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Malawi: Controversy Over President’s Death

NEWS AND ANALYSIS

Malawi: Controversy Over President’s Death

Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, is keen to establish the “truth” about the death of her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, but the late president’s family is not too happy with the investigations. Prince Jamali reports from Lilongwe.

Barely three months after his sudden death, Malawi’s former president, Bingu wa Mutharika, will be turning in his grave following the row that has ensued between his family members and the new government of President Joyce Banda over an investigation into the “circumstances” in which Mutharika had died.

The 78-year old former World Bank economist and secretary general of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), was reported to have died on 5 April from cardiac arrest. However, there are three different dates of his death. Others indicate he died between 6 and 7 April.

In her attempt to discover what really happened, President Joyce Banda (who succeeded Mutharika), has instituted a commission of inquiry to establish what she calls the “truth”. She wants Malawians, who are speculating about what had happened to their former president, to have the full facts. The commission is headed by a Supreme Court judge, and has been tasked to investigate the circumstances leading to Murtharik’s death, the exact date, and the quality of medical care he received.

The commission will also probe the role played by some senior government officials and cabinet ministers under Mutharika during the transition from his government to Banda’s. This is in reaction to reports of an attempted coup during that period. Some cabinet ministers were reported to have worked to frustrate Joyce Banda from succeeding Mutharika as stipulated by Section 83 of the country’s constitution, even though she was second in command to the late president. At the time of Mutharika’s death, Banda had been expelled from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The probe into Mutharika’s death, however, has angered his family members. They have rejected the commission, claiming that the details of Mutharika death are already known.

In a statement issued at the end of their 40-day mourning period, the family members said Banda’s government did not consult them on the establishment of the commission, and as such, they would have nothing to do with any “satanic machinations” intended to use the death of the fallen leader to advance personal and political agendas by the new administration.

“We want to put on record that we, the bereaved family, did not, at any point, request a commission of inquiry. Why would we do that when we know all the facts surrounding the death of our beloved,” the family argued in the statement.

“It is our sincere prayer that the late president’s name and dignity will not be dragged into political duplicity that has nothing to do with establishing the ‘truth’,” the family added.

Mutharika was buried alongside his first wife, Ethel, in a marble mausoleum, Mpumulo wa Bata (Rest of Peace), in his home village in the south of the country, about 30 km from the commercial capital, Blantyre. In a recent interview with the Voice of America, the late president’s younger brother, Peter Mutharika, who was being groomed to succeed him at the end of his second term in 2014, described the commission as “nonsensical and useless”.

“There are many presidents who have died in different circumstances in the world,” Peter said. “How many times have there been an inquiry by a government? Can you think of any case in Africa?”,  he fumed.
Peter is a lawyer by career, and a former professor of law who taught at a US university before venturing into politics through the influence from his late brother.

He said: “This inquiry is nonsensical and as the head of the family, I believe it is useless. It is a waste of time and there is no need for it.”

Peter, who is the leader of his brother’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the country’s former ruling party, said if the Malawi government really wanted to know how his brother died, it should speak to the physician who attended him in the State House and also in hospital.

“If the family is satisfied, why is the government still interested in pursuing this?. Why are they so persistent in having this inquiry? What’s their motive? What are they trying to establish,” Peter asked.

Public property

But addressing the media on her return from visiting the UK and USA on 15 June, President Banda (who said she had been on a mission to “clean Malawi’s dented image” internationally), insisted that her government would go ahead with the inquiry, because having been president, the late Mutharika was akin to “public property” owned by all Malawians and not only the family.

She told reporters: “The late president was no longer a family member…  He was the president of Malawi and there are rules on how you look after a president. He was  public property.”

Banda, once an ally of Mutharika, was expelled from the DPP after a falling-out with her predecessor. She insists that there are a lot of “gaps” in the story about Mutharika’s death that need to be filled to help end the “speculations” about what actually happened.

“It is the nation that wants to know the truth about the former head of state’s death. He was our president and the law states that we take good care of him, which is why everyone would want to know the whole truth about his death since we have had conflicting dates to when he actually died,” said President Banda, insisting that her government had to institute the inquiry due to the lack of detail and “confusion” regarding the former president’s death.

The international media broke the news of Mutharika’s death on 5 April. However, the government of which Mutharika was the head, kept it a highly guarded secret until 7 April, when the death was officially announced.  By this time, Malawians had already known about it via the social media. But while the family is not in favour of the commission, Mutharika’s DPP, which is now in opposition following the sudden transformation of the country’s political terrain, is in full support of the idea. It has, however, cautioned the government against using it as an instrument for impunity and retribution.

The leader of the party in the National Assembly, Dr George Chaponda, has said as long as the commission executes its tasks objectively, his party would await its findings with keen interest.

Mutharika governed Malawi for seven years, and is fondly remembered for many things, including turning the agricultural sector around. But he is loathed for what his critics call “bad governance, disrespect for rule of law, corruption and economic mismanagement”, particularly during his second term of office. The death of 19 demonstrators on 20 July last year, killed by the police, would forever remain a massive dent on his government. The report of this incident has since been presented to Banda by a commission which Mutharika had set up. The new leader has vowed to bring to book all those involved in the murder of the demonstrators.

Despite several mistakes in her short reign, including threatening to arrest Sudan’s President Omar El Bashir on behalf of the International Criminal Court against a collective decision taken by the African Union (AU) in 2009, and cancelling the hosting of AU’s July 2012 heads of state’s Summit, President Banda is seen as a woman whose rise to power has “liberated” Malawians from the “jaws” of an emerging autocracy and created hope for many people in the country.

Meanwhile, the commission has started its onerous work to find the “truth” about Mutharika’s death for a citizenry keen to know what really happened.

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