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Vaulting Ambition: Third-Term Debate Turns Violent in Malawi

Busani Bafana

June 15 2001

Bakili Muluzi and Hosni Mubarak
President Hosni Mubarak (left), who has ruled Egypt for 30 years under a state of emergency, meets with Malawian president Bakili Muluzi (right) to discuss strategies for the future. (Photo: AFP)
When Bakili Muluzi was elected president in 1994 after 31 years of authoritarian rule under Kamuzu Banda, many hoped for a turning point in Malawi's history. Indeed, despite the country's persistent economic woes and allegations of corruption, Muluzi's presidency has been an undeniable improvement on his predecessor's. But recent events suggest that Malawi's recent period of relative stability may be disintegrating.

Muluzi has never said publicly whether he will seek to amend his country’s constitution to allow him to seek a third five-year term in 2004. Yet the unrest stirred by rumors that he might has spiraled into violence.

On June 5, immediately following Muluzi’s State of the Nation address at the opening of this year’s parliamentary session, supporters of Malawi’s ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) clashed with supporters of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) outside the parliament building. Witnesses say that heavily armed police at the scene watched passively as UDF supporters severely injured 20 people—including a Muslim sheikh—and set a car ablaze. To date, only two people, both NDA supporters injured in the fighting, have been arrested.

Brown Mpinganjira, a founding member of the NDA, told workers with the United Nations Development Program that the violence had been “sanctioned” by Muluzi in order to “intimidate people into accepting him to stand for a third term of office.” A spokesman for the UDF denied that the violence was orchestrated and questioned Mpinganjira's credibility.

Yet witness accounts published June 12 in the Lilongwe Chronicle suggested that the UDF supporters were brought in together on the back of a truck, brandishing new machetes. The Chronicle has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to Muluzi in recent months.

"You are not a true democrat or a true Muslim. You are, in fact, a bad man."
The current unrest stems from the efforts of UDF leaders to encourage Muluzi to announce a bid for a third term. Muluzi has maintained a studied silence, refusing to respond to the rumors one way or another.

Civic and religious leaders have joined the press in urging Muluzi not to seek another term. On April 21, a pastoral letter from the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (Malawi’s second-largest Christian denomination) was widely published and read in most Malawian congregations. “In Africa,” the letter read, “examples of autocratic rule as a result of overstaying in the presidential seats are too numerous to mention. Removing restrictions to suit an individual leader will take Dr. Muluzi from the top down to the bottom of the democratic ladder. Our democratic system is almost the only asset we have to attract donor money and foreign investment. Destroying that asset means economic strangulation for the country, with disastrous consequences.”

Interviewed in the May 3 edition of the Blantyre business weekly Your Market, Secretary General of the Blantyre Synod of the CCAP Daniel Gunya amplified the message of the letter: “It must be borne in mind that we are simply upholding democracy and cannot be influenced by any political party.”

Apparently, these assurances were lost on some UDF supporters. The next day, the government-controlled Blantyre Daily Times reported that CCAP clergy had received threats following the publication of the letter.

The Chronicle picked up the cry in a May 2 special edition: “Let the government and the president come out in the open once and for all and answer the question many Malawians would want to hear answered: ‘Well he or will he not?’ So, Your Excellency, once again, will you or will you not seek a third term in office? The ball is in your court.”

"Our democratic system is almost the only asset we have to attract donor money and foreign investment. Destroying that asset means economic strangulation for the country, with disastrous consequences."
Muluzi, who is Muslim, visited a church in the southern town of Balaka soon after the publication of the letter but did not specifically address the question of whether he would seek a third term. “We are not all perfect, we make mistakes,” he told the small congregation, “My government accepts criticism from anybody.” Soon after, the government ran a 10-page advertisement in Malawian newspapers, claiming that the proposed amendment to the constitution has nothing to do with the issue of Muluzi running for a third term.

This seemed to many to be mere prevarication, and as the weeks passed, the press became increasingly skeptical about Muluzi’s good faith. On May 15, Raphael Tenthani, the Blantyre correspondent for Dakar’s Panafrican News Agency, reported that Muluzi’s silence on the subject “heightens speculation that this is a calculated move to make it seem as if [the support for a third term] has come from the grass roots.”

On June 4, the day before parliament returned to session, the Sunni Muslim Supreme Council of Malawi added its voice to the clamor of opposition in a lengthy
letter published in Malawian newspapers and broadcast over loudspeakers in mosques. “The entire Muslim community,” the letter began, “regards it sinful to sit and remain detached from the deteriorating social, economic, and political situation in Milawi which is a direct result of the failures in your [Miluzi’s] leadership and government. It is our belief that our silence and failure to condemn your maladministration [sic] will only earn us Allah’s wrath on Judgment Day …” Referring to the controversy over Muluzi’s rumored bid for a third term, the letter continued: “We have studied you and your government carefully. It is sad that you spend most of your time cheating the people of Malawi with false promises masquerading as the source and champion of democratic culture in Malawi … You still remain in office despite the rampant corruption in your government, bribing and buying support for you to rule even beyond the constitutional requirements. This shows that you are not a true democrat [or] a true Muslim. You are in fact a bad man.”

Danga Mughogho, writing for The Chronicle on June 12, was only slightly more restrained: “The constitution is sacred. As such, any amendments should not be undertaken lightly. That is why I have no reservations in saying that the currently mooted changes in the constitution for the selfish gain of a few corrupt individuals are blatant attempts to rape it … Dictatorship awaits around the corner. This indeed is a struggle that is worth shedding blood for to win.”

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