The rise of Lazarus – who is Lazarus Chakwera, Malawi’s sixth President?
Our man in Blantyre, Jimmy Kainja, tells us what we can expect from Malawi’s sixth President.
On 23rd June 2020 Malawians elected Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera as the country’s sixth President, replacing Arthur Peter Mutharika. Chakwera received 58% of the vote while Mutharika got 38%. This was a historic victory for a very specific reason: these were fresh elections ordered by the country’s Constitutional Court after it nullified the May 2019 elections. The court had found that the elections were marred with widespread irregularities, including the use of correction fluid, which is against the country’s electoral laws.
Chakwera, 65, of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) led a coalition of several political parties including the UTM led by his running mate, Saulos Chilima, and Joyce Banda’s People’s Party. The coalition’s campaign message centred around three main issues: job creation, universal fertiliser subsidy, and ridding the country of tribalism, which is one of the main vices that the Mutharika administration was accused of.
The coalition called itself Tonse, meaning all of us, to reflect on the coalition’s unity and a one-nation Malawi. Chakwera made sure to drive this point home at his swearing in ceremony on 28 June in the capital city, Lilongwe.
Peter Mutharika, a renowned and well respected academic, had overseen perhaps the most nepotistic and tribalistic administration in Malawi’s history and it was clear that the majority of Malawians were tired of his rule. Despite the stability of the country’s currency, the kwacha, the economy has been struggling. The Covid-19 pandemic was the final nail in the coffin.
Difficult tasks ahead
Chakwera’s task of reviving the economy and reform the civil and public sector will not be an easy one. What are his chances of success? Although Chakwera has never worked in the civil service, he has vast experience in leadership elsewhere. Until he turned to politics in 2013 he was president of the Malawi Assemblies of God, an association that brings together different Pentecostal churches in the country. Former colleagues talk of him as a worker and someone who favours independence over dependency.
Rise from poverty
Chakwera was born in a village west of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, on 5 April 1955 to a peasant family. In the wallowing poverty of colonial Malawi, two of his older brothers had died in infancy and the community believed that there was a curse in the family. His father named him Lazarus after the biblical story of Lazarus of Bethany whose life was restored by Jesus, four days after his death. Chakwera’s father had a vision that Lazarus was going to escape the fate of his two brothers and, like Lazarus, that he would survive against the odds.
He was one of the three boys from Malembo Primary School to be selected to go to Mtendere Secondary School. He went on to the University of Malawi where he studied Philosophy, graduating in 1977. He followed this up with a degree in Theology at the University of the North in South Africa and later earned a doctorate from Trinity International University in the USA. Perhaps this is where he obtained his distinct American accent.
Chakwera married in 1977. He met his wife Monica through activities organised by the Student Christian Organisation of Malawi whilst they were both students. They have four children, some of whom are also pastors running their own ministries. It therefore came as a surprise to those close to him when he decided to enter politics. In his answer to this question, he says that he sees politics as an extension of his mission to serve people – this time on a bigger stage than a pulpit.
Democracy must be respected
His background will resonate with a good number of Malawians – Malawi prides itself as a God-fearing nation. Yet, if Chakwera is to get things done as President, he needs to learn quickly that Malawi is a constitutional democracy, not theocracy. He has to accommodate everyone, believers and non-believers. Those who break the law in and outside his administration will have to face punishment.
Chakwera is a family man, but the compassion of a loving and caring father will not be enough. Malawi is like a serious patient in an intensive care unit and bitter pills are needed to heal it – this includes overhauling the civil service, employing and appointing people on merit and curbing corruption, nepotism and cronyism. The latter will be particularly pertinent as many people will be waiting in the wings to be rewarded for their role in getting Chakwera the presidency.