Early on in 2018, the former first-lady, Callista Mutharika – wife of late President Bingu wa Mutharika who died in office – was exposed in a series of leaked WhatsApp messages of her disapproval of the presidency of her brother-in-law, Peter Mutharika. She focused her criticisms on his age, arguing that he had become too old to run for a second term as President and to govern competently. Later, she appeared on TV and was heard on radio leveling scathing criticisms and attacks on her brother-in-law, eventually labeling him “Ntchona” which means, loosely, “one who has been acquiesced by a life abroad, who has not returned home for an extended period of time, and who has in the process lost touch with their identity as a Malawian as well as the pulse of their home country”. The term was picked up and bandied around by other politicians and commentariats: it has firmly stuck.

Callista Mutharika, former First Lady of Malawi and sister-in-law of current President Peter Mutharika

From there, it became apparent that a faction within the President’s party (the Democratic Progressive Party – DPP) had formed, which was not only opposed to the re-nomination of President Peter Mutharika as torchbearer for the DPP in the upcoming May 2019 elections, but which also supported his Vice President, Saulos Chilima to succeed him. The visible leaders of this opposition faction within the ruling party were outspoken Member of Parliament, Bon Kalindo and founding member of the DPP, former Minister of Gender under Bingu wa Mutharika’s government and current Member of Parliament, Patricia Kaliati. Others included Dr Michael Usi (widely known by his stage name “Manganya”), a popular figure in Malawian political theater and satire, who started a subversive movement called “Wokudya Zake Alibe Mulandu” sometime in 2017 which means “Those Who Eat [the products of] Their Own [Sweat and Work] Have No Charges [to Answer]”: an obvious dig at the theft and corruption of the Mutharika government, coined out of a popular urban euphemism.

Dr Michael Usi, Activist and Political Satirist popularly known by his stage name “Manganya”

Through a series of press conferences, grassroots organizing and appearances on television and radio, these individuals worked hard to galvanize a base within the ruling party out of its members – focusing particularly on its heartlands in the Southern Region of Malawi.

After two hesitant appearances on television and radio, the Vice President finally announced his resignation from the ruling party, and then went on to start his own party which he branded, a movement, taking with him key figures from during the time of Bingu wa Mutharika’s presidency who helped start the DPP itself as well as prominent figures in other opposition parties such as the Speaker of Parliament, Richard Msowoya (who was elected Member of Parliament and then Speaker of the National Assembly on the ticket of the leading party in opposition, the Malawi Congress Party – MCP). An intra-family feud which had started over the administration of the deceased estate and trust of the former President Bingu wa Mutharika between his widow and his brother had become the ignition for a slew of grievances and rivalries within the ruling party. The feud enabled political opponents to form themselves into factions and to ensconce themselves within and around the divisions emanating from the President’s own extended family, particularly around his estranged sister-in-law and her rabble-rousers, and the President himself and his unscrupulous handlers.

Malawi Administrative Map with Districts and Regions indicated

The remaining structures within the ruling party which continue to profess support for the incumbent are an amalgamation of diverse business interests and political forces whose basis for solidarity is rooted in maintaining the access they presently enjoy to state resources, government business and political influence. Their loyalty to the President is purely to maintain and extend his tenure on which they very much depend for safeguarding their access to the Malawi state. The President, a sort of lame-duck figurehead atop a captured state, has neither adequate control over the forces who claim to be on his side, nor the means by which he might deflate the insurgent group, sections of whom remain hidden within his own cabinet, wider party and government releasing inside information to the rebels outside. Aside from intimidation tactics such as arson, verbal and physical abuse, led by zealous factions the President himself has limited control over, his options for political maneuvering seem very limited.

President Peter Mutharika, brother of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika.

When he went to Parliament to deliver an annual state of the nation address (touted, the SONA), an event which is radioed and beamed across the country, a group of “Youth Cadets” from the notorious youth wing of the President’s own party created by his late brother, supposedly trying to sow fear among the President’s detractors, invaded the visitor’s gallery of the legislative chamber of parliament clad in black suits and sporting dark sunglasses. They started jeering at their political enemies in the legislative chamber below, generating such a commotion that the President himself had to stop his speech to pray to the Speaker for protection. The police, as they always do, and already with a restricted jurisdiction within the Parliament Buildings and Chamber, avoided too forceful a confrontation with the ruling party functionaries for fear of the political reprisals which would most certainly have followed them later.

Vice President Saulos Chilima of the UTM in party political regalia

In the process, a journalist who was recording the incident through a phone camera, was beaten by the jeering functionaries right inside the Parliament Building, outside the entrance to the visitor’s gallery. Outside, some Members of Parliament who at the time belonged to the DPP but were deemed part of the rebellion, were temporarily prevented access to the Parliament premises by more Youth Cadets stationed beside the street to, and the main entrance of, the Parliament Buildings. The most prominent political figure and MP held up by the Cadets was Patricia Kaliati herself, leader of the rebels. The message was clear, the President was caught between two powerful forces: one that opposed his candidacy perhaps due to their exclusion from the government’s gravy train, and the other which supported it to preserve their above-the-law status and privilege.

Patricia Kaliati, MP and leading figure in the UTM

As of today, several months after the Parliament incident, the Vice President has had over 8 launch-rallies of what is now called the United Transformation Movement (UTM) in the hot-bed electoral districts of Malawi, pulling enormous crowds and piling on relentlessly about government profligacy. His rallies are often attended by the former first lady herself who first started the uprising, as well as another former first lady from the Bakili Muluzi era of the 1990s, flanked by other usual political figures who hail from the President’s home region, district and/or tribe.

Patricia Kaliati (L) speaking to Callista Mutharika (R) at a UTM rally

The Vice President’s strategy seems to be to unravel the two strongholds and bases of the two major parties he will be competing against in 2019. The first is the ruling party – the DPP, which seems to be floundering due to its proclivity for violence, daily corruption scandals and hefty theft, unabashed tribal politics, general lawlessness, and its continual harassment of civil society and opposition party members. The DPP is also the party from which the UTM has defected. The extent, however, of the damage to the ruling party due to these factors cannot be properly ascertained.

The Malawi media, most prominently in print but also in politically aligned radio and television houses, also see the DPP as a threat to their interests (to their political overlords and their businesses via the denial of government contracts). Consequently, their adversarial reporting has been brutal and unrelenting, dropping news bombshell after news bombshell, and doubling down with hours of scorched-earth punditry, in what is proving to be quite an unprecedented laser-beam focus on and scrutiny of government actions. The public broadcaster (the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, MBC), due to its supine and craven worship of the President, unwavering adulation of his government, and its refusal to allow opposition figures onto its platform, is largely bereft of any credibility, forcing the government and ruling party to engage the same adversarial private media houses for coverage of their rallies and activities. The government finds itself purchasing journalistic credibility on the market having helped to destroy it at the public broadcaster.

Joyce Banda, first woman President of Malawi and Leader of the PP

As mentioned earlier, the DPP’s home-base is in the Southern Region, particularly the districts of Thyolo, Mulanje, Chikhwawa, Chiradzulu, and within the townships of the city of Blantyre.

The second base the Vice President seeks to upend has long belonged to the party of independence and liberation, the Malawi Congress Party. Since losing power in 1994, following 3 decades of single-party rule, the MCP finally salvaged its reputation following the election of a former evangelical clergyman and political outsider, Lazarus Chakwera, to its presidency. The party’s primary base is in the Central Region, among the Chewa ethnicity in the districts of Dedza, Kasungu (the home district of the founding president of Malawi, Kamuzu Banda), Lilongwe (where the Capital is situated and where Chakwera is from), Nkhotakota, Salima, Dowa, Ntchisi and Mchinji.

Prior to the Vice President’s defection, many saw the MCP as the most likely victor of a credible 2019 election largely due to the lack of real political rivals in the Central Region, which constitutes the largest unsplintered regional voting bloc in Malawi. The South, though more densely populated, is home to several competing large parties such as former ruling parties, United Democratic Front (UDF) of former President Bakili Muluzi, whose son serves as Minister of Health in the current government under a “gentleman’s agreement” between his father and the current besieged President, and the People’s Party (PP) of former President Joyce Banda. These two parties cater largely to the Yao ethnicity found in the bordering districts of the MCP dominated central region beginning around Ntcheu, through Mangochi and going south beyond Zomba (the former capital of Malawi) and their surrounding regions. The UDF also provides some political representation to Malawi’s Muslim populations in the South Eastern parts of the country as well as some business sections of Malawi’s Asian population. The ruling party, the DPP, caters primarily to the Lhomwe tribe (now disparagingly called the Lhomwe Belt) further south of the country.

Lazarus Chakwera, MP, former clergyman and Leader of MCP speaking in Parliament

Thus while still commanding an advantage in the Central Region, the MCP has to worry about the noise and political saturation that comes with a defecting Vice President, who himself is of the Ngoni ethnicity from Ntcheu district, a bordering southern district to Dedza where the MCP heartlands really begin. His Ngoni roots could also prove important in mobilizing the Ngonis of Mzimba district in the North West of the country, and other Ngoni areas as far South as Chileka on the outskirts of Blantyre. His youth and charisma, especially in speech, as seen in all of the rallies conducted so far, indicate that there is a decent amount of interest in his candidacy and message, though it remains to be seen to what extent he has been able to dissuade rank and file voters of the MCP amidst a period of resurgence within the liberation party after the election of their new, albeit older, but quite charismatic, former clergyman who is Chewa himself. Internal wrangles between the old guard and the new leadership have however weakened the MCP somewhat, especially when floored leaders at conventions and primaries have castigated the new leadership in the media, and opted to leave with their supporters rather than get behind successful candidates.

Atupele Muluzi, MP, Minister of Health and Leader of UDF. Also son of former President Bakili Muluzi

The political calculations made by voters in rural areas (who are by far the largest and most influential voters in Malawi) are quite different from those in urban areas: in rural areas, questions about good governance and democratic rule give way to pressing concerns about social programmes aimed at improving rural infrastructure, access to public goods like health, education, roads, water and housing, access to subsidized factor inputs especially in agriculture vis-a-vis food security, and such tangible outcomes of government interventionist policy.

During Bingu wa Mutharika’s presidency, especially his first term, government policies and programmes designed to target these areas of concern were able to uproot regional and ethnic sensibilities among the electorate across much of the country. As such, Bingu wa Mutharika became and still is the only President of democratic Malawi, since 1994, to have marshalled over half — in fact over 60% — of the total votes cast in the 2009 general election, managing to achieve a large parliamentary majority as well as a broad national mandate to govern. In his subsequent term however, he became increasingly tribal conscious and sought to establish a sort of political dynasty modeled after Kamuzu Banda’s presidency and rule. This activated an atmosphere of tremendous public hostility towards his presidency by the beginning of 2011, which was marked by protests, vigils, riots, court actions and other forms of conveying anti-government sentiment in the cities of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, which were themselves met with heavy-handed repression by security forces and party operatives which often resulted in arbitrary arrests, abductions, arson and even deaths (including faked suicides) of the government’s opponents.

In this sense — that is, in the sense of government provision of essential public goods — the ruling party remains a formidable force in spite of its scandal-steeped tenure; especially with this fiscal year’s national budget which is a true “election budget” marked by significant increases in public programmes, including subsequent off-the-cuff decisions such as the suspension of secondary school tuition fees. Proper administration and implementation of such a budget in a very heated, corruption-conducive, highly competitive, pre-elections political climate, however, is another matter.

Refusing to be upstaged by the “election budget”, all the major parties except the UDF which remains debilitated by a “gentleman’s agreement” which 4 years later still refuses to mature into a full alliance, have announced ambitious jobs programmes of their own: the new UTM has promised 1 million jobs in the first year of their presidency achieved through a national loan scheme acquired from “idle” pension funds: a new law will have to be enacted to enable this. This promise was followed by a similar one from the PP to be achieved through various rural community development schemes such as livestock husbandry. Finally, the most ambitious jobs promise of all would come from the MCP, intending to create 4 million jobs over the course of their term in government through what their President termed “inclusive capitalism” through state subsidized corporations in strategic sectors such as agriculture, energy, health and education to “avoid making the rich poor to make the poor rich”: no further details have been forthcoming.

Merged photos of Mwenifumbo (L) and Chihana (R). Both leaders, leading two factions, took to separate and rival conventions to be elected party Presidents of the AFORD in Lilongwe city. Source: Zodiak Online at https://zodiakmalawi.com/top-stories/aford-has-two-presidents

There is much activity in the Northern Region as well, bearing in mind that despite their lower population in comparison to the other two regions (or three if you break the Southern region into South and East), the North were the crucial kingmakers of the 2014 general election. Typically, the North will tip the scale in favor of the Southern party’s candidate they vote for in an election. This is because though few, they have tended to vote as a bloc. In 2014, the North largely voted for the PP, a party that fell so far third that in terms of the presidency, their votes did not make a difference. But had they voted in similar numbers for the MCP, that would have tipped the scale in it’s favor, just as a vote for the DPP would have further extended the lead of between 350,000 to 450,000 votes which gave the DPP the presidency.

Bon Kalindo, MP, Stage Actor and Comedian, and major figure of the UTM

The major party in the North is the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) which was started by the late single-party dissident and trade unionist Chakufwa Chihana with a realistic chance of becoming a trans-regional party due to his opposition to Kamuzu Banda’s government: an opposition which was heaviest in the Northern and the Southern Regions. The party is now embroiled in a bitter civil war which has effectively split it into two factions, one led by Enoch Chihana (Chakufwa Chihana’s son) and the other by his popular challenger Frank Mwenifumbo. At least in view of the 2019 election, this feud seems to have rendered the party irrelevant. Both camps insist that they are the legitimate leadership following a spectacular “shouting match” at a party meeting when they stood opposite each other surrounded by their respective supporters behind them in what looked like “a freestyle battle”. They have dragged each other in and out of both the public courts of opinion and judicial courts in an endless struggle for the shredded reins of power of the party.

Bon Kalindo and co, protesting half-naked to symbolize outrage at the abduction and killing of People with Albinism in Malawi

The UTM, just as the other parties of the Central and Southern Regions, will look to the North with two intentions: firstly, they will seek to draw Northern voters away from their opponents by hoping that some sort of agreement and respite is achieved between the two warring factions of the AFORD. A strong AFORD means the battle for the presidency shall be fought in the Central and the Southern Regions because Northerners are too few to elect a government even in the event of them voting overwhelmingly for the AFORD. But should they vote in large enough numbers for a Southern party, and especially the MCP whose regional bloc is the most intact, this would guarantee that party’s victory in the election. Also, a strong AFORD could be attracted into a parliamentary alliance with a 2019 victor secured through the doling out of political pork in the form of cabinet seats and appointments to Embassies and Parastatals.

Enoch Chihana, Leader of AFORD and son of Self-Proclaimed Freedom-Fighter and Trade-Unionist, Chakufwa Chihana.

Secondly, they will attempt to scrounge for the remaining unaffiliated voters who could produce sufficient votes to push a Central or Southern Region party ahead and into State House. This is particularly true for the Big Four (DPP, UDF, PP and UTM) jostling for votes in the politically congested Southern region, a region into which the MCP has expended a tremendous amount of resources and energy as well to make itself relevant, especially in the southern most district of Nsanje among the Sena people, and the south western district of Mwanza.

During his first rally in the Northern city of Mzuzu, the Vice President delivered his speech entirely in ChiTumbuka, a language predominantly spoken in the North in northen Mzimba and Rumphi Districts. The speech made political shock-waves for the use of that language alone: ChiTumbuka is one of several major Malawian languages that have been starved of national prominence following the declaration of English and ChiChewa as the two official languages by Kamuzu Banda after independence. Chilima’s use of the language, with a southerner’s accent, revealed effort on his part: a moment of historical acknowledgement which landed in the North.

Michael Usi of “Wakudya Zake Alibe Mulandu” in character, mimicking the first President of Malawi, Kamuzu Banda who always wore a three-piece suit, a hat, a pair of glasses and had a fly-whisk in his right hand. Kamuzu also never spoke ChiChewa or any local languages in public.

Urban centers, especially towns and cities, are quite fluid and seem to be the primary bases for the new UTM. But without statistics, not much else can be said. My impression is that the ruling party with the financial and institutional muscle afforded it by government, is still the party to beat.

As someone once asked rather cynically upon hearing that a party in government had lost an election: “how do you lose an election that you, yourself, have organized?” Well, how do you?

Only time will tell.


Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.

Featured Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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