The three degrees in theology held by Malawi’s new President show where his heart lies. New African looks at Lazarus Chakwera’s progression from president of the Assemblies of God Malawi to presidency of the nation.
Lazarus Chakwera’s background is as interesting as his short political career, which started in May 2013. Born on 5 April 1955 in a small village on the outskirts of the Malawian capital, Lilongwe, Chakwera was named Lazarus because his parents had lost two sons before him in infancy and his father, believing that this Lazarus would live, like his Biblical namesake who was raised up from the dead, gave him the name to show his faith in God.
Chakwera’s educational background shows where his heart is. A BA (in philosophy) from the University of Malawi in 1977, was followed by three degrees in theology – first, an honours degree from the University of the North in South Africa, a master’s degree (M.Th) from the University of South Africa in 1991, and a doctorate (D.Min) from the Trinity International University in the US in 2000.
Since graduating, he has worked as a professor at the Pan-Africa Theological Seminary, an instructor and later principal at the Assemblies of God School of Theology, and a lecturer and co-director at the All Nations Theological Seminary. In 1989, he became the president of the Assemblies of God Malawi and stayed in that position until August 2013, when he was elected as the leader of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the old party of the country’s first president, Hastings Banda, who won independence from Britain on 6 July 1964.
Chakwera was the MCP Presidential candidate in 2014, and though he was beaten into second place by Peter Mutharika in what was largely seen as an election full of irregularities, he appealed for calm, asking his members to accept the result and wait for the 2019 elections instead.
By being a politician, Chakwera insists that he is still doing God’s work in another capacity.
For this year’s presidential elections, he teamed up with eight other parties in what they call a Tonse Alliance. This allowed the opposition vote to be consolidated, leading to victory over Mutharika. With his running mate, Saulos Chilima, Chakwera campaigned on a platform to transform Malawi into a middle-income country. His approach to governance, according to him, is premised on five core pillars: servant leadership, uniting Malawians, prospering together, the rule of law and judicial independence, and ending corruption.
A universal fertiliser subsidy to guarantee food security for all was another of his campaign promises. He also promised to create one million jobs within his first year by revamping industries to add value to agricultural produce.
Hitting the ground running
Already Chakwera’s anti-corruption crusade has taken in Mutharika’s bodyguard, Norman Chisale, and the Malawi Revenue Authority’s Deputy Commissioner General, Roza Mbilizi, in connection with a cement deal.
The acting Inspector-General of Police, Duncan Mwapasa, who is alleged to be a tribal henchman for Mutharika, has also been sacked. A number of former government officials and police officers have been arrested over allegations of violent conduct.
In mid-July, Chakwera told the British daily, The Guardian: “We’ve just hit the ground running. We are really looking at setting up systems and making sure they are functional. Like I said in my inaugural address, part of what we have to do is to clear the rubble.”
But he does not want his anti-corruption drive to be seen to target political rivals. “We want to create an environment in which every institution functions freely, independently, and we are doing that,” he said in The Guardian interview.
“We want to make sure that the ministries have benchmarks and we’re in the process of doing that. We want to make sure that we liaise with those who are in the public service in terms of what reforms are needed, and that process has started well.
“I want the institutions to be able to do their job freely, investigate, and if they do have evidence of whatever has been stolen, then they should follow whatever the law says.”
During the election campaign, Chakwera promised that 40% of public appointments will be women. In line with this promise, he says an initiative started by Mutharika’s government to encourage more women and young people to start businesses will be expanded by giving more money to create 200,000 businesses which, he hopes, would generate more than 600,000 jobs.
Chakwera’s main problem though will be in Parliament, where his Tonse Alliance has only 60 MPs out of the 193 in the House. Mutharika’s DPP/UDF alliance, which is now the main opposition party, has 64 MPs, and the rest are independents.
Chakwera is also serving as Defence Minister, while Vice President Chilima is also the Economic Planning and Development Minister, even though he publicly said he preferred the Finance Ministry.
“My plea and prayer is that people would give us a chance and trust us and let us do what we believe is best,” Chakwera said in July. “But they [must] also speak about where they think we can do better, and that relationship will enhance our ability to serve Malawians a lot better.”
Read New African magazine’s exclusive interview with Lazarus Chakwera, God’s man in State House