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Mutharika’s green card: has lawyer Justin Dzonzi been vindicated?

On 6th February 2014, leading opposition leader Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) went to the American Embassy in Malawi, where he surrendered his American residence permit, also known as the “Green Card”.

His decision followed weeks of debate on the local scene in Malawi. The heart of the debate, which was fuelled by an opinion published by Malawian lawyer Justin Donzi, was that by possessing the American residence permit, Mutharika owed allegiance to the United States of America. It was Mr Dzonzi’s assertion that as the Malawian Constitution forbids from running for the presidency an individual who owes allegiance to a foreign nation, the possession of the green card was good evidence that Mutharika owed allegiance to the United States and as such should be prohibited from contesting in the general elections to be held in Malawi in May this year.

One would have thought that the matter would be closed when the American government broke its silence on the issue and advised all Malawians that a green card was simply a residence visa, stating categorically that accordingly, Mutharika did not owe allegiance to the United States government at all.

Incredibly, however, Malawian politics managing, as ever, to somehow infiltrate even the good judgment of lawyers at times, Dzonzi’s assertions were music to the ears of the ruling People’s Party, who have been hatching and plotting different tactics to try and block Mutharika from contesting in the elections. Government machinery was instructed to take the matter seriously and challenge Mutharika’s candidacy on the basis of the possession of the green card.

Tipped that the government’s plans were to drag the matter to court and keep it there until the deadline for presenting nomination papers elapsed, Mutharika decided to simply surrender his green card.

Then ensued a completely different debate altogether that argued ridiculously that Mr Dzonzi had been vindicated, and that Mutharika’s surrendering of his green card demonstrated how legally astute Mr Dzonzi is. 

Amazingly, this opinion, the one that Mr Dzonzi has been vindicated came even from lawyers! 

The fact of the matter is that Mr Dzonzi has not been vindicated at all. No court has tested his legal opinion and ruled that in fact he was right, and that the possession of a green card signifies owing allegiance to the government of the United States. Mutharika’s action has effectively killed the issue and made it moot before anyone’s legal opinion, let alone Mr Dzonzi’s, could be vindicated. The only sure and authoritative word there is on the matter is the one from the American government: A person in possession of a green card does not owe allegiance to the American government.

Additionally, the truth of the matter is that the green card issue became a political game of cat and mouse, and that Mutharika’s move has made him win that political game hands down. Indeed, I maintain my assertion made elsewhere that Peter Mutharika’s cancellation of his green card is not a complement to lawyer Justin Dzonzi, but rather a testament of Mutharika’s political craft and magnanimity. Mutharika has refused to be petty and drag a simple issue to court over a legally debatable opinion taken seriously by a desperate government determined to stop him from contesting by any means necessary.

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