Chakwera’s political capital in Malawi is eroding

Less than two years into his term, the high expectations of President Lazarus Chakwera are fast fading.

Lazarus Chakwera came to office in 2020 on a wave of popular goodwill and high expectations. Malawi’s High Court had courageously annulled the re-election of his predecessor, Peter Mutharika, on the grounds that his victory had been blatantly rigged.

But now, less than two years later, Chakwera – the president with the unlikely voice and demeanour of a Martin Luther King – is losing popular support fast. Promising much, he has delivered too little and has disappointed many, particularly over corruption, nepotism and fighting grinding poverty.

Chakwera this week dismissed his entire cabinet following street protests and deputations from civil society leaders accusing him of favouritism. The demonstrations were sparked when he fired one cabinet minister for corruption while protecting others.

Three days later he appointed several new members of a new cabinet. Some local commentators dismissed the grand gesture of firing the whole cabinet as a ‘publicity stunt.’ But that seems to be the way they do cabinet reshuffles in Malawi.

Chakwera’s problems have been aggravated by tensions within the ruling Tonse Alliance

Chakwera had already signalled that one of those who wouldn’t be returning to cabinet was lands minister Kezzie Msukwa. He was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) on 30 December 2021 after it had detained Ashok Nair, a Malawian associate of British businessman Zuneth Sattar. Msukwa allegedly received 23 million kwacha (US$28 000) and a Mercedes-Benz from Sattar, who was arrested by the British National Crime Agency in October, according to Africa Confidential.

And indeed, Chakwera announced Samuel Kawale as lands minister on Thursday, so Msukwa is evidently gone. This was a welcome step, though it’s too early for a full assessment.

Chakwera’s problems were aggravated by tensions within the ruling Tonse Alliance, mainly between his Malawi Congress Party and the United Transformation Movement of Saulos Chilima. The alliance also includes seven smaller parties. Soon after their joint victory in the 2020 general elections, the two parties had opposed each other in by-elections. A member of the alliance told ISS Today that its members were supposed to meet at least twice a month but hadn’t done so for several months.

Last week Chakwera had a robust meeting with a delegation from the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) – a coalition of several civil society organisations. The group offered very blunt criticism of the failings of his government.

After praising the president for his openness to dialogue and accountability, PAC chairperson Patrick Thawale quickly cut to the chase. He rebuked Chakwera’s ‘contradictions’ after the president fired labour minister Ken Kandodo for corruption in 2021 but failed to dismiss Msukwa and energy minister Newton Kambala, who were also implicated in graft. This ‘selective justice … cast doubt on your political will to deal with corruption in Malawi,’ Thawale said.

He reminded Chakwera that he’d reneged on a promise to reshuffle the cabinet by the end of 2021, noting that his ministers were mere ‘spectators’ to governance, and many lacked ‘gravitas and influence.’ Keeping them in office ‘continues to erode trust that was bestowed upon you.’

The reshuffle of cabinet ministers is a step in the right direction, but may not placate Chakwera’s critics

Thawale also accused Chakwera of nepotism. The PAC chairperson said that because of the employment of the president’s daughter and son-in-law by the Malawi High Commission in London, ‘the public will never trust you … Your moral standing becomes diluted.’

The suffering of ordinary Malawians caused by COVID-19 was also raised by Thawale, who told Chakwera ‘the administration lacks direction on the mitigation of economic hardship.’ He went on to criticise the performance of the secretary to the president and cabinet, and called on Chakwera to reshuffle the cabinet within three months and appoint competent people in these top positions.

A day later, the Catholic archbishop and several bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi issued a similar – though far less frank – statement. They lamented that ‘the cancer of corruption sadly now embedded in Malawi is largely responsible for keeping the country very poor and under-developed.’

A member of the Tonse Alliance noted ominously this week that these were the same organisations that were ‘instrumental in bringing down Dr Kamuzu Banda.’ The dictatorial first leader of independent Malawi was pressured to allow multiparty democracy and leave office in 1992.

Chakwera lacks the political clout and decisiveness to deal with Malawi’s power brokers

Whether or not he acted in response to the PAC demands, Chakwera fired his whole cabinet just a few days later. And although the reshuffle of ministers seems a step in the right direction, it’s not yet clear if it will placate his critics. Expectations of him – once so high – are now rather low. ‘There is little expectation of major change,’ says a veteran political journalist who requested anonymity.

Ringisai Chikohomero, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, says Chakwera’s somewhat incongruous American image now looks like a politician out of touch with Malawian politics. ‘He has failed to demonstrate political astuteness as a statesman capable of rising to the occasion. He promised to clean up government, restore fiscal discipline and reform the civil service. That has not happened yet.’

Chikohomero believes this isn’t so much because of a lack of integrity but because Chakwera lacks the political clout and decisiveness to deal with Malawi’s power brokers. As a result, he has felt obliged to dispense patronage to his large coalition instead of appointing a cabinet of technocrats.

That might start to change. It would be bad for Malawi if, after all the national trauma of electing him, he were to go the way of another well-intentioned reformer, Joyce Banda, whose administration unravelled under the pressure of badly managed corruption.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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Photo: Thoko Chikondi/AP

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