He is occupying the office in which his predecessors barely survived. But will the Vice President, Saulos Chilima, defy odds and go all the way beyond 2019? FLETCHER SIMWAKA goes deeper:
Politics is about strategy; the rest comes next. Incumbent Malawi President Peter Mutharika— just like all his predecessors— is a beneficiary of a well-crafted political strategy.
Upon winning the 2009 polls with a historic landslide, former Malawi President Bangu wa Mutharika knew he was in his final term of office. Characteristic of African Presidents, Bingu’s soaring worry was no longer how to govern the country.
Rather, it was who would succeed him. The same worry that—just weeks after 2004 polls–betrayed Bakili Muluzi.(I am dead sure Muluzi will never forget that betrayal, come what may).
Bingu started the search for his successor soon after 2009 polls. Here is how. In the first place, Bingu had to vigorously distance himself from dangling third-term temptation.
This was despite the fact that one Democratic Progress Party (DPP) zealot, Frank Viyazi, openly begged him to have another go in 2014. By vehemently denying Viyazi’s wish, Bingu was winning the hearts of Malawians, especially the lovers of democracy. But did anyone know what the elder Mutharika had up his sleeve? Not yet.
His selection of Cabinet, however, started pointing to what Bingu was up to. The sidelining of key DPP members such as Ken Lipenga, Henry Mussa, and Henry Phoya from the 2009 cabinet, conspiring with the demotion of Goodall Gondwe to a less-influential local government ministry opened a can of political speculations.
Most political commentators interpreted the post-2009 poll cabinet as paving way for Peter Mutharika, Bingu’s younger brother. Peter’s stint at most influential ministries such as Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Education, and Foreign Affairs within a short period of time only buttressed the suggestions he was being groomed for top-most job.
“So, what will happen to Joyce Banda in 2014?” Those who cared asked. Lucky for them, Noel Masangwi, then DPP regional governor had the answer. Masangwi bluntly said Malawi was not ready for a female President.
Notwithstanding the deafening voices of public condemnation, especially from gender activists, Masangwi stood his ground. Masangwi’s statement, however, seemed to have the blessing of Bingu-led DPP politburo (minus Joyce Banda and Khumbo Kachali, the party’s vice president and second vice president, respectively).
Thus, Joyce Banda became the victim of a Bingu-championed strategy. Her office as Vice President of the country became a political pariah within the DPP camp, akin to what Justin Malewezi went through under Muluzi’s strategy. Her political movements were put under strict suzerainty. Politicians who interacted with her were closely monitored.
Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) joined the party, and happily so. Joyce Banda would be offered little, if any, coverage. Instead, it was Peter Mutharika, a mere minister, who had become a Vice President defacto, enjoying all entitlements but a name due to a country’s second most power citizen. Frustrated, JB–as she is popularly known—started canvassing for her own political party.
The DPP top-brass celebrated the developments by officially firing her and Khumbo Kachali from the party, accusing them of dividing the party through forming parallel structures. Bingu’s strategy scored a point here.
This is why despite Bingu’s death in 2012, the political climate in DPP remained a true product of Bingu’s political strategy. True to Bingu’s strategy (not wish) Peter Mutharika is now a President of the country.
Today, the occupant of the country’s most politically vulnerable office in multiparty democracy era is Saulos Chilima. Is Chilima in the foot-steps of Justin Malawezi, Cassim Chilumpha and Joyce Banda? Let’s leave that question to time.
For now, Chilima can enjoy his status as vice of the country without much worry. However, Chilima’s peace of mind which eluded his predecessors for the better part of their tenure of office could as well be short-lived, especially if he harbours ambitions beyond his current status. Why? Read on.
It is a stark fact that major political parties in Malawi ride largely on the shoulders of regionalism peppered by tribalism. DPP has the southern region as it home, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has the central region while Peoples Party (PP) has the North. And, yes, UDF belongs to the eastern region.
Let’s assume Chilima wants to success Peter Mutharika in 2024. How easy is this? Tough question. Being a Southern region party, it is hard to see DPP going for someone outside the South, its stronghold, as their Presidential candidate.
But is Chilima reading into this already? Your guess is as good as mine. The vice President has always been regarded one of the accomplished business strategists. Whether he can replicate that acumen into politics remains an intrigue.
So far, Chilima has had his eyes on his job as Vice President, steering the public reforms whose results are already accredited to him. He has done little political maneuvering, if any. It would, however, be foolhardy to assume that Chilima’s current quietness is true definition of his political behaviour.
He might just be playing his cards to sustain the trust of Peter Mutharika ahead of 2019. Now that the incumbent President has already openly declared to stand again in 2019, Chilima’s current political strategy could, thus, be tilted towards getting nominated for veep’s position again.
And should Chilima remain the country’s veep beyond 2019, DPP’s political landscape should brace itself real drama, or something close. Will Peter Mutharika allow Chilima to succeed him?
Will the DPP politburo, dominated by the South stomach someone outside the region lead the party? These are the questions that await DPP beyond 2019.
Mind you, there are politicians such as George Chaponda and those from the Lhomwe belt who might be habouring serious ambitions to succeed the incumbent.
Already, it appears George Chaponda; the Foreign Affairs minister is in good books with Peter Mutharika. Remember, Chaponda did not win any seat during DPP’s convention ahead of 2014 polls, but Peter Mutharika still co-opted him into the party’s national governing council.
What’s more, Chaponda is DPP vice President for the South, the party’s bedrock. Reading into these factors, Chaponda’s chances to succeed Mutharika cannot be taken with a pinch of salt. But will Chilima– still in 40s now– take that lying down? Or will he become another political pariah, just like his predecessors? Let sleeping dogs lie, at least for now.
*Fletcher Simwaka is the Information and Communications Officer at Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) but writes in his personal capacity.