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Vaulting Ambition: Third-Term Debate Turns Violent in Malawi
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.
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)
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 peopleincluding
a Muslim sheikhand set a car ablaze. To date, only two
people, both NDA supporters injured in the fighting, have
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.
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
are not a true democrat or a true Muslim. You are, in
fact, a bad man."
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.”
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.
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."
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.”