On Monday, 21 June, 1999, Stuart, my classmate and room-mate at the University of Malawi’s Polytechnic campus and I stood cheering and clapping alongside hundreds of President Bakili Muluzi’s supporters inside the Kamuzu Stadium. Above us, military planes flew in formation, and on the stadium’s football pitch, soldiers stood at attention.
“I am very happy and honoured,” boomed the President’s baritone voice through the microphone, “to hand over the presidential baton to myself.”
His speech was confrontational and devoid of hope, but we did not care. He said, “If others are not happy with this day then they really have a problem. I will not allow anybody – just because they lost an election – to start a civil strife in this country. I have heard that some have threatened to go into the bush! Honestly, just let them try it. I will blow them up! Try it and see. You will see aeroplanes without wings (missiles) come against you.” Regardless, we cheered and shouted and clapped our hands.
While in 1994 Bakili Muluzi won with 47 per cent of the vote, in 1999 he got 52 per cent, well ahead of the Malawi Congress Party’s Gwanda Chakuamba, who got 45 per cent (1.45 per cent went to Kamlepo Kalua, while Bingu wa Mutharika got 0.47 per cent).
And while five years before the party had 84 seats in Parliament, this time its numbers rose to 93. MCP had 66 MPs while the Alliance for Democracy (Aford) had 29.
UDF was in its finest hour.
By that time, we had enjoyed five years of freedom of expression. One could mock the president without even fearing arrest or detention without trial. Take theatre maestro the late Du Chisiza Jr, for instance: In one of his plays, there was a scene in which a president who was not so bright – a clear reference to Muluzi – was surrounded by brilliant chaps who gave him the following advice:
MINISTER: Sir, don’t take this lying down. The Opposition is attacking you every day, subjecting you to ridicule, and you do not respond? Please, do something. Castigate the opposition. Fight back hard.
PRESIDENT: I have taken note of your advice. I will castrate the Opposition-
MINISTER: Castigate, Your Excellency!
Du was not arrested for such a play, unthinkable only five years earlier. Women wore trousers and skirts, both outlawed during the Hastings Kamuzu Banda rule. Airwaves had opened up, and Power 101 FM and Capital Radio had begun to operate, freeing us from the tyranny of Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. Even television, long banned under Banda, was now here, both in the form of Television Malawi and digital satellite television operated by a South African outfit called Multichoice.
In 1996, we were able to watch South Africa’s Bafana-Bafana national football team become the first team in southern Africa to win the Africa Cup of Nations, turning the likes of Philemon Masinga, Doctor Khumalo, Mark Fish, Lucas Radebe, Helman Mkhalele and Linda Buthelezi into household names. We were also able to watch the much-hyped Ronaldo’s Brazil being clobbered by Zinedine Zidane’s France in the World Cup finals of 1998. We even joined the bandwagon of supporting English premier league teams, until some of us were to stop years later, upon realizing that this was neocolonialism rearing its ugly head in another form.
All this had become possible because of the nascent democracy, with Muluzi at the helm. Muluzi had demystified the presidency. Whereas his predecessor was considered a demi-god who holed himself up in his obscenely expensive palaces, Muluzi mixed with us, the hoi-polloi, the povo, the common men of our streets. While Kamuzu addressed everyone in the language of our colonial masters, Muluzi spoke Chichewa, cracked jokes in the language, attended funerals and shed a tear or two in public. Here was one of us in charge.
He was not perfect, of course, and no one ever is. The economy was already being ruined. He allowed private minibus operators to start plying our roads, dealing a massive blow to Stagecoach, the public bus company. At Air Malawi, cronies and relatives of the president and cabinet ministers flew for free, eating into the profits of the organization. Muluzi allegedly filled the Malawi Development Corporation with friends and relatives and ran the entity into the ground. Everywhere, there we signs that the economy was being destroyed, but we Malawians, too grateful for our newfound freedoms, did not seem to mind. This was why, even after five years of strangulating the economy, we gave him another mandate, much bigger than the last.
But, to paraphrase Shakespeare in Macbeth, from that spring whence comfort seemed to come, discomfort swelled. For it was in that 1999-2004 term, when UDF was at its strongest, that things began to go wrong.
First, the greed. Mr Bakili Muluzi had tasted the presidency and had seen that it was good. A new thought emerged, if not in his mind then in the minds of his enablers: Perhaps it was unwise to let such a good thing go?
Led by MP for Zomba Thondwe, the late Finly Dumbo Lemani, who doubled as a powerful cabinet minister, the president’s surrogates, especially the late Davis Kapito – UDF’s governor for the southern region at the time – began to talk about removing presidential term limits. Only five years before, when the constitution of Malawi was re-written, it had become necessary to introduce term limits to prevent another leader from staying for thirty years in power as Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda did. Now, in the Bakili Muluzi universe, the thinking had changed.
Chiefs, as usual, were the first to be bought. They said the term limit was counter-productive. Even thinkers such as respected historian D.D. Phiri argued in favour of the abolition of term limits to allow the president to “finish his projects” for our country.
My friends and I in the university were appalled. How could Bakili Muluzi – whom we regarded a champion of our democracy – turn around and start weighing such a bad idea? To be clear, he himself did not say a word either in favour of or against the idea, but his silence as the surrogates marketed the proposal signaled his tacit approval.
The campaign turned nasty, even brutal. Young Democrats, the aggressive youth wing of the United Democratic Front, started hacking and silencing people opposed to the campaign. Everyone closest to the presidential seat was characterized as unfit to lead, useless, bran or nincompoops who should never be allowed to touch the presidential baton. Without necessarily mentioning names, the attacks were aimed at Aleke Banda, Vice President of UDF at the time and a very capable minister whose stint at the Ministry of Finance, Agriculture, and, by the time of that nasty campaign, Health, had seen impressive turn-arounds. The vitriol also targeted the State Vice President, Justin Malewezi, and an openly ambitious powerful cabinet minister, Brown Mpinganjira. Sam Mpasu, Speaker of the National Assembly, was also another target, as were Minister of Education, Cassim Chilumpha, and Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Minister, Harry Thomson.
While still not categorically disclosing that he indeed wanted to run for the third time, Bakili Muluzi himself waddled into the campaign by working hard to ridicule those he considered a threat. Of Malewezi, for instance, he said he was a “weakling who takes 32 tablets a day to stay alive.”
In November 2001, Bakili Muluzi raised the tempo of the game by firing Brown Mpinganjira as Minister of Transport and Cassim Chilumpha as Minister of Education. Mpinganjira went on to form a nonentity called the National Democratic Alliance, and sunk into the abyss of irrelevance at the speed of light.
While working the microphone at the numerous rallies he and his cronies organized across the country, Muluzi used other tactics to ensure the constitution was changed in his favour. By now he had come to believe that every man has a price, and so those who could not be persuaded by word of mouth were won over by huge wads of cash that were allegedly passed on in large, brown envelopes at nocturnal meetings that took place at the President’s Sanjika Palace.
Many Members of Parliament entered into a Faustian Bargain with Mr Muluzi. Even John Tembo, then in a bitter power struggle with Gwanda Chakuamba, gave the impression that he and his faction of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had been bought.
Meanwhile, some opposition figures and the civil society intensified their stiff opposition to Mr Muluzi’s open terms bid. The script that was unfolding seemed to be a replica of what had happened in neighbouring Zambia, where President Frederick Chiluba’s third term campaign collapsed in spectacular fashion.
In January 2002, Muluzi fired deputy transport and public works minister Jan-Jaap Sonke, after the latter wrote him a strongly worded letter opposing a bid for a third term in office.
On 4 July, 2002, the Open Terms Bill was tabled in Parliament, and was moved by Alliance for Democracy (Aford) MP for Karonga – Nyungwe, Khwauli Msiska. In order to pass, the bill needed 128 votes out of the 193 MPs. It turned out that 125 MPs (all from UDF and those from the MCP and Aford factions loyal to John Tembo and Chakufwa Chihana respectively) supported the bill. Fifty-nine MPs from MCP and Aford voted against the bill. A further three – including Kate Kainja who, being loyal to John Tembo, was expected to vote for the bill – abstained, while another five were absent. This meant that the bill fell short by three votes and was thus defeated.
Unable to accept defeat, Muluzi’s enablers decided to change the narrative and started talking of a third term bill. This time, some courageous MPs from within UDF, led by Joe Manduwa, opposed the bid, and the bill did not even come to Parliament for debate.
Perhaps feeling let down by all those around him, Muluzi decided to handpick Bingu wa Mutharika – a complete outsider – to succeed him. That singular move triggered the slow, painful death of the United Democratic Front.
In the 2004 elections, Muluzi campaigned vigorously for Bingu wa Mutharika. He fancied himself a “political engineer” and dubbed the former United Nations official an “economic engineer”. It emerged later on that Muluzi thought Mutharika would be so grateful to be given the presidency that he was going to acquiesce to Muluzi’s behind-the-scenes pulling of strings.
It was a grave miscalculation. In February 2005, barely a year after succeeding Muluzi as president of the Republic of Malawi, Mutharika claimed that he was being undermined by Muluzi. He consequently announced his resignation from UDF, purged his cabinet of ministers considered to be loyal to Muluzi and formed his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Not believing what had just happened, Muluzi decided to fight back. As the 2009 elections loomed, he saw to it that he was designated as the UDF’s presidential candidate. According to the constitution, a president is allowed to serve no more than two consecutive five-year terms. Because Muluzi had been out of office since 2004, his supporters argued that the term limit should not apply to him, as it did not restrict non-consecutive terms – if interpreted literally.
Bingu seemed bristled at the idea of facing Muluzi in the election. Rumours began to circulate that Muluzi was to be arrested for corruption soon. Earlier, on 25 May 2008 to be specific, as he arrived from the United Kingdom, Bakili Muluzi was arrested and whisked into a waiting Malawi Armed Forces Military Plane – a 16 Seater Dornier – which flew him straight to Blantyre, where he was charged with treason.
Speaking to Capital Radio on 22 February 2009, Muluzi accused the government of using intimidation against his candidacy and warned that such conduct could lead to “problems”. A few days later, he was charged by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) with stealing approximately 12 million dollars of aid money. He appeared before a court in Blantyre and was released on bail. The Electoral Commission stated he was not eligible to run again, but his supporters called for an official court decision instead. On 16 May, only three days before the election, the Constitutional Court ruled that Muluzi could not run again.
MCP President John Tembo was considered the main opposition candidate, and the MCP formed an electoral alliance with the UDF prior to the election. Tembo’s vice-presidential candidate was Brown Mpinganjira of the UDF. Observing that the DPP had never participated in an election – having been founded in 2005 – Tembo argued that he and the MCP had the experience to govern the country properly. “I belong to the past, I belong to the present and I also belong to the future,” he said.
DPP won the election by a landslide. Bingu, its presidential candidate, won 66 per cent of the vote. In Parliament, DPP won 114 seats, followed by MCP with 26 seats. UDF won only 17, even so mostly in Balaka, Machinga and Mangochi, the sub-region where Muluzi hails from.
The party, or at least what remains of it, has been confined to the sub-region since.
Towards the end of October 2012, delegates at the UDF convention voted for Atupele Muluzi, the son of Mr Bakili Muluzi, as national chairman, setting him up to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2014 general elections. There was no prize for guessing whose invisible hand was behind Mr Atupele Muluzi’s victory.
The younger Muluzi used his youthfulness as a campaign point, with sloganeering such as ung’ono-ung’ono or ukiti-ukiti. Two weeks after being elected at the UDF convention, at the Njamba Freedom Park where his father, 19 years earlier, had said, quoting Abraham Lincoln, “You can delay change but you cannot stop it,” Atupele Muluzi rolled out what he called an “agenda for change.” He promised a new style of leadership and strong structures of government. He also promised to organize a policy conference, touting it as “the first of its kind,” where views from the public were going to be considered with the aim of giving the public room to contribute their expectations of the UDF in the event of its taking over government in 2014. A few were taken in by the new UDF leader. Some even went so far as to say his voice was presidential – whatever that means.
Still, it proved hard for him to shake off the impression of being where he was for simply being a son of his father, and that his victory would mean indirectly putting the elder Muluzi back into the seat of power. When the votes were finally cast, he managed to come out fourth with 717,000 votes, about 1.2 million behind the winner, Peter Mutharika. His party managed to harvest 14 seats.
In a move that did not come across as surprising, in June 2014 Peter Mutharika named Atupele Muluzi as Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining. UDF insisted that it was not in an alliance with DPP. Interestingly indeed, only Atupele had been incorporated into Mutharika’s cabinet.
The move was to bear fruits less than two years later, when Reyneck Matemba, then leading the Anti-Corruption Bureau’s prosecution team, mysteriously recused himself from the Bakili Muluzi $12 million corruption case. According to an insider, the Minister of Justice put unsustainable pressure on Matemba to ensure that the case collapses. Rather than act against his conscience, Matemba chose to recuse himself. The insider went on to say that the levers of action in the Justice ministry were triggered by Atupele Muluzi’s threat to resign from the cabinet.
If this insider account is accurate, it seems the UDF’s current reason for its existence is no longer to seek power, but to protect its founding president from legal troubles associated with the corruption case of about $12 million of donor money that was found stashed into his personal bank account.
O, how the mighty have fallen!
From its peak of 93 seats in 1999, the party now has 14, and in 2019, there is a greater likelihood that even those 14 will be chipped away. Lest we forget, the region that currently serves as UDF’s stronghold has Muslims as majority voters. MCP’s latest catch Muhammad Sidik Mia, also a Muslim, is making no secret of the fact that he is eyeing the Muslim vote. At the same time, DPP will surely want to chip away some for itself too.
Mr Atupele Muluzi has indicated that he has a card up his sleeve for the 2019 elections. What will this be? Resign from cabinet and accuse Professor Mutharika of mismanagement, then run for president yet again? Unlikely, given the fact that the case against the elder Muluzi isn’t completely dead as we speak. What else? Become Mutharika’s running mate? Although Malawi’s politics is regional, Mr Atupele Muluzi has the benefit of coming from both the southern and central regions, given the fact that his mother is from Lilongwe. Touting his Lilongwe credentials might make him counter the allegation that DPP is featuring only southerners in its top two slots. Whether that would be viable remains to be seen. The future, after all, is not a single destination.
As a party, however, UDF is dead. What remains is a slough (chikhwakhwalulu) of its former self. On paper it still exists as a party, and in parliament it still has a small, if inconsequential, presence. But it is no longer a serious player on the national scene.
While the building of UDF was a team effort, its destruction is the work of one man and one man alone, Elson Bakili Muluzi.
At the height of his presidency, Bakili Muluzi used to joke of other political parties: “Some of these parties will wear out like curtains.” Blinded by power, he could not foresee that his own UDF would end that way.
What a pity!
May the soul of UDF rest in eternal peace. Let’s hope other leaders have learnt a lesson of how not to run a party.
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