A diplomatic spat which happened 5 years ago is embroiling two heads of state in tit-for-tat bickering, increasingly putting strain on relations between Zambia and Malawi. From Blantyre, Lameck Masina reports on why Presidents Michael Sata and Bingu Wa Mutharike have come to blows.
When Zambian president Michael Sata offered an “olive branch” to his Malawian counterpart recently, expectations were high that finally the two leaders would put their diplomatic row of 2007 behind them. But alas!
Acrimony between the two leaders dates back to March 2007 when the Malawian government deported Sata on his arrival at Chileka airport in Blantyre. Sata, then Zambia’s leader of the opposition, had come to visit his long-term friend, former Malawian president Bakili Muluzi, who was the then leader of main opposition party the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Although he had a return air ticket, Mutharika’s government humiliatingly bundled Sata into a 4×4 immigration car, which drove him all the way to the eastern Zambian town of Chipata (near the Malaian border), a day’s journey to his residency in the capital Lusaka. A flight back to Lusaka takes no more than an hour and half.
Although no reason for the deportation was given at the time, Sata’s visit was made at the height of animosity between Mutharika and Muluzi. With presidential elections fast approaching in 2009, the two men were embroiled in acrimonious electioneering in which Muluzi was avowing to unseat Mutharika. Hence, Sata’s visit to a man threatening to dislodge a sitting president was not taken kindly, and he was deported on arrival as a persona non grata.
Following the incident, Sata filed a lawsuit against the Malawi government for illegal deportation – the case is still
pending in court, according to his Malawian lawyer Ralph Kasambara.
But following his election as Zambian president last September, the issue has evolved beyond a simple diplomatic spat. For example, a month after his election, Sata turned down an invitation to attend the 15th Summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Heads of State and Government, which was held in Malawian capital Lilongwe. Sata reportedly said, since the Malawian government had not formally revoked a persona non grata status, nor issued any apology, he could not go to Malawi, to avoid the “deportation embarrassment”. He instead sent his vice-president Guy Scott to represent him. The Malawian government responded saying “by virtue of being a Head of State, Sata was free to visit Malawi any time”.
It seemed the issue would be all water under the bridge when on 30 December, Sata, who was hosting Muluzi in Lusaka, asked him at a joint press briefing to convey a message of “reconciliation” to President Mutharika, saying “bygones are bygones”.
“The main reason former President [Muluzi] came was to reconcile Zambia and Malawi. I have agreed and I have given him a message to convey to Professor wa Mutharika that as far as I am concerned, let bygones be bygones,” he told the press.
But Sata’s “olive branch” wilted in a salvo from Malawi’s presidential spokesman Mutharika Hetherwick Ntaba, who just fell short of accusing Sata of having a hand in Muluzi’s “scheme to undermine President Mutharika’s administration,” when he accepted to visit the opposition back in 2007.
“Dr Bakili, as [an] opposition figure in Malawi that time, had earlier failed to get a third term through amendment of the constitution. He then worked to facilitate the impeachment of the elected Mutharika, to achieve the same purpose and he enlisted the help of local and foreign colleagues. Sata’s visit could have been part of the conspiracy,” he said.
Ntaba said his government would take Sata’s reconciliation offer with a pinch of salt, and resented the fact of having Muluzi as a go-between.
“There are serious contradictions in these messages. On the one hand President Sata said he has forgiven us and that he would let bygones be bygones, and that he is ready to visit Malawi any time. On the other hand his lawyer says that President Sata is still pursuing justice in court over his deportation from Malawi. It is difficult for us to see where the forgiveness is, or which message we should
be dealing with,” said Ntaba.
But the Zambian government spokesman, who is also Information Minister, Given Lubinda, shot back saying: “President Sata does not owe President Mutharika or his government an official communication through diplomatic channels… I advise my brothers and sisters in Malawi not to be dogmatic over this matter. It is a matter of fact that President Sata is the one who is owed an explanation by President Mutharika. It is not the other way round.
“If Mutharika did not find it fit to engage President Sata through diplomatic circles, how does he expect President Sata to use diplomatic channels to say I have forgiven you?”
Lubinda also said that if Malawi government authorities didn’t want to accept the forgiveness, “let them say so”.
“President Sata will not write to Mutharika while it was him who humiliated Sata by bundling him in a car to the border.”
But Ntaba said Mutharika would prefer if Sata sent an official communication on the matter rather than sending one by word of mouth.
“If there is peace to be brokered between Malawi and Zambia, let it be done by an independent and a neutral person. Perhaps such peace will be free from contradictory messages and shall be won where no side shall spit fire against the other side in the media as we are seeing today,” said Ntaba.
However, if their new encounter, in South Africa on 7 January during the governing African National Congress centenary celebration dinner, is anything to go by, the two leaders have hopefully finally kissed and made up. According to an insider, the two were seen hugging and they were overhead bantering in local chiChewa language like this:
Sata: “Kumunzi kuli bwanji?” (How is the home?)
Mutharika: “Kuli Bwino. Nanga Mubwera liti?” (We are okay. When are you visiting?)
Sata: “Tizamuuzani.” (We will tell you.)
Both their nations wait with bated breath to see the back of what many consider a trivial tiff. The two leaders surely have more pressing bilateral issues to talk about, even fight about.