Malawi leader quits his own party

By Felix Mponda

Blantyre - Plucked by his predecessor from relative obscurity, Malawi's president has fallen out with his former mentor in a power struggle that bodes ill for the country.

The governing United Democratic Front (UDF), already divided by the feud, had for some time been considering expelling Bingu wa Mutharika from its ranks.

Instead, on Saturday the president announced his resignation from the ruling party.

"I am no longer a member of the UDF, effective today," Mutharika told a public rally commemorating a national anti-corruption day in the administrative capital Lilongwe on Saturday.

Mutharika, who won presidential elections in May, had unleashed a fierce attack on former president Bikili Muluzi, accusing him of being power-hungry and even plotting to assassinate him.

"I am not the puppet he thought I would be," the 71-year-old economist recently said.

"I will hunt down all those who plundered the country's economy" in the last 10 years Muluzi was in power, Mutharika added.

As president he inherited a system "infested with men and women who thrived on corruption".

Mutharika said he was not happy to see Malawi being ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, saying a few individuals in government had become rich in the last decade while poverty plagued millions of Malawians.

"The UDF believes corruption must continue, the party condones corruption," he said.

Muluzi agreed to step down as head of state last year after his bid to amend the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term in office was rejected by parliament.

But the former ruler continues to wield power as the UDF's chairperson, while the president has no major position within the party leadership.

"Since he failed to extend his stay in office, Muluzi has tried to rule this country through remote control," said Mutharika. "I will not allow him to do so," he said last month, accusing senior party officials, led by Muluzi, of hatching a plot to assassinate him.

Mutharika's attacks recently took on an ominous tone when he warned at a public rally: "If anyone wants to start a war in this country, I am ready to fight them."

"My only enemy is poverty. Leave me alone to run this country."

At issue in the dispute is Muluzi's continued dominance of the UDF.

Political analyst Nixon Khembe said Mutharika had no real political influence within the UDF.

"The position of national chair has been highly personalised with Muluzi remaining the dominant figure even after his retirement."

The UDF has welcomed Mutharika's resignation.

"We are excited about it. He has saved us the embarrassment of having to kick him out," said Sam Mpasu, a Muluzi spokesperson.

The rift has split the UDF into two camps: those who support Mutharika, mainly his ministers, and those loyal to Muluzi, who commands more popular grassroots support.

Arthur Makhalira, a prominent lawyer in Blantyre, has called the current feud "a recipe for political instability".

"It is clear here that the party does not want Mutharika," he said but added: "Muluzi's time is also over. He is a dictator and wants to personalise things."

Muluzi has denied that he is undermining Mutharika, describing their relationship as "very cordial".


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