Updated: Jan 15
This week, many Malawians mourn Gwandanguluwe Chakuamba Phiri.
A legend is gone, some say, with an agonizing lump in the throat. Tributes continue to pour in on the news of his demise, and tears of sadness engross those that knew of him dearly. The President, Peter Mutharika, announced, under some overwhelming compulsion of grief, that military honors will accompany Mr. Chakuamba’s remains to Nsanje District. The skeptics are yet to be convinced about the worth of tears for a man many loathed for possessing a flighty temperament, and who, in the seventies, reprimanded the general good more than dedicated his life to healing a nation from the residual pangs of colonialism. Humanity takes stock of important things in the face of a death, a moment to rally solidarity behind the decency to respect the departed.
In the midst of the mourning and tears, 24 October 2016 epitomizes the end of a rather tumultuous political era.
A veteran of Malawi’s politics, Mr. Chakuamba’s name has been on the lips of newsmakers and noisemakers alike, and in volumes of political literature for over fifty years. Few résumés in the country’s history have a record of crisscrossing loyalty to political parties as Mr. Chakuamba’s will reveal. He walked and climbed the echelons of power in virtually every regime on record to have led Malawi. In some instances, much less successfully. His long political history has seen him decorated by presidents as he navigated the political scene. He has during this tour of service made many friends and foes, some with whom he has had the grace or fortune to reconcile in the name of politics. For a moment in the evolution from a single party state to multiparty politics, at the close of an era of the iron-fisted rule of Dr. Kamuzu Banda, Mr. Chakuamba defied the odds for being appointed the country’s vice president and MCP’s running mate in the 1994 general elections – particularly having just alighted from 13 years of servitude for seditious mischief.
Five decades of Mr. Chakuamba’s life were spent treading Malawi’s political scenery. A record that resonates more with monarchs than republicans. But, importantly, it is one that reflects half a century of molding the current political economy that leaves many Malawians wanting of a reset button today.
Despite long political service, Mr. Chakuamba’s labors are hardly associated with positive significance to the welfare of the ordinary Malawian. His résumé illustrates more presence than the substance of accomplishments. Although entrusted with the mandate to drive the country to prosperity that would define her sovereignty, the Nguluwe seldom exhibited holding the national interest before all else, and mainly lacked the gut to defend this interest with all might, wisdom and soul. Instead, many Malawian’s remember a tyrant who, at the helm of the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) in the seventies, was their worst nightmare in which the memory of a bitter colonial past would be prolonged at the hand of a compatriot.
Some may identify that he may have tried, but that stronger regressive forces habitually rejected sensible change. But the lament engulfing many today is probably much less in the loss of a great patron who, for decades in the country’s evolving political space, added only minute value. Mr. Chakuamba’s departure leaves behind the same legacy that many of the country’s independence martyrs will leave behind. Such legacies challenge the long political careers which are rewarded with decaying economic, social and environmental structures. It is humanely impossible to sieve this freefall out of the investments that heroes as Nguluwe made in the posterity of the country’s generations. The current state presents the manifestation of collective input of which Mr. Chakuamba was a chief architect.
Based on its choice of leaders so far, Malawi keeps searching for benevolent patriotism.
Mr. Chakuamba’s latter political years were not scented with much adoration either. After his premature release from a 22-year sentence in 1993, the abrupt change of heart by Dr. Banda earned him leadership in a party that was not to taste the coziness of the governing bench in Malawi’s multiparty democracy for at least 25 years. The remainder of the current term, the 82-year-old Chakuamba would not be privileged to see, even if the MCP’s fortunes overturn to enable an ousting of an ill-famed DPP regime in 2019. The MCP has never rebounded from the failure to clinch the national mandate since its fall of 1993’s referendum, and is determined on that path, as long as Rev. Chakwera’s to-do file continues to swell.
For Mr. Chakuamba, a post-1994 spiral of love affairs with ruling political elites that fashioned his political strategy was to ensue. There were many times during which he officially shook the hands of several ruling parties with his right while the certificates of his Republican Party and New Republican Party were clasped in the left. Many of these short-lived romances saw him hop on and off the political platform as he struggled to re-assert himself with the rigor of the seventies in any single party, including his own. The rising number of years could not be ignored for making mellow a man reputed for stern stamina once. A blurry vision of a political career that characterized two presidential election losses, a loss in a parliamentary election back home and the subsequent flirtations with too many party flags showed a man who possessed a denigrated political identity. Many that followed history feared his enduring strength would only be best directed towards pursuit for a retirement package that was, once again, to be financed by taxpayers.
Nguluwe harbored the audacity to command the public procurement of comfy wheels at his beck and call during the hay days. But his faith in the supplementary prowess of the public purse to sustain a lavish lifestyle was to aid his roll off an economic cliff. The elusiveness of once easy cash compounded his age-oriented frailty that he failed to reconcile his healthcare bills, which once put his well-wishers in a fundraising frenzy to send him to foreign hospitals. Our article (accessible here) continues to question this unchallenged de facto eligibility of leaders for healthcare other than that which they helped to build incountry.
We think Malawians deserve better from the leaders they elect. The precedence set by governments in celebrating the nation’s fallen heroes is only justifiable as far as certain individuals have surpassed the standard of excellence and sacrifice that demonstrate patriotism of the highest order. While it is easy for our incumbents to gain political mileage in the lower Shire this time, by according this ‘fallen hero’ full honors, a simple measure of the logic behind these acts needs to be elicited, as a nation apportions their taxes to inter the very people that inflicted their victimization in a memorable past.
For those who weathered the storms of his peak days, a sense of good riddance grips them while younger minds wander about as their generations inherit the burdens allied with men they hardly knew.
A good man he was, some say. A great Christian committed to the Holy Sabbath, others claim.
After all the talk and recollection, this week, Malawians line up to bid Mbuya Chakuamba a final farewell. A wooden box will be wrapped with our national flag. A caravan of colorful speeches and tears will reign over the air. Pellets, sent by our men and women of the uniform, will rise the clear hot skies and fall in emptied shells on the grounds of the lower Shire valley as we lower a symbol of the nation’s history from the face of the earth once and for all.
An era ends…a dawn of fresh promise slowly makes way into Malawi’s future.