/ 13 October 2020

Malawi’s new president is off to a good start

Files Malawi Vote
Lazarus Chakwera, Malawi's President. (Amos Gumulira/AFP)

In June this year, President Lazarus Chakwera was swept into power on a huge wave of euphoria — an era without comparison in Malawi’s history and, perhaps, not anywhere on the continent.

This unprecedented period began with protests in 2019, after a disputed election which had re-elected Chakwera’s predecessor and nemesis Peter Mutharika as president for the second term. But when the courts nullified the results, citing widespread irregularities, the election was rerun.

Chakwera won at the second time of asking, aided by an alliance with former fellow presidential aspirant Saulos Chilima, who is now vice-president. The election took place against the backdrop of endemic and blatant corruption, frustrations over scarce jobs, a stagnant economy and worsening poverty.

For a politician named after the biblical figure who rose from the dead, this was a political resurrection like no other.

Chakwera is a pastor with a background in charismatic evangelism. Unlike Mutharika, for whom speech-making was always a weak point, Chakwera is a commanding presence on stage, and has a habit of saying the right things— demonstrated both throughout his campaign and during his swearing-in and inauguration ceremonies.

“Before we can begin to rebuild,” he told his inauguration audience, “we must clear the rubble of corruption, for it has left our taxes in ruins.”

He further promised to clear the “rubble of impunity, for it has left our governance institutions in ruins; and we must clear the rubble of unprofessionalism and incompetence, for it has left our services in ruins”.

The chaos left behind by Mutharika has meant that the president has begun with a head start.

“Public relations have been huge, thriving on the campaign promises but also on the depth of the governance rot that characterised the previous administration,” said Henry Chingaipe, a political analyst based in Lilongwe.

Nonetheless, Chakwera and his party made plenty of promises of their own, most notably their pledge to create “one million jobs”. They also promised to commercialise the country’s agriculture industry, fight corruption, and restore the constitutional order and the rule of law.

Although it is early days yet, Chakwera has so far sought to make good on these promises, especially when it comes to fighting corruption – although he did, in his speech last Monday to commemorate 100 days in office, plead for the country to be patient.

Notable accomplishments so far include investigations and arrests of members of the old regime implicated in corruption scandals, the beginning of a reform process aimed at trimming the president’s own powers, and giving more independence to the Anti-Corruption Bureau.

The police have been busy investigating and arresting members of the old regime.

Unlike his predecessors, the president and members of his immediate family have given detailed declarations of their own wealth and property.

Chakwera has also appeared in Parliament, where he took questions from lawmakers – a duty disregarded by most of his predecessors. He is good at it, too.

“He outwitted them [opposition lawmakers] so much that the fear now is that it’s the opposition MPs who will not want him to be coming to parliament,” said Boniface Dulani, a political scientist at the University of Malawi.

Dulani said Chakwera is in effect running the most transparent and accountable leadership Malawi has seen: the president has also gazetted into law the Access to Information Act, which mandates civil servants to release public information to citizens upon request; and introduced weekly press briefings at the presidential palace.

But Dulani also warns this could all prove to be a false dawn, and that it’s too early to pass any verdicts.

And, indeed, the first 100 days have not gone by without controversy. Immediately after the president announced his first cabinet, backlash over family ties within the cabinet led him to announce that the body would only serve provisionally for five months before being reviewed.

At the ceremony marking the first 100 days, while trying to justify the low numbers of women in recently appointed boards for various state enterprises, the president also angered women’s rights activists, who later announced plans for street protests.

The activists – one of whom has turned down an appointment to be on the board of a state enterprise in protest – have accused the president of lacking the political will to appoint women to positions of influence. They accuse Chakwera of breaking the country’s gender equality law, which states that no less than 40% of either sex must be represented in any public appointments.

“There are many capable leaders within the [ruling] Tonse Alliance who can serve in various positions,” said Maggie Kathewera Banda, executive director for the Women’s Legal Resource Centre and one of the coordinators for the women’s manifesto and 50-50 campaign.

She added: “The question really is that the president says he is not aware of the many educated women out there, and says we should give him their CVs, did he ask for CVs from men as well before making appointments? If that is the case, why didn’t he ask for women then to supply CVs?”

Overall, however, Chakwera’s first 100 days in office have been greeted with optimism.

“We have seen relative calm in the country and, in large part, it’s because of the level of contentment with the new administration,” said Dulani. “People might also be giving them a benefit of doubt as a new government but, generally speaking, they have handled transition very well, although there were a few bumps.”