There was a high stakes power play hours after former Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika suffered cardiac arrest and died on April 5 in Lilongwe. His unexpected death threw his governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into a panic because the constitution says if there is a vacancy in the office of the president the vice president must take over.
This put the DPP in a fix as the incumbent, Joyce Banda, had earlier been expelled from the ruling party and had formed her own People’s Party.
She had been expelled, ironically, precisely because she had refused to endorse Mutharika’s anointment of his brother, Foreign Affairs Minister Professor Peter Mutharika, as his successor.
The DPP politburo went into a frenzied huddle, scheming how to prevent Banda from taking over.
“The conduct of Honourable Joyce Banda in forming her own political party precludes her from being eligible to take over,” said the then information minister, Patricia Kaliati, in a late night press conference the next day.
The DPP inner circle decided to fly Mutharika’s body to SA to buy time while it plotted.
But drama unfolded at Lilongwe International Airport when the South African pilot of a private medical evacuation aircraft refused to allow Mutharika’s body on board.
“The pilot argued that his instructions were to fly a patient, not a corpse,” said a source privy to the arrangements. “He said he needed special clearance from SA’s Ministry of Health and veterinary department.”
High level discussions between Lilongwe and Pretoria ensued and it took the personal intervention of President Jacob Zuma to allow the lifeless Mutharika to be taken to SA, according to these sources. As his body lay in a morgue in Pretoria, his cabinet continued to plot.
“They called a cabinet meeting where they said we should not allow Joyce Banda to take over but install Peter instead,” reveals deputy transport minister Catherine Gotani Hara.
A cabinet source who attended the late-night meetings at Energy Minister Goodall Gondwe’s residence in Lilongwe said the cabinet was split – one camp said they just had to bow to fate and allow constitutionalism to reign over political ambitions, but another believed there was a way to stop Banda from taking over.
“They feared that this was as good as handing over power to the opposition.”
The other side expressed the fear that circumventing the constitution would plunge the country into chaos.
The cabinet called in chief justice Lovemore Munlo and attorney general Maxon Mbendera for legal advice.
“We were told there were no loopholes in the constitution to allow any person other than the vice president to take over,” recalled the source.
“The two eminent lawyers told us what we were planning was a constitutional coup.”
But others remained adamant, saying “this is not a legal problem but a political one”.
Mbendera and justice minister Ephraim Chiume threatened to resign because of “the illegality that was about to take place”.
It took the army to bring order.
Army Commander General Henry Odillo warned the Mutharika inner circle that the army might not support “an illegal government”.
When they realised their power was evaporating, the DPP politicians started queueing up behind radio microphones to pledge undivided loyalty to the new royalty.
Nearly 100 of the 140 DPP Members of Parliament have already switched allegiance to Banda’s Peoples Party (PP).
University of Malawi political scientist Blessings Chinsinga sums it up: “The DPP has died with President Mutharika.”
Technically Banda’s PP does not have any MPs in the 193-member parliament because there have been no elections since she formed the party. But with the massive pledges of support from the DPP she would seem to be sitting pretty. But Chinsinga warns this support is fickle.
“These are the same people who expelled Mrs Banda from the ruling party and went all over the place vilifying her,” he says.
“Their pledge of loyalty is not genuine. They are just opportunists looking for favours.”
Everyone from Mutharika’s widow, former First Lady Callista Mutharika, to a lowly party official had vilified Banda.
Callista famously told a public rally: “Joyce Banda is a mere market woman selling mandasi (fritters). How can she be president of the republic?”
DPP Southern Region governor Noel Masangwi said: “Malawi is not ready for a female president.”
Banda’s response to the sudden upsurge of support was sceptical: “I know during times like these my fellow politicians make personal decisions for their political future but can’t we wait until we bury the resident?” she told a press conference in the capital Lilongwe this week.
The mass desertion of DPP supporters has left Peter Mutharika with the mere shell of a party. After burying his elder brother – whose body was expected back from Pretoria yesterday, he is expected to return to his job at Washington State University from where he took a sabbatical to prepare to succeed his brother.
But if her political path now looks much clearer than 10 days ago, the 62-year old former womens’ rights activist Banda faces formidable economic problems.
She inherits an economy literally on its knees. Her predecessor’s abrasive politics alienated many donors, leaving a treasury desperate for foreign exchange (forex) reserves.
This has caused historic shortages of essential commodities like fuel and drugs in hospitals.
Banda is not oblivious to the huge task ahead and hit the ground running.
She immediately sacked police chief Peter Mukhito, who was at the centre of the messy handling of the unprecedented anti-government demonstrations on July 20 last year when the police killed 20 unarmed protestors.
Improving Malawi’s deteriorating human rights record is a key condition for the donors to re-open their aid taps. They especially demand the repeal of laws that restrict press freedom and allow the police to search suspects without warrants.
Washington suspended a R2.8 billion Millennium Challenge Account Compact meant to revitalise Malawi’s faltering energy sector because of the polices’ handling of the demonstrations.
The former colonial power Great Britain, the largest aid donor, withdrew its annual R1bn in aid after Mutharika expelled High Commissioner Fergus Cochraine-Dyet after a diplomatic cable he sent to London was leaked to the press, revealing he had said Mutharika was “increasingly becoming autocratic and intolerant to criticism”.
“I have been in touch with some donors who assured me they can resume aid if we address their concerns,” says Banda.
British Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham has called, offering to normalise soured relations. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has offered similar assurances as has the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the IMF.
But it will not be easy to implement some donor conditions which could make her unpopular and go against her personal beliefs.
But Southern Africa’s first female president has a real chance to prove market women have what it takes after all.