The Window on Malawi
It is common for politicians to point at the mistakes of others. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Malawi needs solutions that benefit all.
They were bashing President Bingu wa Mutharika for, as they put it, violating the Constitution and laws of Malawi. Former president Bakili Muluzi, who addressed rallies in Blantyre on Sunday, claimed political sainthood and branded Mutharika a law breaker.
Yet, for 45 minutes, Muluzi and his entourage were violating the rights of travellers in Machinjiri. The first meeting addressed by Muluzi was at Chirimba Primary School grounds, away from the main road. But at Luwanda in Machinjiri, the former president’s Land Rover, from where he was speaking, was parked less than five metres from the road. The pick-up that carried a generator for power was on the main road, thus being the first vehicle to block travellers.
Then followed vehicles that were part of the former president’s convoy. They parked right on the road and, from 2:45 pm until 3:30 pm, traffic came to a standstill. Minibus operators and passengers lost time and time is money. Even pedestrians were inconvenienced.
People had to walk for a distance because minibuses could not pass through the crowd and vehicles. "This is really bad," said one woman, a suitcase in her hand. "Why are they blocking the road?" The rest of what she said is unpublishable but it spoke of her anger.
The blocking of the road spoke a lot about hypocrisy: how people see a speck in another’s eye and miss their own log. This is typical of politicians—all politicians from Mutharika to opposition leaders to all of us. Politicians, especially, accuse others without offering national solutions that would benefit all.
Two wrongs do not make a right and this a philosophy the UDF is failing to adopt. Muluzi is not supposed to simply accuse Mutharika and his administration without offering practical solutions that would benefit Malawians. This, too, is what our opposition politicians have failed to do throughout the years.
Muluzi is able to see Mutharika violating human rights but was unable to see his own failure. His team is even against a common understanding about Muluzi’s eligibility to contest next year’s elections. His coalition partners dismissed talk that the Constitution bars their presidential candidate from contesting because he already served his two terms from 1999 to 2004.
This becomes clear from the meetings Muluzi addressed at four places in Blantyre.
Muluzi’s first stop at Chirimba was mainly a meeting of children and women, old women and young girls who had probably been sleeping and had nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon.
What else would people do after church? It was a meeting of a couple of thousands, just a couple, nothing more than that. Isn’t Muluzi a politician who claims that thousands come to his rallies? Where do those pictures come from?
For months Muluzi has been placing pictures of his rallies in the press, describing them as part of the mammoth crowd. It might be interesting to study the faces and determine whether or not some do not appear on every picture.
His speech was as usual. In fact, it was surprising that the former president, who is also UDF national chairman, who is also UDF presidential candidate in next year’s elections (what titles?) is addressing rallies in different places. His speech was about change, but this is change he is not explaining in detail. What change? As he spoke, eloquently as he does, he engaged the audience by asking questions:
Zinthu zitani? As some women responded zisintha, a small boy, about 10 years, shouted, "Sizitheka". A few people laughed. But it was no laughing matter.
It showed that while there may be hundreds at Muluzi’s rallies, not all come because they support the UDF leader. This is true of all politicians. Some people come just to while away time, to run away from the boredom of small houses that are filled with children and adults—boys and girls, young and old.
The small boy’s response also showed that Muluzi is operating in the past; that he is using slogans that have lost meaning with time.
The change slogan was powerful in 1993, when all Malawians agreed there was need for change. The slogan was powerful not because Muluzi gave it strength but because it reflected the hopes of the majority and the majority in any democracy have power.
Muluzi and the UDF have failed to come up with new ways of engaging people. In 1993, the UDF reflected the wishes of people. Now—and this is a remarkable difference—the party is reflecting its own agenda, to get back into power at every cost. Yet this is not the wish of the majority of Malawians. They have not forgotten the UDF decade.
This, too, is a visible sign that the UDF, as a political product, has failed to manage its life-span. It was born, it grew up and now has reached maturity. In a life-span of a product, the UDF was supposed to rebrand itself, to be involved in a kind of rebirth lest it goes down into decline.
That time was 2004 when the party had Mutharika as its winning candidate. That was when Muluzi was supposed to let the party live beyond himself.
But that is not what the UDF did. Instead, Mutharika, as he says often, was forced to leave and form his own party, the Democratic Progressive (DPP). Now the UDF is on decline, falling faster than it rose to popularity.
The most important aspect of politics is popularity, not power; which is what the UDF did in 1993. Now it wants to get power without getting popular.
The second stop for Muluzi and his entourage was at Luwanda in Machinjiri where a road was blocked for about one hour.
Maravi Peoples Party (MPP) president Uladi Mussa was the first to speak before Muluzi addressed a crowd of a couple of thousands. Again the crowd was not as big as people are told. Perhaps because these were not platform rallies.
But they were reflective of the situation, anyway. Children started to run after the convoy at Area 1 in Machinjiri. They were barefoot children without any programme on a Sunday afternoon; there were women chatting up each other while selling small things at the market; there were men drinking at pubs at Luwanda; and there were those who came to see the man: the UDF candidate.
"There are 22 reasons Bingu [wa Mutharika] shall lose next year’s election," said Mussa. "But because of time, I will not tell you all."
But he went on to list two reasons: that Mutharika is stingy and does not appreciate what people do to him and, secondly, that he cherishes people’s arrests. Stingy? Is the President supposed to be throwing bank notes on the roads for people to collect? The second accusation is difficult to prove and ends there, almost.
The truth of the matter is that the UDF is failing to sell an ideology to people which is sad because the country needs the UDF just as it needs the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and other parties. Perhaps the UDF was meant to be a transition party, as one biased analyst says, that after ruling for 10 years it should die and be forgotten, except in history texts.
The first to speak at Bangwe, the final place for the rallies, was Congress for Development (Code) president Ralph Kasambara.
He proclaimed his profession, that he is a lawyer and that he understands Section 83 (3): "The President, the First Vice-President and the Second Vice-President may serve in their respective capacities a maximum of two consecutive terms..."
This, said Kasambara, does not stop Muluzi from contesting next year’s election. He qualified this by saying he is an educated lawyer trained in Malawi and India.
This is not all. Kasambara should have added that he is a brilliant lawyer; that he is the only Malawian to get almost a distinction in the Faculty of Law at Chancellor College. The faculty has never produced a distinction since its establishment in late 1960s. Kasambara got an average 69.5 percent, just about a distinction which starts at 70.
Such a brilliant lawyer has spoken and Malawi must listen: Section 83 (3) does not bar Muluzi from contesting next year.
Still it is important to listen to other voices. The relevant authorities have spoken, too, on Section 83 that taking the matter to court is overstretching the Judiciary. The Law Commission is of the view that the framers of the Constitution meant to restrict consecutive presidential terms to a maximum of two.
Some prominent lawyers have said so, too. Everybody else says Section 83 prevents Muluzi from contesting. It is only those in UDF whose reading of Section 83 is different from the rest.
Edge Kanyongolo is perhaps the country’s most respected lawyer. He told the BBC in a recent interview that his reading of Section 83 is that it bars a former president from running for the office again. This is the ordinary reading of the Constitution and it makes sense because the Constitution is a document for people, ordinary people, hence the language is for them.
One trick the UDF has to live with is that judges presiding over cases of constitutional matters consult academics from Chancellor College. This was made clear by former High Court judge Dunstain Mwaungulu in a My Turn column article in defence of his 1997 ruling in a case involving the late Fred Nseula who was accused of crossing the floor in Parliament.
Mwaungulu ruled that Nseula ceased to be an MP when he was sworn in as deputy minister because the law does not allow a person to hold two public offices. This ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal which held that a person can be an MP and a Cabinet minister.
Mwaungulu, in the My Turn which he wrote to respond to criticism, said he consulted Chancellor College academics in the Faculty of Law and they agreed with his reading of the law. This shows how much trust the judges have in academics.
Now that Kanyongolo has spoken on Section 83, it is doubtful any judge would want to go against legal views of an internationally acclaimed scholar. This is where the UDF has fallen into a pit, partly because in their quest for power they want to gain favours of law, not people; they want to be popular with the law which does not vote.
The UDF has got its tactics wrong, mostly. The party missed a re-branding opportunity. It is now in a crisis of identity that comes with decline.
All popular products from Coca Cola to Lifebouy go through a rebrand of somekind. This is necessary to keep the products on the market. This is what the MCP did in the 1990s. Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda brought in Gwanda Chakuamba.
The party’s ideology also changed to adopt multiparty democracy. The party which opposed multiparty vehemently, was able to win more seats in Parliament in 2004 than any other party.
The country did not take time to study why the MCP emerged the strongest after the last elections. One reason—this is just one of the factors—is that the MCP has been rebranding itself over the years with leadership changing from Chakuamba to John Tembo until the former left to form his own party.
The majority of voters now are the youth, those aged between 18 and 35 years. These do not often go to rallies. They have ways of spending time. Parties should, therefore, find ways of courting this group of voters.
The UDF and its allies are in danger of fielding a candidate who might not be allowed to contest in next year’s elections.
This should worry all Malawians because the party needs to take an active role in the elections and the party needs to prepare well, not to be caught unawares at last minute, just about time for elections. This will be sad and the UDF must save Malawi from such political tragedy.
The UDF should concentrate its energies on preparing its own house and not pointing fingers at Mutharika and the DPP.
One way to do that is to offer a concrete plan of its participation in next year’s elections which should come with rebranding. People want to see something new, something never seen before. It pays and that is the reason old brands spend millions to rebrand products.
Does the UDF now see the log in its eye?