Dr Saulos Chilima/Twitter

Saulos Chilima’s sudden death leaves a dangerous vacuum in Malawi

The former vice-president’s death could create a political dilemma or an opportunity for President Lazarus Chakwera.

Political tensions have been high in Malawi since the death of former vice-president Saulos Chilima in an aircraft crash last Monday, 10 June – with conspiracy theories targeting President Lazarus Chakwera.

Chakwera and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) formed the Tonse Alliance with Chilima’s United Transformation Movement (UTM) and several smaller parties to contest and ultimately win the 2020 elections. The High Court ordered those polls after it ruled that incumbent president Peter Mutharika’s victory in 2019 was rigged.

The charismatic Chilima was an important, probably critical, part of that combined victory. But cracks soon began appearing in the alliance. In particular, relations soured between Chakwera and Chilima.

In November 2022, Chilima was arrested over allegations that he had received US$280 000 from British businessman Zuneth Sattar – a perennial suspect in corruption cases – for helping his firms secure Malawi Defence Force contracts. His supporters suspected the case was politically motivated. Then in May this year, the charges against him were dropped, allegedly on Chakwera’s order.

Replacing Chilima with Michael Usi seems to have created more new problems than it solved

The main source of tension was about who should run as the Tonse Alliance’s candidate in the 2025 presidential election. Last month, Chakwera unilaterally announced he would seek re-election. Chilima didn’t publicly respond. But other UTM members accused Chakwera of reneging on an agreement that Chakwera would run for president for the first five years and support Chilima in running for the second five. There were suggestions, though, that Chilima then decided he would run against Chakwera.

One senior politician who requested anonymity said Chilima had helped capture the youth vote for Chakwera in 2020, but it then looked like Chakwera and the MCP decided he had become dispensable, and dropped him.

These tensions fuelled the conspiracy theories about what caused the crash of the military aircraft that killed Chilima and nine others. The UTM demanded a commission of inquiry – a good idea in principle, though no evidence of foul play has emerged. The aircraft was flying from the capital Lilongwe to the northern town of Mzuzu but was turned back before landing because of bad weather. It crashed soon after.

Chakwera was booed by some at Chilima’s funeral, and there have been incidents of stoning of vehicles. A Tonse Alliance member told ISS Today that the alliance suspected former president Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was taking advantage of the suspicions about Chakwera and the tensions between the MCP and UTM to stir trouble.

Usi’s appointment as vice-president appears to have done nothing to revive the Tonse Alliance

Chakwera’s choice of UTM Vice-President Michael Usi to replace Chilima as the country’s vice-president seems to have created more new problems than it solved. Malawians were watching the decision closely to discern Chakwera’s intentions.

On the face of it, it was a good decision. Some observers feared he might appoint a vice-president from his own MCP party because of the tensions between him and Chilima and their respective parties. But several commentators advised against that. For instance, Tonse Alliance spokesperson George Mnesa told Malawi’s The Daily Times that that was what the alliance expected. He said that would show respect for Chilima and be supported by the other alliance members.

So appointing Usi seemed to make sense. But many in the Tonse Alliance are upset by Chakwera’s choice. One senior member told ISS Today that Usi was widely regarded as having gone over to Chakwera’s side after he appointed him minister of natural resources and climate change.

‘Chakwera insisted that Usi, like other alliance members appointed to cabinet, swear allegiance to him rather than to their parties,’ the source said, adding that Usi had virtually ignored his UTM duties ever since. The result was that Usi had become alienated from his own party. This was apparent this week when his party colleagues shunned him at Chilima’s funeral.

‘He should have appointed someone like Patricia Kaliati,’ the source said, referring to the feisty UTM Secretary-General, who figured prominently at Chilima’s funeral. But that always seemed unlikely as Chakwera, who had appointed Kaliati to his Cabinet as part of the Tonse Alliance deal back in 2020, fired her in February 2023 as part of a larger reshuffle.

Chakwera may be inadvertently setting the country up for a comeback by Peter Mutharika next year

So Usi’s appointment appears to have done nothing to revive the Tonse Alliance, ‘which exists only on paper,’ as one of its members told ISS Today. That is largely because Chakwera had not fully honoured his agreements to appoint alliance members to Cabinet. ‘The danger is that the UTM may go over to Mutharika’s DPP. There have already been signs of that happening,’ they said.

Usi’s swearing-in ceremony today was expected to give some clue as to whether or not the UTM would accept his appointment.

Chakwera has proved a grave disappointment to many Malawians after the euphoria of his and Chilima’s 2020 victory and the overturning of Mutharika’s rigged victory. He now may be inadvertently setting the country up for a comeback by Mutharika next year.

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