By Golden Matonga
I understand why President Peter Mutharika won; I am a journalist. But I understand why more people wanted him out than those who wanted his second term; I’m both a journalist and a voter; I was among those yearning for change of guard.
On voting day, 63 percent of the electorate (2.8 million voters) ticked another name other than Mutharika’s. Mutharika got 1.9 million votes.
In 2014, Malawians kicked out Joyce Banda’s short-lived PP-led administration. Majority cited Cashgate. I was one of them. When People’s Party lost, I celebrated that feat as a watershed moment where the will of the people finally triumph over the might of incumbency—especially one deemed clueless, incompetent and destructive to nation building.
When I voted this time, I wished similar fate for Mutharika and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The bad governance and stagnation that characterized APM’s first term, formed part of the litany of grievances when I entered that ballot booth to cast a protest vote.
I don’t hate the DPP as much as I didn’t hate PP, or hate Mutharika as much I didn’t hate Joyce Banda. I just didn’t want DPP continue plundering national wealth, molesting the future of the children of this country and turning our nation into a laughing stock for our neighbours.
Then there is a Issa Njauju, a permanent scar that reminds us of the dangerous impulses of the DPP when left unrestrained. DPP had to be punished. But those who wanted Mutharika back in power won. And I am no more Malawian than them.
It’s not difficult to imagine, or speculate, the other reasons majority Malawians wanted this presidency and ruling party out. It has run this country like a parasitic cabal, leaving no stone unturned in its quest to abuse power and as a consequence, the country’s development has stagnated.
Unemployment, too, remains high. Poverty remains excruciating in most villages and towns. The standards of living are abject. There is little, unless you are within the DPP food chain, to be happy about.
Voting for DPP in such a state of things could only have meant giving DPP a vote of confidence, and as a consequence, imbuing the bad elements within its ranks to continue with the corruption, cronyism, nepotism that bedeviled this country in the past five years.
Operation landslide didn’t succeed, but DPP won its hard fought victory, period. Mutharika will president for another five years but, God forbid, if he fails, Everton — man whose miraculous rise to the top echelons resembles and even betters that of the biblical Joseph in the Egyptian Pharaohs —will be our president
Many who are enlightened and patriotic, tremble with trepidation just at the very thought of a Chimulirenji presidency. He is untested and untried, and can turn out to be anything if granted the ultimate executive office.
Yet I am an optimist. Mutharika is 78, but he is in good health as he has often reminded us. If for some other reason he is unable to carry out his duties, the perennial optimist in me sees no catastrophe; but that Chimulirenji will rise to the occasion.
So, yes, I am a perennial optimist. And that’s the whole point of writing this. I believe in human and institutional capacity to evolve and change for better. I believe in democracy’s ability to bring positive change. And needless to add, in God working that odd miracle.
And, yes I voted for change. But while the change that I ticked in the ballot box had a name, the tangible change I longed for was not about the name of the president or the ruling party. Yes, symbols matter, but the change this country needs is not about symbols, but how this country is governed.
So while the ballot offered me a choice on who was my best bet to bring that change, I know that change can come from anyone who elects to rise to the occasion and do the right thing.
My optimism might look far-fetched and grounded in idealism. But despite watching the DPP’s excesses of the last five years, I am hoping that the party will reform in the second term. I hope Mutharika will appoint new ministers and aides that will ground his policy and actions in reason and vision, not just parasitic party loyalists lacking in patriotism and vision.
I hope Mutharika will heed the piercing cry of the 63 percent of the voters who rejected the malaise of the past half decade and he’ll seek to forge a nation building agenda.
I know Mutharika can do it. His presidency has not been impressive, in my estimation, but his human qualities are impressive. Any man (or woman) who rise from a country of little international pedigree like ours and become a law professor at a top American University is a brilliant intellectual. And as I have repeatedly stated in the five years I reported on the Mutharika presidency, despite criticizing his policies, Mutharika long earned my respect as gentleman.
Out of fashion in these parts of the world, he has resisted the temptation to jail or maim his opponents as most of his peers would. The police food rations scandal withstanding, he has not squandered much of our national wealth through personal enrichment or vanity projects as the worst of his peers have done. He runs a relatively lean cabinet and seldom travels both locally or abroad. And his victory is enough testament that a big chunk of the population believes in his ability as a leader.
There is another reason for optimism. A nation’s trajectory can change when least expected. In 2004, I didn’t want another Mutharika to win the presidency. Bingu wa Mutharika was contesting on UDF ticket, then a symbol of executive arrogance and abuse of power.
Voting for Bingu looked tantamount to electing a Bakili Muluzi puppet—the puppet master drunk with power, bent on prolonging his grip on power through remote control. If it looks like a duck, quake like a duck, then its a duck, so we’ve been inducted to believe. When Bingu campaigned, the former Comesa chief looked and acted like the puppet-in-making. But from his inauguration onward, the other first Mutharika rose to the occasion and sought to be on the right side of history.
Because symbols matter, Bingu dumped the yellow of UDF and formed the DPP dressed in blue. He then went on to govern the country differently from the UDF script; fought corruption—launching his famous zero tolerance to corruption —even arresting the supposed puppet-master. He delivered food security, infrastructure face-lift and robust economic growth. By 2009, I was among the millions of Malawians who elected to grant Bingu a deserved landslide re-election.
So despite every instinct telling me that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, despite the polarization of today, despite the edge to turn to cynicism and wonder through the incoming DPP years with little hope, I am full of hope that the DPP will turn the fortunes of the country. I am a football man, and football is a game of two halves. Peter Mutharika, too, can make a genuine comeback.
And I hope Malawians will rally behind the president’s agenda, too. I am hopeful for the sake of our children, for our country, they will unite towards a new common vision. I hope, there will be a vision. But if DPP elects to govern as it did in the last five years, it will be digging a political grave.
History is replete of parties and politicians mightier who misread their ability to win or rig elections, or silence the opposition, as sign that they will govern forever. A good example could be DPP’s vanquished election rival, MCP. At the prime of its 31-year tyranny, MCP stopped caring about the will and aspirations of the people. It murdered scores mercilessly, snatched wealth of innocent, razed down villages, jailed many in mosquito-infested prisons for decades, all for very flimsy reasons.
Many Malawians have never forgiven MCP to date– because symbolism matters and they cant countenance the idea of voting for a party that tortured their fathers, mothers, uncles, sisters, aunties, cousins.
Another example could be UDF, a party that fought hard to destroy the MCP autocracy but after heralding the fight for democracy; became too complacent in power. Its young militias terrorized the party’s opponents; roughed up journalists, politicians, church leaders, civil society and ordinary citizens.
Its leaders (including the president according to the Anti-Corruption Bureau) defrauded the state and stagnated the economy, squandered the goodwill of donors (literally chased Denmark for criticizing rampant corruption) and precipitated the downward spiral of standards in public service, the wanton corruption and most ills of today.
UDF became a personal estate of the Muluzi family, which tried every trick to prolong its grip to power, while alienating most of the party’s talented leaders and decimating its own support base. Today, UDF has been reduced to a shell of its old self. UDF, as its patriarch would have it, is today “worn out like old curtains.” In the incoming Parliament, UDF will have a paltry 10 MPs. And among them, is not even its leader Atupele Muluzi who lost his Machinga North East constituency to a little known independent candidate. UDF has no hope of winning a presidential election ever again and for all intents and purposes, UDF is dead and buried, politically.
The the lesson of history, in short, is that no party can survive the poison of greed, abuse of power and arrogance for long. And no party is too big to fail. No class of political operatives, too smart.
Yes, corruption through rigging and buying off other crucial players can win you elections, for some time, but corruption rails the poor and the voters eventually—and breeds resentment. Throughout human civilization, greed by the ruling class has caused bloody violent revolutions. And at some point, parties full of selfish narrow interests implode, somehow.
So we don’t know what will happen to the DPP in the short and long term future. We are no prophets. Mutharika is entering his last term of office, there will be a tricky question of succession to deal with while navigating through the usual business of governing.
The opposition is like a wounded buffalo, too, and would typically seek to capitalize on any mishap. We, in the media, and colleagues in civil society, will also try to ensure we provide the usual checks and balances.
But as a citizen, I am not looking forward to any mishaps.
Mutharika has his work cut out for him. Of immediate concern is the wound of divisions that has engulfed the national psyche. The ongoing post-election violence have taken dangerous tribal undertones that bodes ill for national unity. The voting patterns, as well, confirmed our worst fears about tribe being the main motivation of most Malawian voters. With exception of the urban population and northern region, the rest of the country, as many have lamented, participated “in a census of tribes” and not civilized politics. This is a ticking time bomb. And Mutharika, somehow, must diffuse it.
Then, there is corruption, a past time for most of Mutharika’s henchmen. Our people’s misery is being compounded, regime after regime, by the criminality of those in power. Senior and junior officers are taking turns, competing on plundering Capital Hill, hospitals, schools, pension schemes, government revenue, donor aid, etc!
This, too, Mutharika must address, with urgency, despite his failings in the first term.
As I journalist, I ‘know’ why Mutharika won. For one, history will record the role of the correction fluid—Tippex. But to reduce Mutharika’s whole victory to election irregularities or rigging, no matter how rampant the complaints and evidence, is to miss the point and possibly deny the presidency legitimacy it deserves.
Secondly, the impressive work of DPP’s founding patriarch in his first term ensured that DPP is a national party with vibrant structures that earned the admiration of many Malawians. So while DPP lost the vote in the central and northern regions, thanks to Bingu’s first term, many people still supported DPP to extent that Peter trailed, but not ridiculously far off as Chakwera and MCP did in the south.
Then, there is tribalism. DPP, like its main opponent MCP, has a power-base of tribal loyalists who cares little about the ability of its leader but his identity, namely his home district and tribe, to the extent that their vote was a guarantee.
And finally, there was a fragmented opposition that divided the majority vote of those who wanted Mutharika out.
But while I am not a fan of the president’s first term, to reduce his whole victory simply to his brother and tribalism, is simply being disingenuous. Across the country, in towns and villages, when you speak of Mutharika’s record, people also tell you that he has built roads—regardless of the laughable quality of those roads.
In the cyclone hit areas, they tell you the president has delivered timely relief. In every village, women and elderly, the ultra-poor, have benefited from social cash transfer programmes supported by western countries, but which the villagers attribute to the president. For such voters, who are mostly in majority, the age of the president, a preoccupation of many in cities and his rivals, the stinking corruption, the lack of concise and clear development agenda, his procrastination in attending to emerging national issues, the rapid collapse of social services, the sight of young learners under trees, souring unemployment, the rags dressed by their children, their leaking huts, doesn’t matter as much. Those are the preoccupation of the elite.
So Mutharika won. Not with a landslide, not without question marks over credibility of the polls, but he won. And he will be my president, too. I am hence looking forward to a presidency in good elements; and a president in robust health. On top of his game.
I want Mutharika to transform this country, or at least its fortunes. I wish the same for the First Lady, the incoming cabinet and parliament. I wish the president well, not because I have suddenly had a change of heart on what his first term did to this country—the poorest in the world, but because I wish this country well and like a passenger in a car, you want the one on the driving seat to do his job well. If not for his sake, but your own. I would wish the same for every president.
The task of remolding the economy is enormous. The trappings of power are ever present. And behind his back, the DPP rank and file will be plotting succession which can, if mismanaged, prove retrogressive to the national building effort by distracting the president and those around him.………………