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The Ghost of John Tembo’s ‘Leader of Opposition’ Office

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

Pic by the Daily Nation

On 21 May 2019, two-thirds of Malawi rejected the comeback of Arthur Peter Mutharika to the presidency. However, the absurdity of a split vote, a Malawi Electoral Commission that concluded with too many questions unanswered, and the luck of a first-marks-the-post system of electing presidents collaborated well enough to usher him and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in government. Holding everything constant, the DPP and Mr. Mutharika must now operate on the minority side of politics for the next five years.

If the repeat of 2004, when Bingu wa Mutharika first assumed office, carries the day, the outcome of the 2019 polls may just turn out the people’s way.

The sad news for Malawi, however, is the sighting of election winners behaving like losers while those that have really lost this election, a.k.a. the DPP, are left to behave like they own the country. After all, Mr. Mutharika is not alone being given the vote of no confidence by failing to convince 62% of the country he is fit to lead. In a Parliament of 193 members, the DPP failed to paint the August House blue and only came up with 63 MPs, stripping the ruling Party of any decision-making authority as they march to face 129 non-DPP MPs in the House as well as in its committees. The DPP’s position doesn’t look like it’ll be a government that should have it easy at all.

But unfortunately for Malawians, Lazarus Chakwera – surely the most likely next Leader of Opposition – still appears distant from the enormity of the power he holds simply because in his definition of ‘victory’ is the obstinate focus on who occupies Kamuzu Palace.

Instead, Rev. Chakwera has turned to the courts because he believes he must transfer to Lilongwe’s residential Plot Number 1. There are a number out of many outcomes such a process can produce. One is the continued confusion of voters about what exactly took place on 21 May. Party zealots, whom we have a lot of, won’t need much to take their excitement to the streets, or even strangle each other if they must. The drama that will play in court may fuel yet another round of entertainment just as Madando and Tippex did in setting Malawi’s social media ablaze over the past week or so. Yet a cleverly appointed judge may simply drag the case for the next few years, with the likelihood of not granting Malawians a sensible verdict. As the years unfold with endless court appearances, great emotional exchanges, tears shed, and vulgar slurs crisscrossing social media among those feeling most concerned, Rev. Chakwera will still not be waking up from Kamuzu Palace.

If Rev. Chakwera were to decisively harness the power given to him by Malawians, he must then not depend on the courts to grant him any more victory than all the anti-DPP had on 21 May. He must suck up to the fact that his wife may not be the First Lady and that she may have to wait another five years before she finds her own ways to beautify Malawi. He must learn that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), although a grand-looking Félix Tshisekedi is called President, the man who calls the shots in the DRC neither sits on the President’s desk nor holds the President’s pen. This is the moment that Rev. Chakwera must arise as a leader, because that is what Malawians are looking for right now.

He must let Mutharika play his game at Capital Hill. Rev. Chakwera’s playground must be in Parliament. At the moment, the current configuration of MPs provides every reason for the Reverend to make it his playground. Parliament is where he must play his game, and play it well he must.

With 63 MPs, the DPP shouldn't manufacture a Speaker of Parliament. That should be Rev. Chakwera’s first preoccupation. But it’s easy to identify a nice, able-bodied and sound Malawi Congress Party (MCP) parliamentarian among their 55 who can hold that office with grace and impressive professionalism. The real work he now has is that of mobilizing a force that will make the DPP shiver to its bones about how it plans to run the affairs of the Executive Branch. He already has PP under his wing and can surely feed the 10 United Democratic Front and 4 United Transformation Movement (UTM) Party MPs enough agitation against the DPP. If he can have this preliminary force of 74, his numbers already begin smiling his way.

A bigger task will be to rally enough of the 54 Independent MPs. If he can get at least 30 who aren’t easily mused by the DPP’s machinations and limitations in handling government business, many examples of which the last five years provide with unwitting generosity, he will have the comfortable majority he needs. Although this may eventually appear easier than it seems, Rev. Chakwera needs the time, which he can’t be chasing dreams with the Judges of Malawi’s courts. A more divine duty for him is to be leader of the majority of Malawians who diligently rejected the DPP government on both the Presidency and in Parliament.

The urgency on Rev. Chakwera must be grounded in that Malawi will only make a serious stride on development if the current structure of Parliament can be maintained. So, once this next hurdle is completed, all Rev. Chakwera must do is learn from O’baba John Tembo, who occupied a similar position in 2004. Although O’baba could have done better then, he understood his leadership of the opposition, with the numbers on his side, and made government work for the Malawian people and less for its own pockets. Only with the presence of an opposition bent on making its mark on the country’s history can the stupidity of the Ben Phiris wagging pistols in public be stopped.

The ball is in his court.

The pressure must be exerted, and the one man that can best coordinate the 129 non-DPP MPs to do this is none other than Reverend Lazarus Chakwera. Particularly because there is another side to the tale of this year’s elections that we mustn’t quickly let pass us by. Mr. Mutharika run on a promise to transform Malawi into another Singapore or Germany. At times, he mentioned Malawi will resemble Europe should Malawians hand him the baton to lead another five-year term! This, coupled with the fact that Mr. Mutharika’s government must heed the orders of a large parliamentary opposition, should land the man right back where his mouth is.

As for Mr. Mutharika, he will have two choices to make. The first is to hitch on his late brother’s anthem of ‘let the work of my hands speak for itself!’ in spite of the minority he controls, and in a manner of speaking that will be achieved by cooperating with those that will spend the next five years loathing him for winning a highly contested election. The second, lazy choice embodies an aggressive exchange of cash in much of his first year in order to chip away from the large opposition bench onto his own side until a critical mass is reached for the notoriety that ruled in his last term to stay. Rev. Chakwera’s two choices, then, are either to compel Mr. Mutharika to take his first choice or continue focusing on the wrong things – like court battles – while giving Mr. Mutharika the leverage to accomplish the latter.

So, with the little persuasion of an unfriendly platform, Mr. Mutharika may perform because of the fear of repercussions if he doesn’t come close to any of his promises. We may indeed move inches closer to the Singapore dream. For anyone that loves development more than a political party, this is prime time to move forward with the development dream. If some of it will have to come by punishing the old man with a marathon of sensible policies and programs – unlike the hideous cement and malata subsidies of his first term – parliament has the unique opportunity now to let that be.

But Malawians must remember there’s a downside to success, if history is to teach us anything. Bingu’s first term, which was launched on the agony of disgruntled voters who – again – were convinced of the MCP’s electoral victory, ended up too successfully for a president who should not have been given the mandate to rule in the first place. The verdict was passed by Malawi, its top iced with the prosecution of Bakili Muluzi, in 2009 when the country gave him an overwhelming electoral victory. The next three years were filled with prayer for the mighty hand of the Almighty to rid the country of the villain the man had turned out to be, until the Lord responded.

If Rev. Chakwera were to realize he can be a leader instead of a cry baby, the court need not be the place where his sweat and blood ought to be wasted. If he so wishes, he must equip and support Saulos Chilima, who came third in the presidential election. Mr. Chilima’s abundant confidence to not waste time running for parliamentary office when his face appeared on the presidential ballot made him conveniently available when he lost and may be willing to carry all the grievances of disgruntled Malawi and fight the good fight with the courts.

It's time the good Reverend understood he is on the winning team. He, together with everyone else that wanted change on 21 May, can work together to give the old man a run for his money.


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