Malawi’s newly elected president Lazarus Chakwera on Sunday took the oath of office, promising a new dawn to all Malawians and telling an ecstatic sea of flag-waving supporters that taking the highest office was “an honour”.
Conspicuously missing from the event was outgoing president Peter Mutharika, his running mate Atupele Muluzi or any official from the outgoing ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party.
“To stand before you as your president today is an honour. It’s an honour that fills me with unspeakable joy and immense gratitude. It’s an honour forged in the furnace of your desire and demand for change. It’s an honour crafted by your hand when you braved the winter chill to cast your vote. It’s an honour that has reignited the dream of our nation’s founders for a new Malawi,” Chakwera said.
Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda — whom the outgoing president had tried to sack just before the election — was there and appeared in high spirits, joking as he administered the oath of office. Earlier, Vice-President Saulos Chilima’s oath of office had to be retaken after Nyirenda omitted to use the Bible the first time around.
The biggest cheers of the day, arguably, was reserved for the chief justice as the director of the ceremony announced his arrival at the Bingu International Convention Centre grounds. A warm reception was also given to Dr Chifundo Kachale, the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission, who took the leadership of the institution only weeks ago — and has been widely lauded for organising a credible election, against all odds.
When Chakwera — who won Tuesday’s election with 58% of the vote against Mutharika’s 38% — took to the podium, with a tangible air of anticipation among his supporters, he appealed for national unity.
He vowed to be president for all, including those whose vote he did not get the election and people who regard the prospect of his presidency “with fear and grief”.
Added Chakwera: “But I want you to remember one thing: this new Malawi is a home for you too, and so long as I am its president, it will be a home in which you too will prosper. I only ask you for one thing in return: to give Dr Chilima and I a chance to earn your trust and make this win a win for all of us.”
The Malawi Congress Party, Malawi’s liberation party, previously ruled the country 25 years ago as a one-party dictatorship that terrorised the citizenry and opponents. Chakwera acknowledged that dark past, and the struggle that Malawians fought to earn democracy.
He said, however, that the gains of that struggle seem to have been eroded over the years by poverty and stagnation.
“The dream that binds us together is for us to enjoy shared prosperity, not just freedom. Of what use is freedom from oppression if you are a slave to starvation? Or freedom from colonialism if you are a slave to tribalism? Of what use is freedom from tyranny if you are a slave to poverty? No! The dream was for all of us, together, to be the ones who enjoy the riches of Malawi’s soil; to be the ones who make the products of her industries; to be the ones who harvest the bounties of her fields; to be the ones who are served by her taxes; and to be the ones who raise the skylines of her cities,” said the president.
Chakwera promised servant leadership will restore a new generation’s faith in “the possibility of having a government that serves, not a government that rules; a government that inspires, not a government that infuriates; a government that listens, not a government that shouts; a government that fights for you, not against you”.
As the ceremony came to an end, the supporters poured onto the streets to celebrate once again; the same streets in which citizens protested after Mutharika’s dubiously won election in May last year. That election was overturned by the courts, which cited widespread irregularities.
Mutharika’s absence reminded everyone that Chakwera will lead a fractured country. But although the speech may go a long way towards healing such wounds, the economy — which is in even greater peril and badly needs diversification — will require more effort than a beautifully crafted speech.