David Phiri defends Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika against accusations that he is undemocratic.
Let us assume that a dictator is as a dictator does; and from there, let us interrogate the increasingly generalised portrayal of Malawi’s president as a dictator whose administration is an authoritarian regime. It was unremarkable that President Arthur Mutharika stoically accepted the Supreme Court’s 08 May ruling, which upheld the Constitutional Court’s nullification of the May 2019 Presidential election. No one in Malawi, not even his most vicious critics, expected him to react in any other way because Mutharika has been consistent and unflappable in deferring to the courts, respecting the rule of law and abiding by the Constitution. If he is a dictator, then he is indeed a very poor specimen.
Under the Mutharika administration, Malawi’s constitutional democracy has been strengthened and a lot of credit for this status quo has been given to political activists of every hue and profession (including members of the judiciary), as if their efforts were ever foiled or met with any great state-sponsored resistance, retribution or repression. It is not virtue signalling to concede that President Mutharika’s willingness, capacity and track record for tolerating political opinions and behaviour that he doesn’t agree with has been utterly taken for granted. Worse still, there has been a complete erasure of his credentials as a democrat who has stayed true and held fast to these Western liberal ideals, in the most trying of circumstances and in the face of extreme provocation. But we will get to that later; suffice to say, if indeed power reveals a man’s character then the Presidency has revealed Mutharika’s.
In an age where the global media is rife with headlines of how contemporary African dictators persecute political opponents, violate the rights of citizens, disregard the rule of law and cling to power through politically expedient constitutional amendments – the vilification of President Mutharika amid persistent claims that he is undemocratic is the triumph of stereotype over facts. The history of African political leadership, which can be traced back to the nationalistic movements and struggle for independence especially of the 1950s and 1960s, is instructive. As African governments began to break free from the yoke of colonialism, the first crop of African leaders emerged. They modelled their administrative systems after the colonial European governments. However, they all failed to model their leadership styles and political systems after liberal democracy. They tended to quickly plunge their governments into dictatorships, and this recurrent pattern crystallised African governments into distinctive authoritarian archetypes. Beyond colonial history, the background of African traditional leadership styles where communities or kingdoms were led by chiefs, kings and warlords ensured that the new political leaders were predisposed to be dictatorial and the African people were accustomed to such approaches to leadership.
Under the current Mutharika administration, we have been exposed to a different approach to leadership. In stereotypical media narratives and uncritical political commentary about Malawi, President Mutharika is consistently portrayed as a villain and dictator in order to valorise, lionise and sanitise the actions of those who oppose him. It is a further function of stereotype that those who oppose an African government or President are automatically celebrated and venerated as champions of democracy, seen as possessing extraordinary courage and deserving of uncritical praise. Yet there is abundant evidence showing that in Malawi there is neither professional nor personal risk that comes with vocally and openly opposing this President. And surely, where there is no real risk, there can be no claim to heroism.
Mutharika a victim of false equivalence and stereotype
Despite the fall of dictatorships following the wave of multiparty democratisation of the early 1990s, Africa’s leaders still have the tendency to get dictatorial; hence confronting them has typically involved professional and personal risk. Examples abound. Whilst President Mutharika was serving his first constitutionally won term as Malawi’s President, his counterpart in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law, on 27 December 2017, a constitutional amendment bill that removed the age limit of 75 for presidential candidates to allow him to cling to power after ruling for three decades. Museveni is also well known for using the police and army to intimidate, arrest and kill political opponents and civilians.
Whilst Mutharika was busy governing Malawi without harming a single hair on any political opponent’s head, his Ugandan counterpart had on 26 November 2016, sent armed security forces to raid the palace of the Rwenzururu King, Charles Mumbere where they massacred more than 100 civilians including children. They arrested more than 180 civilians. Mumbere had become an enemy of Museveni for backing the Opposition during the 2015 elections. Since August 2018, Museveni has thrown in and out of jail a youthful singer and opposition politician, Bobi Wine, who aspires to challenge him for the presidency in the 2021 elections. Museveni has been using armed police to torture Bobi Wine in custody and fire teargas and gunshots to disperse crowds during his planned political rallies. In Malawi, Mutharika responded differently when we had months of anti-government protests in the post-election period, all of the protests were purportedly peaceful and yet inevitably turned violent. But we will get to that later.
In Zimbabwe, dictatorial leadership has outlived Robert Mugabe. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has faithfully followed the same path of a repressive regime once trodden by his predecessor and mentor. Apart from detaining members and leaders of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mnangagwa is well known for unleashing the armed security forces to disperse and kill protestors. On 1 August 2018, his armed forces killed six people while dispersing protesters that were protesting against alleged vote rigging by the President. About five months later, in January 2019 the armed security killed 12 people, injured 78 people with gunshots and assaulted hundreds more that were protesting against the increase in fuel prices. Again on 16 August 2019, the riot police fired tear gas and beat up opposition MDC supporters that were peacefully protesting in Harare against worsening economic conditions in the country.
Such appears to be the norm of African leadership, thus lending credence to stereotypes. Even in Paul Kagame’s celebrated Rwanda not all is well and rosy under his heavy-handed paternalistic leadership. Despite leading his country through the successful social healing and economic recovery after the 1994 genocide, not only did Kagame facilitate constitutional amendment in December 2015 to enable himself to cling to power beyond 2017 but he is also widely accused of being a dictator for stifling press freedom, dissent and arresting political opponents. In Malawi, the print press and the most influential online media is private-owned and patently biased against Mutharika, criticising him at will and without consequence – as is their democratic right. Yet Mutharika has paid a heavy price, reputationally speaking, of being stereotyped by disingenuous and biased pundits who use false equivalence to portray African Presidents as the same breed of dictators. No one has to take my word for it; rather let Mutharika be judged by his deeds. A democrat is as a democrat does.
How Mutharika set a standard of intraparty democracy
Mutharika became leader of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) in April 2012 and in the May 2014 Elections he led the struggling party to a historic victory that made him the first opposition leader in the country to defeat government. At the very onset of his leadership, Mutharika exhibited rare traits of democratic leadership, which have characterised his leadership style and administration for the past six years. For example, immediately Mutharika took over the interim leadership of the party in 2012, he resisted the temptation to impose himself as the presidential candidate for the 2014 elections, and did not take advantage of the widespread belief that his brother Bingu had named his as the successor. When Arthur Mutharika became President, it was because Malawians had voted for him of their own volition, and not because of his late brother, whose death had effectively taken away whatever advantage the former might have otherwise had. In July 2013, he had called for the party’s first ever convention to allow members of the party from the grass root structures to elect a presidential candidate of their choice. He also accepted one of the heavyweights and elites of his party, Speaker of Parliament Chimunthu Banda, to challenge his candidacy at the convention.
Mutharika has persisted on this path. As President, he still called for a party convention towards the 2019 Elections and allowed his own ambitious Vice President, Saulos Chilima to challenge his candidacy at the 2ndJuly 2018 Convention. This was unprecedented because none of his predecessors ever called for a convention when they were in office. Mutharika was the first in Malawi to break such acts of intraparty dictatorship. While he still went unchallenged at the 2018 Convention, it was only because Chilima willfully withdrew his candidacy through a Press Conference on 6 June 2018 and resigned from the DPP to form his own political party with the support of some of the DPP’s political blue-bloods including Arthur Mutharika’s sister in law, the widow of his late brother and former Malawi First Lady, Callista Mutharika. It must have been a hard pill to swallow because Callista Mutharika was family and Saulos Chilima was a man that Mutharika had hand-picked, from the private sector, to be his running mate in 2014 – a move that effectively launched Chilima’s political career. Malawians have since come to understand that there is virtually no consequence to betraying Mutharika, the man is stoically tolerant no matter the form or shape of provocation.
His tolerance has often been interpreted as weakness because we are accustomed to the repressive and retributive tactics of Africa’s quintessential ‘strongman’. It is very important to highlight that while it was clear that his Vice President was scheming a political coup against him, Mutharika did not dismiss him from the party or persecute him in any way. Power reveals character – and it says a lot about Mutharika that he responded to such egregious betrayal (because in a sense it was) with great restraint.
In Malawi, challenging Mutharika is a low-risk endeavour
Little is said of how by the time Malawians went to the polls in 2019, Mutharika had not only tolerated the Vice President, but also his Minister of Health, Atupele Muluzi of UDF who campaigned against him and Professor John Chisi of Umodzi Party whom Mutharika had appointed Board Chair for the Medical Council of Malawi. He never fired any of them even as they campaigned against him and contested with him at the polls. Where else in Africa, or perhaps even in the world, would this have stood?
Arguably, the highest test of Mutharika’s leadership was the street protests and political tension that followed the disputed results of the 21 May 2019 Presidential Elections. The opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and United Transformation Party (UTM) disputed his re-election and lied that he had rigged the election, inciting their supporters to revolt. Leader of Opposition, Lazarus Chakwera who was candidate of MCP together with UTM leaders and the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) led mass protests requesting the resignation of the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission, Justice Dr. Jane Ansah. They mobilised protesters to block highways, invade parliament premises, break and burn government and private property and loot shops. They also raided offices at Capital Hill, the Headquarters of government where they chased civil servants, broke office equipment and urinated on government files. These acts of wanton, extreme and violent provocation largely went unanswered.
In local, regional and international media as well as popular commentary, stereotypical analysis ensued – these violent protests were romanticised, celebrated as heroic and the protest leaders were framed as fearless champions of democracy whose right to protest an electoral theft that never even happened, was placed above the rights of other citizens. Surely the degree of heroism should correspond with the degree of resistance one encounters – yet the Mutharika administration, despite having every state apparatus at its disposal responded by approaching the courts to seek a moratorium on the violent protests pending the outcome of the election court case. It was a reasonable and measured response, consistent with the character of a President who has habitually deferred to the courts and upheld the Constitution for lawful and peaceful resolution of political conflict.
Although Mutharika appealed to them to stop protesting and meet him to talk peacefully as they awaited the outcome of the court process, his olive branch was rebuffed because these political actors wanted to grandstand and were intoxicated by the valorisation they received from protesting without risk or consequence. Mutharika never used force of the Police or the Army to prevent the people from protesting. On the contrary, he deployed the army to protect the protesters and ensure that no one interfered with the protests – yet some foreign pundits insist that the army did so of its own volition, as if there as any African army that simply appears on the streets without receiving marching orders (unless it is a coup). In all cases where Mutharika needed solutions to end violent protests, he approached the Courts through the office of the Attorney General and respected the courts’ decisions even when they did not rule in his favour.
As far as facts are concerned, Mutharika is the measure of African liberal democratic leadership on the continent. If he were like Museveni, Mnangagwa or Kagame and other ruthless African leaders – there is no doubt that the Opposition leaders and human rights activists in Malawi would be dead, or rotting in jail if lucky, and hundreds of civilians would have lost their lives. The low-risk actions of those that oppose Mutharika must be weighed against the response that they know they will get from a law-abiding, politically tolerant and liberal democrat. Under Mutharika, who was vindicated by both the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court and absolved of any wrongdoing despite the nullification of his 2019 Presidential victory, the constitutional democracy of Malawi is assured. Indeed, if Mutharika is a dictator, he has done a rather poor job of it.
David Phiri is a legal expert based in Geneva. He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org