of the violence. This is the most likely source of the violence given Malawi’s traditionally neopatrimonialistic politics. Otherwise, given the fact that both MCP and UTM are in the governing Tonse Alliance, it is unlikely that any of these political parties could have instructed their supporters, even implicitly, to commit acts of violence.

Malawi’s new President has named a new Cabinet, but Malawians are not happy

The problem with political promises is that they raise expectations. And if the promiser doesn’t hit their mark to promisee’s liking, too many people get upset.

Yesterday evening, Malawi’s new president Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera announced the appointment of a 31-member cabinet. Among the appointments were old MCP stalwalts (Lingson Belekanyama – appointed minister of Local Government), UTM faces (Patricia Kaliati ~ Minister of Community Development and Social Welfare) and other newer less experienced faces (Ulemu Msungama ~ Minister of Youth and Sports; Nancy Tembo ~ Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources).

However, public opinion in Malawi gauged through comments on social media, WhatApp messages and analyses by media houses appears to show that large numbers of Malawians, including MCP and UTM supporters are not happy with the new cabinet. Sentiments range from questioning whether the ministerial appointments truly were based on merit (as Chakwera had promised all along during campaigning, and when articulating his Tonse Philosophy), to questioning why certain ministries (for example the Ministry of Gender and Children) were missing from the list of announcements? There was talk of an anti-climax to the appointments and people feeling under-whelmed by the new cabinet. Some people even mentioned that Chakwera had torn apart the widely praised inauguration speech made a few days ago by making such appointments.

Other reasons for displeasure vary from those who think that some appointments are mere reward tokens or appeasements to loyalists who supported or played a role in campaigning for the Tonse Alliance or who otherwise helped the new government on its way to power. Similarly, the presence for example of MCP vice President for the South Sidik Mia (Minister of Transport and Public Works) and his wife Abida (Deputy Minister of Lands), or of Kenny Kandondo (Minister of Health) and his sister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda (both from the Kamuzu family) has been criticised as returning the country to the much hated and discredited era – where certain families wielded too much influence or had disproportionate control of political affairs.

There are also calls for the new government to explain why there are far too few women or young people in the new cabinet, and how the government arrived at questionable appointments such as that of People’s Party (PP) vice President Roy Kachale Banda (to the Ministry of Industry portfolio) with some people concluding that he was only appointed because he was Joyce Banda’s son, and that there were other more capable people in Malawi who can probably do a better job at that Ministry.

Other criticisms centred on how Gospel Kazako (appointed Minister of Information) would avoid a conflict of interest when he owned a Media House (Zodiak Broadcasting Station)? Similarly, questions have been raised about Rashid Abdul Gaffar (appointed minister of Mining), whose family have mining interests and also own a cement company among various businesses.

Finally, there are those who say that the cabinet is tribalist and nepostistic, in that most of the positions have gone to people in the central region; a not too different scenario as that which Peter Mutharika’s DPP was accused of, with the Lhomwe belt accounting for a disproportionate number of cabinet positions and public appointments.

However supporters of the government have quickly pointed out how some of the appointments are of people who risked it all to ensure Malawi voted for change.

In one widsely-shared post that has been doing the rounds on Facebook last night, one writer wrote in defense of the appointments that :

The President said, on choice of the cabinet, he would not look at tribe, religion, or where someone comes from, but he would choose on people’s abilities to do the jobs.We clapped hands. Now we are finding fault with the Cabinet, not because of competencies of people, but because some people are related.We talked of a cabinet “to serve” , not one that is ” rewarded” , so where is the “adya okha” attitude coming from, as if we thought being appointed a minister is a reward? If people are married or related, they do not stop being individuals. They are in parliament on merit– we found nothing wrong with that. Why should we now start pairing them? I don’t envy these ministers. They have a hard  job ahead of them to bring results from a system that has been used to mediocrity and underperformance. We won’t treat them as mini-gods, but as public servants; they won’t be allowed to reward themselves illegally in kind or cash- we will be watching; each aspect of their lives will be scrutinised by a very suspicious citizenry. I am sure the President is smart enough to know that there are potential conflicts of interest for some members of the Cabinet with regards to businesses they own. I would be surprised if mitigation measures have not been discussed already. In due course, the citizenry will want to know that these measures are in place and are satisfactory. Before  we start saying women have been given deputy positions, let us first understand the rationale, which the President is yet to explain. I once was in charge of Equality, Diversity, Inclusivity at a large university in the UK, and used to be quick to say, “few women in top positions”, until I saw how the university would struggle to get CVs from qualified women for the top positions. I also found that some women actually want a deputy role and not be the head honcho (I was deputy head of school and Associate Dean for many years and really liked these positions and did not seriously want to be Head or Dean).  We don’t know if these women are capable, want the senior positions, or are in transition and want to learn and build confidence. It does not minimise their contribution by being Deputy Minister as long as they have well-defined roles. In due course some may gain the experience and confidence to manage the politically charged ministerial positions, or choose to be deputy. I am reserving judgement on that. I will give the President, VP,  and all cabinet ministers the chance to demonstrate their competencies, or lack of. I will assess them by what they achieve in their duty to us the citizens, by their Integrity, Fairness, Inclusivity, and Ethical conduct. Anything else is a waste of time.

It will be interesting to see how the Tonse Alliance government responds to these criticisms and expressions of support. Lazarus Chakwera had previously said he would not look at tribe, religion or where someone came from when determining selection to his cabinet.

The Tonse Alliance is made up of 9 political parties.

Malawi returns to the polls to re-elect a New President

Dr Lazarus Chakwera & Dr Saulos Chilima of the MCP-UTM Tonse Alliance

Malawi goes to the polls today for an election re-run to elect a new President, after the previous poll held in May 2019 was overturned in February this year for being marred by massive irregularities including use of corectional fluid known as Tippex.

The re-run comes amidst the COVID-19 crisis, which has had a significant impact on many countries economies. As of today, Malawi has has 803 confirmed cases with 11 deaths.
But Malawi has many other more pressing problems.

Since the start of multiparty democracy in 1994, the country has struggled to create a thriving economy with ample opportunities for it’s citizens. Poverty, Tribalism, Cronyism & Corruption are rife. The private sector is small, poorly funded and largely dependent on government contracts. There is insufficient power generation, and power cuts / blackouts are commonplace. There is high youth unemployment and few avenues of young hard-working people to escape the poverty trap.

Tobacco sales, the largest source of government revenue, have been dwindling in recent years, in part because of a successful global anti-tobacco campaign. Unfortunately, this has meant less revenue collection by the government.

Years of economic neglect, under-investment in infrastructure, lack of diversification in the economy, misuse of natural resources, plus successive phases of bad governance has led to a situation where most of Malawi’s 18 million inhabitants live hand-to-mouth, the large majority living on less than $3 a day. Consequently, women, especially those living in the rural areas comprise one of the most disadvantaged groups in Malawian society. This inevitably affects health and educational outcomes for children.

All these have made life quite unbearable for many people, and the demonstrations we saw last year and early on this year show the level of frustration in the country.

But there is Hope. However gloomy the picture is, today Malawians have a chance to voice out their frustration & change the direction of our country at the ballot box, onto a better path. One of inclusive prosperity for all irrespective of where one comes from. A path where food is affordable, hospitals have medicine and government contracts are awarded fairly and transparently. A path where promotion is based on merit not party or tribal affiliation; where here are educational opportunities for young people, and where financial institutions do not take advantage of people in financial hardship. A Malawi where there are plenty of opportunities for citizens, young entrepreneurs can take out loans with relative ease and at low interests and fighting corruption is not merely lip service. A path where tribalism, regionalism & cronyism are tackled decisevely and the interests of the country as a whole, and the collective good is put before the interests of a party, before appeasing party loyalists.

I look forward to the opening of a new chapter of hope & shared prosperity in Malawi’s history. I look forward to a thriving, growing, optimistic and vibrant Malawi.

And for the avoidance of doubt, no one is saying such will not have its own challenges.

But this blog endorses the MCP -UTM Tonse Alliance as the best Political party in Malawi right now able to heal the wounds of divisions that exist and to orchestrate the much needed changes our beloved country urgently need.
Vote #MCP-UTM #TonseAlliance. Lets make today count and welcome a new future!

Saulos Chilima & the Devil

There comes a point in a leader’s life when they have a critical choice over an important matter. The decision they make defines them forever.

Saulos Chilima & wife
© AFP. Saulos Klaus Chilima, accompanied by his wife, Mary, waits to be screened at Lilongwe High Court, where judges later annulled the May 2019 election,Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2020.(Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA / AFP)

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 uncertainty 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 – the tambala wakuda – 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.