Written by David Phiri
Lazarus Chakwera is failing to unify the divided country as he pursues a blatant agenda of purging Southerners, writes legal expert
President Lazarus Chakwera came to power through an alliance of nine parties called Tonse — meaning “all of us”. The name of the alliance gave an impression of inclusivity but before the ink had dried it became evident that little had substantively changed in Malawi.
The alliance, which had accused former president Peter Mutharika of nepotism and promised to deal with it decisively, immediately committed similar transgressions. Barely two weeks into office, Chakwera announced his cabinet and it was conspicuously dominated by people from his region, with his home district of Lilongwe getting a lion’s share.
The backlash was instant but proved ineffectual as Chakwera defended his picks. Commentators such as Danwood Chirwa, a professor of law at the University of Cape Town, argued that the appointments were a form of political patronage. Those who voted, expecting a radical departure from the ills of the Mutharika administration, were in for a rude awakening. However, few have borne the brunt of the new administration’s duplicity as the southern region’s technocrats.
Though Chakwera had evoked the spirit of inclusivity through the “Tonse” mantra, he has since made it evident that those hailing from the south, which is the opposition Democratic Progressive Party stronghold, has no seat at his administration’s table. Heads have rolled in a purge that has seen Southerners being axed. For instance, Dalitso Kabambe, a reserve bank governor under whose watch Malawi’s currency performed well against major currencies, was sacked. He hails from the south and was replaced by Wilson Banda who comes from the same region as Chakwera.
In three key ministries, a significant degree of institutional memory was obliterated with the firing of three permanent secretaries — Joseph Mwandidya for the ministry of energy, Harry Kanjwe for home affairs, and Wilson Moleni for land affairs — who coincidentally comes from the south.
At the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA), Chakwera discarded all pretence of impartiality going so far as to overreach and abuse his power as he canned the commissioner-general of the tax body Tom Malata along with his deputy Roza Mbilizi. They both hail from the south.
Without any subtlety, the replacements were from the regions that gave Chakwera votes. Though the mandate to hire or fire for those positions does not rest with the president, Chakwera arbitrarily declared that the appointments he had made for these positions were solely in an acting capacity. For those he has not fired who come from the south, he has redeployed to obscure government offices, which are considered in Malawi as “the Guantánamo bay of the civil service”.
Admittedly, Chakwera reserves the right to bring into service those whom he trusts to execute his agenda, however it is the selective firing that has raised concerns. The fact that most victims of the Chakwera purge come from the southern region has not gone unnoticed. The discriminatory dismissals that Chakwera has pursued since taking up office risk further fragmenting the nation and could threaten peace and stability in the long run.
In the run up to the June 2020 election that ushered Chakwera into power, Malawi’s geographic divisions were exacerbated and exploited by politicians as ethnic tensions heightened. Chakwera was backed by the central region where he comes from and is the traditional base of his Malawi Congress Party (MCP), as well as the northern region where his running mate, Salous Chilima, enjoyed significant support. Mutharika was backed by the southern region. There is undeniably a politics of vengeance at play and it belies Chakwera’s earlier promise to ensure meritocratic appointments in government and state-owned enterprises.
Chakwera now runs the risk of further alienating Southerners given that Malawi’s political leaders are cognisant of the regional fractures and simmering ethnic tensions that became more pronounced during the June 2020.
For instance, Chakwera supporters attacked, maimed and intimidated Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) monitors in parts of the central region. However, Mutharika did not seek any recourse nor did the electoral commission follow up on these incidents. In essence, Mutharika accepted an outcome of an election that was of a lesser quality than the one the courts had nullified.
In his last speech as president, Mutharika called upon his supporters to accept the outcome, ensuring calm prevailed in what was then a volatile atmosphere. Chakwera was a direct beneficiary of Mutharika’s final demonstration of mature and democratic leadership because it allowed for a peaceful and smooth transfer of power.
Despite a peaceful transition facilitated by his predecessor, Chakwera is failing to pursue a path of unifying the nation and bridging the divide, as he pursues a blatant agenda of southern region exclusion. Perhaps the “Tonse” mantra was a mere gimmick, after all?
About the author: David Phiri is a legal expert based in Geneva, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.