Case of Malawi President Peter Mutharika: In his brother’s shadow

By | July 31, 2016

Recently Malawi president Peter Mutharika invited ridicule when he urged starving Malawians to eat mice to stave off hunger. He has been President for over two years now in a country which, with a Gross National Income of $250 per year per capita, makes it the poorest in the world. Perhaps the indifferent start to his presidency is because he is still settling into what must be the toughest job on the continent.

Malawi President Mutharika

Malawi President Mutharika

Peter Mutharika did not come into his job unprepared. From 2004, he was a top advisor to President Bingu wa Mutharika, his brother, and had also served as a Minister of Justice, Minister of Education, Science and Technology and Minister of Foreign affairs between 2009 and 2012.

Yet, serving under his older brother, Peter Mutharika was an unremarkable minister and didn’t show any particular spark of leadership. When he was at education in 2011, the police planted spies in a political science class of professor Blessings Chinsinga at Chancellor College, the main campus of the University of Malawi. University lecturers demanded an apology from the Inspector General of Police and refused to teach until their “academic freedom” was assured and respected.

The stand off that ensued lasted some eight months. At its peak, the Minister of Education drew ire and indignation when he took off on holiday and flew out to the United States. In that year, the Times , which rates the performance of ministers and the president, gave Peter Mutharika a rating of 4, out of a possible 10.

In many ways, that is Peter Mutharika’s style: to do nothing about anything. He was minister of foreign affairs when his brother, in an act of irrational pique, declared Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, the British High Commissioner to Malawi persona non grata and expelled him from the country. Instead of taking charge to resolve the situation, Peter Mutharika again went missing in action, effectively closing his eyes and wishing the problem just went away.

“Peter Mutharika’s style is to let things run on autopilot, wishing that nothing too bad happens,” says Stanley Onjezani Kenani, a popular Malawian author and political commentator.

Peter the President

But the job of president is what Peter coveted the most, almost with a sense of entitlement. When his brother died in office at the age of 78 on 5, April 2012 and manoeuvres to install him president crumbled, the report of the commission of inquiry into the death of Bingu wa Mutharika says that Peter Mutharika wanted the Malawi army to take over instead. If he was not going to be president, he didn’t want then vice-president and bitter rival Joyce Banda to take over, either.

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But constitutional order won. Joyce Banda became president, ruled for two years and lost the presidency in 2014, allowing for Peter to ease into the seat he probably wanted the most since his brother invited him back home in 2004, after he had been away from Malawi for more than 40 years.

Back in 2004, when Bingu wa Mutharika first became president of Malawi, he came in like a hurricane; he declared that his administration would have “zero tolerance to corruption”; he broke away from the United Democratic Front (UDF)—the party that had sponsored him into office—ostensibly because it was corrupt and formed his own party, the Democratic Progessive Party (DPP). He asked Malawians to “dream in colour” and try to achieve the impossible. His investments in agriculture saw Malawi, following a bumper harvest in 2007, selling more maize to the World Food Program than any other country in southern Africa, and exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of maize to stricken Zimbabwe.

Malawi fell in love with Bingu’s “dreams” and the honeymoon lasted all of five years, and some. At the presidential election of 2009, Bingu’s mandate was renewed with 66.7% of the ballot.

But Peter Mutharika—elected on 31 May, 2014—has been president for only two years and, already, cracks have begun appearing in his marriage with the people of Malawi.

Disconnected from reality

Struggling to define his vision and plan of action, he is on his fourth press secretary now, having hired and fired Fred Ndala, Timpunza Mvula and Gerald Viola in quick succession.

During the rare moment that he tries, he has not always been successful in communication and defining what it is that he stands for. In a BBC Hardtalkinterview, President Mutharika did his best to blame everything on his predecessor and bitter rival, Joyce Banda and cashgate. Cashgate, the infamous theft of $200m from treasury by civil servants and the politically connected, happened under the presidency of Joyce Banda.

But in doing that, he lost an opportunity to weave a compelling narrative about the country, to articulate his vision, and, more importantly, to sell his action plan to the world and hope to get some buy-in from much needed investors. With his fixation on blaming Joyce Banda, Mutharika missed the opportunity to talk about many of the country’s priorities, chief of which is the need to stamp the cancer of corruption and wasteful government spending and put in measures to attract foreign direct investment and incentives for businesses to function at an optimum.

Malawi’s abysmal failures are long-standing and can’t all be attributed to Joyce Banda. Indeed she was responsible for some cock-up—which she paid for by losing the presidency—but she was president for only two years. Malawi celebrated its 52nd birthday in July so it would be disingenuous for anyone to pretend that endemic poverty, systematic corruption and chronic underdevelopment started with Joyce Banda.

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Here is Malawi for you in facts: 47% of children have stunted growth; Malawi’s Gross National Income is at $250 per year per capita, which  makes Malawi the poorest country in the world; 85% of the rural population live in poverty; 50% of the country’s 17 million population live below the poverty line and electrification stands at 9% of the population, the lowest in Africa.

“When he attempts to articulate to the public what his government is doing, he comes across as disconnected from reality” says Onjezani Kenani. “In the city of Blantyre, he promised to build a hotel and stadium while in the university city of Zomba, he promised that his government would build a shopping mall. He talks about fancy projects when healthcare, for example, is on life support”

Recently, Peter Mutharika attracted widespread ridicule and disbelief when he asked starving people to eat mice as a way of coping with hunger and famine.

It didn’t help his cause when, in July, he hired an expensive private jet to fly to Ethiopia to receive an honorary degree at the University of Addis Ababa.  When Mutharika tried to justify this by saying the honorary degree “will have an impact not only on me but on all Malawians”, there was a chorus of skeptical people asking, “how?”

Where are the reforms?

“It is difficult to describe Peter Mutharika”, says popular Malawi blogger and academic, Jimmy Kainja. “He doesn’t seem sure how to deal with problems facing his country.

“Malawi needs tangible policies with an actionable plan for things to improve. It’s difficult to figure out what Mutharika can do to improve because it seems like he didn’t really have a plan for Malawi in the first place.”

Perhaps Mutharika’s biggest disappointment so far has been the failure to live up to his campaign promises. He said he was going to fight corruption, make the anti-corruption agency independent, cut wasteful expenditure, reform the civil service and reduce the power and trappings of the president.

“If you talk reforms and you have a motorcade of 30 cars, then perhaps the public will think you are not serious. If you talk anti-corruption but do nothing about your ministers who have been named in the disappearance of $250 million from state coffers, then people will think you are not serious. If you talk reforms but start to build a banquet hall next to a presidential place that has 300 rooms, then maybe you are not serious about reforms.

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“People look at what John Magufuli has done in Tanzania in a short period of time and they see for themselves that there are no reforms happening in Malawi,” Kenani says.

The Economy is the enemy

Perhaps Peter Mutharika’s most formidable opponent yet may just be the tanking economy.

In July, The Nation newspaper reported that 1,000 formals jobs had been lost since January 2016 in the banking, manufacturing, retail and hospitality sector. The local currency, the Kwacha, depreciated some 338% in value against the US $ between 2012 and 2016 that the Reserve Bank of Malawi had to issue a press statement early this year to calm the fears. “The Reserve Bank has capacity to implement needed monetary policies (and) to take any actions to stabilize the Kwacha”, it said.

But it didn’t help matters when, in the same month, the long-serving minister of the economy, Goodall Gondwe, ominously told the nation that: “the fate of the economy is in God’s hands”.

Many young and economically active Malawians I know are constantly assessing the situation and deciding that the prognosis is not good. “When your minister put the economy in God’s hands,” one recently graduated medical doctor looking for a job outside Malawi told me, “you don’t want to hang around to find out if he is joking or not”.

The biggest loser

Of course, Peter Mutharika has time to fix things before Malawi goes to the polls in 2019, by which time he will be 79 years old and eligible for a second and final 5-year-term. Between now and then, he has to present to the people a credible Plan of Action, marshal the nation around a vision, get his messaging across to an increasingly skeptical nation and, like Magufuli in Tanzania, be seen to be a man of action.

He also has to start making better use of his young and capable vice president, Saulosi Chilima, who left his job as MD of telecoms giant Airtel Malawi to be the surprise running mate in the elections of 2014.

But for all his real and perceived corporate brilliance, Chilima has somewhat cut a forlorn figure and has remained an outsider in the dirty world of politics and, to this day, is not an executive member of the DPP, the ruling party to which he belongs.

Right now Chilima is like a fish out water, full of potential and energy but Malawians are unable to benefit from it.  A useful Chilima may be beneficial to Malawi but he’s a threat to those with leadership aspirations within the party”, Kainja says, adding, “in all this, Malawi is the biggest loser”.