President Peter Mutharika and his estranged Vice-President Saulos Chilima, political allies-turned-foes, are set to meet face-to-face at the funeral service of Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe at Bolero in Rumphi today.
This will be the first time the two will make a public appearance at the same function together since June this year when Chilima announced his ambition to challenge Mutharika in the presidential race in the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections.
Yesterday, the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) issued two statements announcing the funeral programme for the fallen Tumbuka Paramount Chief who died on Thursday at Mzuzu Central Hospital after succumbing to low blood pressure.
In the initial statement signed by Principal Secretary (Administration) in the OPC, Cliff Chiunda, the office said Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Kondwani Nankhumwa would represent the President at the funeral service at Chilongozgi Village in Bolero, Rumphi.
The statement added that Mutharika had directed that the late Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe, born Walter John Hardy Gondwe, “be accorded a burial with military honours”.
In the second statement issued last evening classified as ‘Revised’ and signed by Chief Secretary to the Government Lloyd Muhara, OPC said the funeral service would start at 1pm and that the President would attend.
Reads the statement in part: “The late Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe will be buried with military honours and His Excellency the President, Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, will be in attendance.”
On the other hand, the Office of the Vice-President last evening also confirmed that Chilima would attend the funeral ceremony.
“Yes, it’s true that the Vice-President is set to attend the funeral service of the late Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe in Rumphi tomorrow,” said an official in the Office of the Vice-President.
In a recent BBC Hardtalk interview, Chilima confirmed that he had not met with Mutharika, who in 2014 picked him from the private sector where he was Airtel Malawi managing director to be his running mate on Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket, since June.
Besides, providing an opportunity for the country’s First and Second citizens to meet face-to-face, the funeral ceremony could be a potential political posturing arena, a fear that prompted CCAP Livingstonia Synod general secretary the Reverend Levi Nyondo yesterday to warn politicians against donning party colours.
During a church service in Mzuzu to see off the chief’s body, he said: “Wearing of political colours brings confusion. We will not allow any person to bring political colours. Anyone who dares will be chased away.”
Nyondo’s sentiments come against a background of political posturing at recent Gonapamuhanya cultural festivals where rival political parties have clashed.
An opinion poll on political trends by the Institute of Public Opinion and Research (Ipor) last month showed that UTM and its leader Chilima is the third most popular grouping after the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Malawi Congress Party (MCP).
In the survey conducted between August and September this year, Chilima trailed Mutharika and MCP’s Lazarus Chakwera. However, the survey dated October 2018 rated UTM, which is promoting Chilima’s presidential candidacy, as more popular in the Northern Region with 28 percent followed by DPP and MCP.
With DPP positioned as stronger in the Southern Region and MCP in the Central Region, the Northern Region is widely regarded as a swing area that could decide the elections.