Political mudslinging for democracy?

President Joyce Banda and ruling People’s Party (PP) outspoken vice-president Uladi Mussa have held key positions in the country’s politics since the restoration of multiparty politics in 1993. JAMES CHAVULA looks at some of their speeches and assesses their suitability in a democratic Malawi.

She promised to bring back the respect traditional leaders deserve, but they still play political roles that expose them to scorn.

“My government will ensure that chiefs play their rightful roles that promote the well-being of their people, rather than being paraded on TV and radios to praise me and back my policies,” President Joyce Banda has repeatedly told chiefs since her rise to presidency following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika in April last year.

His recollections mirror the image the President has strived to cut in the minds of Malawians after surviving Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its deployment of chiefs to chastise opposition personalities.

As Mutharika’s deputy, Banda endured abhorrent sights of chiefs using State-held Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) to scorn her. Today, her name is at the centre of a simmering confrontation with T/A Bvumbwe who went into hiding, alleging she is getting death threats and insults after telling off members of the ruling PP who had hijacked the funeral of High Court judge Joseph Mwanyungwa to sell their party.

Bvumbwe said in the President’s presence at the funeral last month: “Your boys were distributing T-shirts. This is bad and degrading. It should never happen again. If you want, hold a rally and distribute the T-shirts there.”

Banda was seen nodding to what was generally viewed as a custodian of culture’s cry for sanity to prevail as the deceased’s family and friends were mourning the loss, but it was the wrinkle-faced reaction of the overzealous shirt-distributing party zealots that seems to prevail.

Public apologies

While Bvumbwe was in his self-imposed exile, the ruling party’s kingpin Brown Mpinganjira and Thyolo district commissioner Lawford Palani assembled T/A Chimaliro and other chiefs to recite public apologies to the President, alleging that Bvumbwe was drunk and powered by opposition DPP when he publicly called PP operatives to stop playing political games with moments as sombre as a funeral.

Not that Bvumbwe’s accusers had a breathalyser or any other tangible evidence to substantiate the ‘drunken’ claims beyond reasonable doubt. The chiefs’ ensemble that addressed the press in Blantyre only sounded high on the notion less interrogated that they are meant to serve government of the day. As they were staggering, stumbling and falling on thin line between government and the ruling party business, one thing was clear—their act was a political hangover that was meant to be a thing of the past on the June 21 1993 referendum when Malawians voted for multiparty politics.

Yet, the tendency to abuse chiefs for political gain was there in abundance during the reign of Bakili Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) when the incumbent leader was appointed a Cabinet minister. So, did it rear its head during Mutharika’s term when she was second in command, this time leaving her feeling victimised and vowing to reverse the trend.

In an interview on MIJ FM Radio, PP spin doctor Kennedy Makwangwala argued Bvumbwe was wrong to rebuke the President before the masses. Notwithstanding the fact that transparency and free speech as principles stipulate that no democratically elected office-bearer is above reproach, Bvumbwe’s vilification could have gone without causing any uproar.

However, it looks like the offensive was no mischief of pockets of party delinquents defying a nodding President, but an organised scheme to show the likes of Bvumbwe that nobody—including chiefs—is wiser than the President.

Wrong signals

Banda sent wrong signals when she told the masses at her rally in Mangochi on Saturday not to take after Bvumbwe whom she described as “anatopa”, but to remain vigilant in supporting her development agenda. Ordinarily, anatopa might mean ‘Bvumbwe was tired’, but it implied something because the presidential advisory speech fell short of censuring the chiefs’ kangaroo court which found Bvumbwe guilty of drunken criticism without hearing him out.

As the tongues were wagging about the long and short of the double-edged speech, political analyst Boniface Dulani took to the social network—saying it was an irony that the President was calling on Malawians to respect chiefs and in the same speech lambasts Bvumbwe.

“Evidence that Malawi lacks transformational leadership. Joyce Banda goes to town on T/A Bvumbwe and accuses her of being a drunkard,” Dulani tweeted on Sunday.

The tweet, brief as it may be, brings to mind what was cited as the country’s greatest tragedy by political analyst Blessings Chinsinga’s presentation at the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) meeting last year. Chinsinga defines transformational leadership as the contrast of what Malawi’s politics is—leaders recycling policies and approaches that have impoverished the country for nearly five decades after independence.

“Transformational thinking entails a change of mindset, thinking outside the box and reengineering our approaches for national development. This is the opposite of doing business as usual, insisting on strategies that have failed to lift the country from poverty,” said Chinsinga early this year.

Last month, PAC executive director Robert Phiri said this is still the missing piece of the puzzle as the country strives to entrench a culture of democracy which includes tolerance.

Degrading remarks

That PP is still boxed in the past was clear when UDF presidential candidate Atupele Muluzi resigned from Banda’s first Cabinet in November last year, said he was “appalled and mortified by degrading remarks uttered against him by members of government” during a presidential maize-distribution rally in his stronghold—the same district where Bvumbwe got the rap this month.

In his resignation letter, the son of the former president Bakili Muluzi, whose exit was touted as the end of an era for PP and game-changer by political analyst Henry Chingaipe, noted that PP politicos’ conduct “lacked courtesy, mutual respect and dignity that is expected between colleagues who strive together in pursuit of a common cause—to serve the people of Malawi selflessly and to the best of once abilities.”

This is spot on and Atupele, the youngest candidate likely to be on the presidential ballot in May next year, sounds like an exemplar of civilised politics of shared principles and aspirations, graduating from the mudslinging and name-calling spree a majority of PP executives might have inherited from his father who was obsessed with denigrating MCP president John Tembo as a person with bloody hands and Mpinganjira as a wife-grabber.

It is to this pre-Atupele UDF system that Banda and Mpinganjira owe their beginnings. So do Minister of Security and Internal Affairs Uladi Mussa, who is notorious of castigating opposition leaders and those with alternative views during presidential rallies.

Mussa’s infamous trend

It is mortifying that at a time Malawians expect the ruling party to start making amends and adopting issue-based politics, the President and Mussa sound determined to further taint their reputations and PP’s as well.

As the ruling party keeps mum on this infamous trend, Mussa thinks the world is static.

“This is politics. In politics you have to comment on the leadership of other political parties. There is no way you can be commenting on policies, policies, policies,” he told Daily Times last week. In his reasoning, you cannot focus on the programmes and ideologies alone because that is what politics is about.

The political nomad says politics without castigation would be like “a religious gathering”—an aftertaste of his term as UDF regional governor for Central Region over 10 years ago.

His loud personal attacks are mistakenly premised on the egocentric feeling that he is a political architect and strategist without whom governments would crumble. Nothing can be far from the truth. When he was stripped of DPP’s presidency in December 2006, the self-acclaimed party marketer told journalists that his exit marked the beginning of the end of Mutharika and the blue party because it would not survive without the grass-roots structure he had established.

Yet, Uladi the strategist was spectacularly disproved by the timeline of the deregistered Malavi People’s Party which he co-founded with Paul Maulidi on the back of his prophecy of doom. Registered on January 22 2007, the party did not only go to 2009 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections without knowing where it belonged—with Maulidi saying it was in an alliance with DPP while Uladi was aligning himself with UDF.

In the end, MPP won one parliamentary seat—and Mussa’s Salima North Constituency at that—while the supposedly doomed Mutharika retained the presidency with a landslide victory and the doubted DPP scooped a massive majority of seats in the National Assembly.

Despite the flop, the Salima man, nicknamed change golo, told the press in January 2011 that he was going to vie for presidency in next year’s general elections because he refused to play second fiddle to any opposition leader.

“I would not accept that because I feel I have already done a lot in selling previous leaders; I cannot keep selling people,” he said two years ago.

The comeback call, allegedly buoyed by public demand, was nothing more than a death cry as Mussa dissolved his flop party on April 26 2012—just hours before was appointed as a Cabinet minister.

As ironic as it is that the ‘astute strategist’ let his party die of obscurity, the fall and death of Mussa’s MPP should be a lesson to President Banda and PP that attacking political opponents does not pay—for Malawians vote for policies, not how much a party vilifies its perceived foes.

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