Last month, painters put a glossy coating to United Democratic Front (UDF) time-honoured headquarters at Yiannakis in Limbe, Blantyre.
The building, where paintings of former president Bakili Muluzi’s Jakumusi Bus Company and Atupele Trucking noiselessly proclaimed his family’s grip on the party, is draped in bright colours.
Yellow on the walls, white on window frames, blue on doors and green on the roof, they have propped up the looks of the party office which looked rundown not long ago.
How the house, dwarfed by its emerging neighbours, survived Blantyre City Council’s renovate-or-demolish Red Star Campaign is an untold story.
The fresh lemon yellow, the party’s dominant colour, has glowingly covered the cracks, dents and algae which subtly mirrored the fading lustre of the party that ruled democratic Malawi from 1994 to 2005 when it birthed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
UDF, which won four presidential elections on the trot after the fall of dictator Kamuzu Banda 24 years ago, had its candidates Atupele Muluzi on position three in 2014.
Now, the 38-year-old, who iced his ‘agenda for change’ to take a Cabinet post in the DPP administration, has become the poster face of his party’s controversial alliance with its nine-year-old offshoot.
A storm is gathering in UDF, with its vocal Balaka North legislator Lucius Banda refusing to be party to the “unwritten alliance” he rebukes as a marriage without a certificate.
In Parliament, the musician-turned-politician stayed put on the opposition side as the UDF bloc switched to the ruling bench.
Outside the House, Banda has vowed to wrestle for the party presidency. This is backed by estranged UDF enthusiasts who want Atupele to clarify whether the party will be on the ballot in 2019.
Early this month, the sticky issue took centre-stage when the UDF president made a one-off appearance at the newly painted offices only UDF secretary general Kandi Padambo frequents.
An inside story has it in an in-camera meeting, party leaders from the South pressed Atupele to clarify the terms of engagement with DPP and his 2019 agenda.
The private meeting might have postponed the burning issue, but the youthful UDF leader, who often speaks cryptically, left no one wiser when he faced the 1 000 party cadres in Limbe.
“UDF is still strong. It has been in existence for almost 20 years. Do not doubt me. I won’t let you down,” he said.
Padambo delved deeper, repeating what he has always said since the party’s crossing the floor in Parliament.
“ The relationship with the DPP is only confined to Parliament. Outside, UDF is an independent party and we are going to contest in 2019 Tripartite Elections as UDF,” he said.
T h e s e d i l e m m a s a n d uncertainties loom large in the party.
Not unexpectedly, Atupele opened up a week later to demystify “a lot of rumours about what I said” at the party central office.
“The party convention will have to decide whether to go it alone or in partnership with DPP,” he told The Nation, turning to his personal ambition: “We have to follow democratic processes which require that UDF must elect its leadership first at the convention.”
Atupele stated that he is committed to serving as a minister and “very committed to continue supporting government” to the point that he will go to the convention as a minister.
This partly unknots the dilemmas and see-saw antics of an ambitious politician sitting on the fence with one foot in Cabinet and another in his divided party.
His flirtations with the governing party have muted UDF voice on burning issues in Parliament, argues Banda.
Some speculate that Atupele has sacrificed his party for the sake of his father who has been on trial since 2006 for allegedly stashing almost K1.7 billion when he was in power.
Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Just last month, the Supreme Court in Blantyre ruled that the former president has an obligation to account for the suspected ill-gotten wealth and prove his innocence.
I n a n i n t e r view, UDF spokesperson Ken Ndanga ruled out any conspiracy in the rolling case slowed by arguments and counterarguments about technicalities, not the crux of the case.
He reckons the retired political grandmaster is not benefitting in any way from UDF dealings with DPP.
Ndanga explains: “As a party, we are not aware of an arrangement that UDF formed an alliance with DPP in order to protect Dr Muluzi from prosecution. Muluzi himself has never told us at any point that he is scared of prosecution.”
The party has endured internal conflicts since Muluzi attempted to extend his tenure beyond the constitutional two five-year terms.
The painters might have sealed the cracks on the walls of UDF headquarters, but not gaps that emerged since the botched push for a third term in 2002.
Then, the party, through Khwauli Msiska of Alliance for Democracy, tabled a bill in Parliament to scrape the limits on presidential terms limits.
The proposed amendment was narrowly defeated, plunging the party into a power vacuum and revolts from party heavyweights, publicly denounced as madeya (chaff).
Farcically, Muluzi even attempted to contest for the State Presidency in 2009, but Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) disqualified him from the race.
Since it was booted out of power in acrimonious style by DPP founder Bingu wa Mutharika in 2005, UDF has never known peace until Muluzi, the self-styled political engineer, was succeeded by his son.
During the long wait for his ‘chosen son’, Justin Malewezi, Aleke Banda, Brown Mpinganjira, Harry Thomson, Sam Mpasu, Friday Jumbe and other stalwarts dropped out.
Now, the party has a new chance to rebuild as the national executive committee has resolved to hold a convention sooner than later.
To Banda, the looming indaba could be a timely cure to UDF problems—one-in-six-years opportunity for members to elect leaders and have a say on the party’s shaky marriage of convenience with DPP.
“UDF is a democratic party,” he told Zodiak Broadcasting Station. “Contesting for the presidency does not make me the enemy of the incumbent. I have no vendetta. I will not be the first to do so. Moses Dossi contested against Mutharika.”
But he has buts against what he calls “marriage without a certificate”.
“I am not against the alliance with DPP, but we need a proper alliance with consent from UDF members, not just one person jumping into it. A party is not a personal farm. We need to respect people’s views,” he says.