Malawi’s graft war full of twists and surprises

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Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika is under fire from both his admirers and critics for his controversial decisions on his war against graft. Many are wondering why he is changing colours like a chameleon. From Malawi’s commercial capital of Blantyre, CHARLES BANDA reports

Touted as an economic engineer ahead of Malawi’s 2004 presidential elections that ushered him into power, Malawian leader is no longer a fixer of a battered economy but has revolved into an unpredictable politician full of surprises.

Mutharika, according to analysts, deserves to be called Mr. Surprises and are quick to caution that his surprises are costing Malawians a fortune, while the President himself risks losing his position if he is not careful.

Mutharika began pulling surprises soon after scrapping into the presidency in June 2004 when he turned against his predecessor Bakili Muluzi who handpicked him from political obscurity, spent millions of dollars campaigning for his presidency.

The Malawian leader who had spent over 20 years in exile stunned those who handpicked, groomed and campaigned him when he first of all announced his resignation from the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), a move that pushed the party to the opposition ranks.

“I am no longer a member of the UDF, effective today,” Mutharika said during his resignation. He then unleashed a fierce attack on his mentor turned political foe Bakili Muluzi, accusing him of being power-hungry and even plotting to assassinate him.

He said he resigned from UDF because he did not want to be a puppet of Muluzi who was derailing his war against corruption.

“I am not the puppet he thought I would be. I will hunt down all those who plundered the country’s economy in the last 10 years Muluzi was in power. The UDF believes corruption must continue, the party condones corruption,” he said.

After quitting the UDF, Mutharika though he was elected on a UDF ticket formed his own Democratic Progressive Party, which he heads and which he has manoeuvred through the backdoor and turned it into a ruling party (despite the fact that it never took part in general elections.)

After forming his own party, people thought that Mutharika would restore political stability. But nay that was not the case. In a strange twist of political events Mutharika announced earlier this year that he had accepted Chilumpha’s ‘constructive’ resignation expressed through his conduct. This was despite the fact that Chilumpha did not write any resignation letter.

There were mixed reactions to the news of Chilumpha’s ‘dismissal’ with some political experts condemning Mutharika for violating the Constitution by firing his deputy. The analysts say a Vice-President’s position can fall vacant only if he dies, is impeached or if he resigns.

“To say that because he was absenting himself from work means he has voluntarily resigned is just not on,” argues University of Malawi political scientist Boniface Dulani as other quarters welcomed the development as they deplored Chilumpha’s failure to do his work as Vice-President.

The courts blocked Mutharika from sacking his deputy through constructive resignation. But that did not stop the Malawian leader from pulling another shocker as few months later his administration arrested, detained and accused the Vice-President of plotting to kill him.

Chilumpha’s lawyer Kalekeni Kaphale rubbished the treason charges describing them as pathetic, shoddy and uncertain. ”It is surprising that in one breath the State claims to have evidence and is ready and in another breath claim that it is still investigating.”

According to Kaphale, the Malawian leader has failed to unseat his deputy first through a corruption case, then constructive resignation, hence his decision to make the treason mask, when the real reason was that the President was a political rival to his deputy who remained in UDF.

The frequent arrests of his deputy and UDF officials in the name of corruption and treason have irked the opposition who accuse him of using the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to “persecute” his opponents.

Mutharika denies the accusations saying his administration is not targeting the opposition.

“Corruption impedes development; it hurts the poor by diverting funds meant for them, and anyone who is found to be corrupt will be dealt with, including those who are serving in my government,” he usually defends himself.

Despite his denials, it is mostly senior UDF officials, who have been arrested by the ACB since Mutharika came to power and declared war on corruption.

John Chikakwiya, governor of the Southern Region and a UDF member, was arrested and convicted of fraud last year; former Education Minister Yusuf Mwawa became the second senior UDF member to be convicted of corruption-related charges. Meanwhile the UDF’s former deputy director of research, Humphrey Mvula; the UDF’s shadow finance minister, Friday Jumbe; and Lucius Banda, an MP, are all being investigated for corruption.

Malawi’s war against corruption however took the biggest twist this month when the graft busting Anti Corruption Bureau arrested and charged former president Bakili Muluzi with corruption and fraud. The ACB director Gustave Kaliwo told journalists that Muluzi was being charged with 42 counts of corruption, fraud and theft.

“We have two indictments for him with a total of 42 counts,” said Kaliwo adding that 40 of the charges related to the US$12 million of donor funds allegedly traced to Muluzi’s personal account, adding that the money from Taiwan, Morocco, Libya and Rwanda, was meant for development programmes. The other charges, Kaliwo said, involved US$50,000 allegedly channelled through the Tanzanian embassy to Muluzi.

Just hours after Muluzi’s arrest, the Malawian leader announced the suspension of Kaliwo, the anti-graft agency chief. Mutharika did not disclose reasons for the suspension, which put the ACB in an awkward situation since, under the law, it is only the Director or Deputy Director of the bureau that could direct prosecution of corruption trials.

But that was just the beginning of the drama on Mutharika’s surprising war on corruption as more shockers were in store for the nation that was forced to believe that its leaders were serious in rooting out corruption. Three days later after the arrest, government dropped all 42 corruption charges against the former President.

“I have directed that all charges against Dr.Muluzi be discontinued,” said the then Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Ishamel Wadi, adding that he had no choice but to order unconditional discontinuation of the whole proceedings because the ACB had noone to prosecute the case.

He, however, said the ACB reserved the right to seek further direction regarding Muluzi’s case in future, though observers argued that the graft busting body could face a moral question should it decide to re-start the case given the high drama it had generated.

UDF spokesman Sam Mpasu said the arrest of Muluzi and the subsequent suspension of Kaliwo “showed the folly of using the ACB as a political tool.” He denied his party was just taking advantage of Muluzi’s arrest to derail government programmes.

Many observers have no kind words for government’s decision to drop charges against the former president. “This has shown that the ‘zero tolerance’ against corruption, Mutharika is famed for is a facade,” declared Justin Dzonzi, chair of Malawi’s Human Rights Consultative Committee adding that: “The ACB is supposed to be free of any interference or considerations, political or otherwise.”

Another human rights activist Billy Mayaya accused Mutharika of practicing double standards on his zero-tolerance for corruption, demanding the unconditional lifting of the suspension. Incidentally the suspension of the ACB director came after Muluzi ruled out of any plans to remove his successor through a parliamentary impeachment.

“Impeachment of the incumbent president is not my party’s agenda. Our eyes are set on the forthcoming general elections in 2009,” said Muluzi months ago.

As criticisms mounted on Mutharika’s administration for dropping charges against Muluzi, the Malawian leader stunned his citizens again in August when he demanded the resignation of a top prosecutor (Ishmael Wadi) for withdrawing corruption charges against Muluzi.

He said Wadi’s decision to drop the charges “has done the country more harm than he realises. This withdrawal has destroyed my credibility as president against corruption but also the credibility of this country globally,” he said.

32-year-old Wadi was the second top government official to be dismissed in controversial circumstances after Mutharika earlier this year fired the attorney general, Ralph Kasambara, who was heavily involved in bringing treason charges against Vice-President, who was accused of conspiring to kill Mutharika.

But few days after pressing Wadi to resign from his position for withdrawing the corruption case against Muluzi, Mutharika has pulled another surprise when he told the media recently that his relationship with his predecessor was well.

“We are working together. I am fighting the war against corruption together with him, but I am in the saddle as Head of State. At the end of the day, I make decisions and all people should follow,” he said.

It probably against these twists, surprises and contradictions that have compelled some lawyers and human rights activists to suggest that Mutharika should be impeached from his position as the lasting solution of bring political stability to Malawi.