Steve Sharra, a recent participant on LSE’s Programme for African Leadership reflects on the mixed legacy of Malawi’s former President Bingu wa Mutharika. This post originally appeared on Channel 16.
Questions about dead presidents’ legacies are best left to historians writing a generation removed. But for the late Malawian President Professor Bingu wa Mutharika, we can be sure of a few things that will be part of his national and international memory. On the bright side, he gained worldwide fame with the farm input subsidy that ended Malawi’s chronic food crises. The first decade of the 21st century started on a curious note for Malawi, two famines in three years; 2002 and 2005. The second famine came less than a year after Bingu’s election in 2004. It gave him enough resolve to adapt a concept from the opposition, garner donors’ support, and make a name for himself and for Malawi.
In 2007, Mutharika appeared in the New York Times, Financial Times, and the Los Angeles Times, in what pundits called the Malawi Revolution. From a paltry 1.2 million metric tonnes of harvested maize in 2005, Mutharika’s subsidy programme increased the yield to 2.7 million metric tonnes in 2006, and to 3.4 million in 2007. When he became Chairperson of the African Union in 2010, he introduced the Food Basket, an idea he hoped would be proliferated across the continent. Subsistence farmers who had never harvested enough to last them till the next season sang Mutharika’s praises.
They are many who mourn his passing. AIDS patients in Malawi, who were destined for an early death, now live relatively long and healthier lives, thanks to anti-retroviral drugs that became available during his tenure of office. Bingu put the food surplus as his number one achievement, and included the anti-retroviral drugs on the list of things he had accomplished. He built new roads where previous presidents had failed. He courted the Chinese, whose infrastructure projects have changed the skyline of the capital city Lilongwe. Mutharika’s entry on Wikipedia lists eight international awards he received between 2008 and 2010.
In 2011, an award he had been poised to receive was withdrawn after protests from critics who argued that he had veered from his path and was now becoming an oppressor of his own people. Events of the last two years of his presidency and his life will loom large in his legacy. Commentators point to a 2009 landslide re-election victory, and the quest to engineer the election of his brother to succeed him in 2014, as the beginning of an astounding about-turn. Signs started a few months after the May 2009 re-election. He announced that access to the University of Malawi, perennially one of the lowest in Africa and in the world, would be based on a quota system rather than on full merit. Next came a single-minded determination to change the Malawi flag. A rising sun full of symbolic potential was changed to a full sun; an argument for how Mutharika had so developed Malawi it was no longer a developing nation. That came complete with fabricated surveys and TV mics pushed in front of traditional chiefs forced to defend the flag change.
It started looking like President wa Mutharika was not fond of listening to opposing views. In December 2010, the Vice President, Mrs Joyce Banda, was expelled from the Democratic Progressive Party, for allegedly forming “parallel structures”, code for being ambitious to contest for the presidency in 2014. On 12 February, the Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito (who has now been sacked by Mrs Banda) summoned Dr Blessings Chinsinga, political science lecturer at the University of Malawi. Dr Chinsinga was interrogated on allegations that he was inciting an uprising.
Then followed a lecturer’s strike who were asking for an apology and a reassurance that their academic freedom would be guaranteed. Mutharika told Malawians that Mukhito was the best Inspector General of Police the country had ever had. He instructed the University Council to expel four lecturers from the university, including leaders of the academic union.
Then came 20 July. The atmosphere for most of 2011 was fractious, and what had looked like democratic debate quickly degenerated into a shouting match between Mutharika and Malawian civil society. Activists organised demonstrations in the major cities of Malawi, where a petition to the president was delivered. It asked for lasting solutions to fuel and foreign exchange shortages, drug shortages in hospitals, and improved governance.
The police quickly reverted to force which angered protestors whose movements during the marches had been restricted. Anger boiled over and masses took to the shops. There was looting and damage of property, to which the police responded with deadly fire. At the end of two days of rioting twenty people had been killed, the majority of them in the northern city of Mzuzu. Malawi had changed overnight.
In 2012 there were high profile arrests of leading human rights activists and opposition politicians, for charges that looked trumped up to many. Mutharika was not prepared to show signs of relenting, nor were his detractors. The economy continued sinking, with prices of basic necessities going up every week. March 2012 saw developments reminiscent of 1992, twenty years to the month when Catholic bishops triggered off a revolution toward multiparty politics by issuing a pastoral letter on 8 March against the excesses of then life president Dr Hastings Banda’s rule.
The Public Affairs Committee, a group comprising religious and civic leaders, asked Mutharika to either find solutions to Malawi’s problems, or to resign. He was given 60 days. Twenty five days into the ultimatum, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. It was the worst possible nightmare for the Democratic Progressive Party. Members started breaking ranks, in the process revealing plots to prevent the Vice President, who remained in office by virtue of the constitution, from acceding to the presidency. Rumours indicate that the army stepped in quickly but quietly and made it clear to everyone that the constitution was supreme.
President Joyce Banda became southern Africa’s first ever and Africa’s second female head of state last week. Her coming to power has so far shown there is a restoration of ties with donors so aid can resume and the economy can breathe again. Mutharika was overtly troubled by the conspicuous economic vulnerability of Malawi, an economy held hostage by the West, but seemed oblivious that it was his own abysmal diplomatic skills that made that problem so apparent. The future of Malawian politics will need to shine a bright light on this problem.
Current thinking on governance is turning toward “developmental leadership” in which coalitions are seen as key. Women leaders are thought to be better at exercising “power with” rather than “power over,” which renders itself to coalition building. But the tendency is to focus on individuals rather than systems. Power politics changes people, and as long as we remain unaware of how this happens, we will continue ending up disappointed by overly ambitious expectations. Malawians are conflicted about events of the past few days: mourning a departed leader while at the same time celebrating what appears to be a new opportunity for a fresh start. On their own, female leaders may not necessarily change African politics. But there is a body of scholarly evidence which shows that the presence of women does play a moderating influence on machismo. Two on the continent is a good place to start, and Malawians seem eager to spearhead the transformation.