Was Malawi’s Vice President assassinated in a Malawi Defence Force Donier Jet?


…MCP stalwarts had indicated that they wouldn’t give power to Chilima
…contradictory statements from officials leave more questions than answers
…search and rescue response was badly done

On Tuesday, 11 June 2024, a teary Commander-in-chief of the Malawi Defence Forces (MDF), Lazarus Chakwera, made an address to the Malawi nation that broke hearts. Appearing late on the scene after gruesome photos of a mangled MDF military Dornier jet were already in circulation, Chakwera only came to confirm the inevitable: the Vice President was dead in an aeroplane crash. Long before Chakwera stepped from the podium to console his ministers and get consoled, the rumour mill had already started grinding claiming that Chilima’s death was a political assassination.

According to the rumour mills, the Malawi Congress Party had plotted to eliminate Chilima and had used the crash to take him out. This rumour, starting as whispers in the early days, has now gained ground with renowned social media influencers either directly hinting at assassination or covertly alluding to the same.

Why would the MCP want Chilima dead?

In making sense of the rumours, it is only important to start with focusing on the reasons for such rumours. A psychologist trainee that Malawi24 talked to and did not wish to be on record said that one of the reasons for such rumours was the manner of death. It was unexpected.

“When such events happen, people look for a tangible explanation. For Chilima, it is further complicated because he was full of energy,” said the professional.

However Malawi24 digs deep from this to also query the motive that the Malawi Congress Party might have had to see Chilima eliminated. It is by focusing on the motive that one can also understand the reason for the rumours and accusations.

After the court nullified the 2019 poll, political parties started jostling for alliances. This was particularly the case because the court had also ruled that a winner of an election had to scoop 50%+1 of the vote, moving from an earlier position of simple majority.

Chilima Dies in Plane Crash
Crash site

In considering the results of 2019 as well as the history of Malawi polls, it seemed that no single party would garner such votes. This necessitated for political alliances. While the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) simply roped in the United Democratic Front (UDF), the key issue was on the MCP as led by Lazarus Chakwera and the United Transformation Movement (UTM) that was being led by the demised Vice President, Saulos Chilima.

In the minds of most people, this was a done deal and the sure way of unseating the DPP that had fallen out of favour with a majority of Malawians. While most Malawians were made to believe that MCP partnering with UTM was a done deal, Malawi24 has been made to understand that there was hesitancy particularly on the part of Chilima to partner with MCP.

“Chilima was not in a rush to partner with MCP, he actually wanted to talk to some other parties so that they are in the forefront. He wanted a three horse race in which he was targeting to be among the two front runners, from there then he would get the support of the third PARTY in the run-off,” said a source privy to the discussions that happened ahead of the 2020 polls.

At the same time, however, the MCP had already started courting other parties to go in an alliance with it. They had also started talking to some UTM members behind Chilima’s back trying to get their buy-in into forming an alliance.

“It was not as easy as people thought. There was a lot of back and forth happening. The veep was not sure of forming the alliance and there were moments he felt that it was better for him to wait for the next election if the need arose,” the source said.

The biggest point of contention was that having served as a Vice President for 5 years, Chilima felt better equipped at handling state affairs than a novice Chakwera whose background in administration was not very clear.

According to the late Chilima himself, it was the involvement of some church leaders as well as esteemed Malawians that made him soften towards the alliance. In a press briefing, Chilima had said that MCP had used religious leaders as well as its respected members to get him into the 9 party alliance that became Tonse Alliance and later wrestled power from the DPP. The sweetener that had convinced Chilima was that they agreed on a power-rotation deal for 10 years.

“We agreed that Dr Chakwera will lead for 5 years and thereafter I will take over from him for another 5 years,” Chilima said as early as 2020, further reporting that they had agreed that he would head the Ministry of Finance. Chakwera however refused to comment on the same when asked by Times TV journalist, Brian Banda before ascending to Presidency.

In power, it seemed that Chakwera and MCP completely tore apart the agreement with party leaders declaring that their candidate for 2025 would be Lazarus Chakwera. Of note, it was the Speaker of Parliament Catherine Gotani Hara who declared at an MCP fundraising dinner in 2022 that Chakwera would represent the party in 2025.

It was in response to her that Chilima addressed a press conference condemning the utterances. Further, the signed agreement was leaked to the public and the clause on power-rotation was there. This, however, did not stop MCP leaders continuing with their declarations, usually in the presence of Chilima himself.

A more recent declaration was made in May 2024 by a Member of Parliament for Lilongwe Mapuyu South, Esther Kathumba, who did not only declare that Chakwera would stand for the party in 2025 but she also went on to say that she will push for Chakwera’s life presidency. While some of the party stalwarts dismissed her latter assertion, the question of Chakwera’s candidacy was confirmed by Chakwera himself who declared that he would stand for the party. All this was in the presence of Chilima.

On the other hand, Chilima’s party UTM was also campaigning and declaring that Chilima would represent the alliance as per agreement of 2020. Here were two parties pulling in opposite directions yet within the same political formation.

If the question of motive would be answered directly then it appears that the MCP would want Chilima out of the way so that they do not honour the agreement. This is also a claim that various commentators on social media have made when fingering the MCP in the death of Chilima.

They have dealt with him because they didn’t want him to take over,” commented one person when the death was announced.

Another wrote: “mpaka kumupha munthu chifukwa chothawa agreement (you have killed him just because you don’t want to honour the agreement)”.

Was that an enough motive?

A few points however make the argument of such a motive questionable. Firstly, the agreement between Chilima and Chakwera was not legally binding. A legal expert who spoke to Malawi24 described it as a “gentlemen agreement only worth the paper it is written on and the integrity of the parties.”

The legal view is that MCP would have just walked away from the agreement and they would not be bound by it. As the constitution stands, legal agreements like those ones would be similar to party manifestos. They are written but the court cannot enforce them. If MCP had such an exit opportunity then it would sound implausible for them to take out Chilima in the most gruesome fashion.

Further, Malawi24 has been informed that Chakwera and Chilima had struck another agreement that would see Chilima take over in 2030. According to this version that we could not yet independently verify but had been corroborated by various people, MCP had promised to change the constitution so that Chilima should occupy a new position of Prime Minister.

Lazarus Chakwera

“This would have had considerable political power than the delegated position of Vice Presidency now. Chilima would occupy it for 5 years then ascend to Presidency, it also would have dealt with any legal impediments on his ascendancy to the Presidency,” said a source pointing out that Chilima’s path to Presidency was already in doubt because he has served as a vice president for two times. An earlier court ruling said one cannot serve two terms and ascend to Presidency.

Another source alluded to the improved relationship between Chakwera and Chilima as evidence of a deal that had impressed them both. Lately, there was a visible thaw in sometimes the frosty relationship between the two. Of note was the dropping of the corruption case against Chilima (Chakwera had had Chilima arrested over corruption with businessman Zunneth Sattar) which was later followed by delegation of duties from Chakwera to Chilima including the latter’s last international appointment in South Korea where he had returned from a day before meeting his fate.

Further evidence of this deal was slipped by MCP supporter and social media influencer Joshua Chisa Mbele who hinted that he had been brokering a deal between Chakwera and Chilima that would have seen Chilima take over from Chakwera in 2030. Our source said Chilima would eventually have joined MCP.

There are new theories

A school of thought however that has also been given space on social media says that Chilima was working on a case that would have forced MCP to honour the agreement on power-rotation. This theory says that Chilima had hired fallen lawyer Ralph Kasambara to help him drafting arguments that would persuade the courts to regard the agreement between Chakwera and Chilima, or MCP and UTM, as legally binding.

One of the proponents of this theory said that the death of Chilima and that of Kasambara were connected (Chilima’s plane crashed on its way to Kasambara’s funeral). At the moment, the death of Kasambara remains murky with various allegations including that he was poisoned. The proponents of the theory allege that the MCP was privy to this information and used evil ways to stop it.

A postmortem on Kasambara showed that he died of heart failure. Malawi24 investigations revealed that such is also one of the ways that people are assassinated. While this has been reported in such countries as USA, it is not known if there has been such a case in Malawi. Further, it was reported that Kasambara already had heart problems prior to his death. Those who hold that Chilima was assassinated for the coming legal battle however remain adamant that Kasambara was equally assassinated through poisoning.

The anatomy of conspiracy theories

On Monday, 10 June, rumours started filtering around 2 pm that Chilima’s plane had gone missing. It could not be traced on the radar and the ground crew had lost contact with it. Media houses later confirmed the news. It was only after 5 pm that a statement was issued by the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) confirming the news. They said that a search and rescue operation was ongoing.

In the hours after, the details of the issue started emerging. It was said, and has been confirmed by Army Commander General Valentino Phiri, that it was actually known that the plane was in trouble by at least 10 in the morning on Monday. At that time, they had lost contact with the plane and even when they waited, it failed to make landing. It was said that the plane had encountered bad weather at Mzuzu Airport and had been told to return to Lilongwe (other news reports have dismissed this claim that the plane was told to return).

According to President Chakwera, when he was told of the emergency, he instructed the Malawi Defence Forces to do investigations and furnish him with a report. The report came at 3 pm. However, this is a narrative that people are finding hard to believe wondering what investigation was necessary instead of immediately sending a search and rescue mission.

An aviation expert told Malawi24 that the response was already a failure at that point.

“A plane goes missing for 20 to 30 minutes, you don’t go about investigating if it is hovering over somewhere, you declare it missing so search and rescue can begin,” the source said.

Apart from the slow response, some people felt betrayed when it was announced that the search and rescue mission was suspended at 9 pm due to darkness and was set to resume the next day. In an address to the country on the said Monday, Chakwera announced that the search would be ongoing into the night. He said that there would be no rest until the plane was found. This was however dismissed as a lie by a UTM Member of Parliament who was with the rescue team.

“The search and rescue was suspended at 9 pm. And there were only 9 officers covering Chikangawa (a 50,000 hectare land of forest cover). The president lied when he said they would search overnight,” said Chrissie Kanyasko, an MP for UTM who was a part of the search mission. This has raised questions among most Malawians wondering why a President-in-waiting would not be searched for frantically.

It has emerged that after being alerted to a possible crash of the Vice President’s plane, it was was only at least 7 hours later that a search was mounted. This has led to various theories spreading all of which hinge on fingering the accident as a deliberate act of political assassination. Proponents of the theory argue that the government deliberately delayed getting help to the victims so that there would be no survivor.

“They knew that others would survive and they allowed them to die in the wilderness from dehydration, bleeding and cold,” a proponent commented on social media.

Testimonies from acclaimed eyewitnesses have also been coming forward indicating that they communicated with government officers on the day of the crash but they got no help. This has further been used as evidence of a political assassination.

Failure of official narratives

Apart from the government making statements that are not convincing. There have also been inconsistencies in the statements that have been made. The government side and social media operatives also went to length to discredit the story when it first broke with some sharing old photos claiming they were of the plane while others derided Chilima saying he was pulling a stunt.

On the part of official narratives, it was reported by President Chakwera on his 11pm announcement to the nation that they had just lost contact with the plane and were searching an area in Chikangawa using one of the phones of the crew members that was pinned to an area. The next day however the army chief Valentino Phiri announced that the plane had crashed. This was before they had recovered the debris and no photos had circulated yet. According to people, this was a deliberate ommission of information. Others believe that the President already knew of the tragedy but preferred to keep people in the dark.

Another theory says that while there was a crash, the government made sure to hide its location so they could send assassins to finish the job on any survivors. This is what is attributed to have been the reason behind the shoddy search and rescue mission. The theory has been fuelled by the alleged reports of a watchman at a cell tower near the site who is said to have alerted government officials. Another person who also said he’s an eyewitness claimed to have communicated to the government. Both are reported to have said that their reports were suppressed. Malawi24 however could not verify these allegations while the narrative of the second witness appears to be referring to the day the plane was found.

General Valentino Phiri said that their overnight search and rescue efforts were being hampered by the terrain of the area in which they believed the plane had crashed. However, it should be remembered that there was no overnight effort so his claims were a lie. Further, it was established that the General might not have spoken the truth for when the plane was found, it was in a bare and near a residential part of Chikangawa forest. People are questioning why the General lied about that as well as why the people of the area did not witness a plane crashing.

On the part of Phiri offering a contradictory outlook to the actual area, other quarters have suggested that it was because the area they were investigating was huge. It was all reliant on cell tower which covers a 10 kilometre radius. It does not pinpoint an exact spot. As for the people of the area not witnessing a plane crash, on Monday the area of Chikangawa had bad visibility with fog covering most of the area. It was also raining. With the plane found at least a kilometre away from human settlement, it seems the case that people might not have followed up on sound of a crash from a distance and would not have seen anything fall out of the sky.

Chakwera and his Israeli friends

President Lazarus Chakwera, an ex pentecostal preacher, is a good friend of Israel. Even in diplomatic circles, Chakwera’s leadership has voted against the regional bloc at times privileging relationships with Israel over neighbours. In the contentious issue of Palestine, Chakwera has largely taken a stand to side and dine with Israel instead of abstaining as other countries in the region have done.

Lazarus Chakwera (Malawi) and Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel)
Chakwera with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu

On 10 June, Chakwera also said that he had consulted such countries as Israel to help with the search. Instead of this pacifying an edgy nation, it led to more serious rumours alleging that Chakwera had hired assassins from Israel to take out Chilima’s plane in the air. This was fuelled by allegations made earlier on by an entity called Bakili Muluzi TV which has been a thorn in the flesh of the administration. The self-acclaimed TV had reported, days before the clash, that there were agents from Israel in Malawi who had been hired to take out opposition leaders. Chakwera’s reference to them seemed to cement this fear.

While the ways of taking out Chilima by these said agents have been varying with some claiming that they brought down the plane and thereafter finished the job, there has been no concrete evidence provided on these agents. No names or travel information has been provided.

The DNA of MCP is to kill?

The reason why the conspiracy theories are sticking is that the MCP is associated with a history of killing its opponents, some through accidents. Spokesperson for opposition DPP Shadric Namalomba was quoted as saying that former President Peter Mutharika was afraid of attending Chilima’s funeral for fear that he would be assassinated by the MCP. Namalomba pointed out that Chilima had also died on his way to a funeral. Namalomba concluded by saying that it was in the DNA of MCP to kill.

Joyce Banda with Saulos Chilima
Joyce Banda with Chilima

While not toeing the line of the DPP, former President Joyce Banda also likened the deaths to other assassinations and unexplained deaths in the era of the MCP which she said she witnessed. Writing on her Facebook page, Banda who is also in a shaky alliance with MCP wrote, suggested that all those assassinations occurred in forests:

“In 1983, four Ministers and an MP were abducted and slaughtered like chicken in Mwanza in the forest. I was old enough to witness…this time around!!! Losing nine people Eeeeish. The majority of them I have known. Most painful for me is the death of my son Saulos and my sister-in-law Shanil Patricia A Nadzimbiri.”

This has led a rise to the conspiracies with many believing that the MCP is back to its old ways. It has not helped matters that MCP supporters and ministers have been in the forefront suppressing questions on the inconsistent details of the plane crash. This has made a lot of people believe that the suppression is to hide the evidence of an assassination.

“They fear that the more we talk about it and ask questions, the more it becomes obvious that this wasn’t a normal accident,” a person wrote on Facebook.


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