As the country’s first multiparty president from 1994 to 2004, Bakili Muluzi is widely credited with consolidating Malawi’s democracy and the rule of law.
During his tenure he tolerated dissenting views, while press and religious freedoms flourished unlike under Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Muluzi will go down in history as the ‘people’s president’ or as he used to call himself; vendor wamkulu and president woyenda mmaliro.
But he had a dark side too. He successfully used violence to survive in a politically hostile environment. In 2001, his Young Democrats waged a campaign of intimidation against the government’s opponents and the press. In 2003-04, ‘State-sponsored terror’ continued as his United Democratic Front (UDF) pushed for Muluzi’s third term bid.
His tactics of funding rival factions in Malawi Congress Party (MCP) are well documented. And never in Malawi’s history, have we had a foul-mouthed State President than in Muluzi. On occasions without number, he used foul and degrading language against his rivals. On the political podium, he had no match.
Behind the doors, some say, Muluzi was soft as a cat. An exceptional negotiator and leaders from far-and-wide would come to seek his wisdom. He is one politician who has walked the adage that in politics, there is neither permanent friend nor permanent enemy; there is only permanent interest.
The former Norwegian Ambassador to Malawi Asbjorn Eidhammer describes Muluzi as affable and easy to like in his book titled Malawi: A Place Apart. It is for such reason that he found it easy to bring even his political enemies to the negotiating table.
On Tuesday this week, he showed the country that he still posseses those skills. He successfully met the Human Right Defenders Coalition leadership at his BCA residence in Blantyre for dialogue. On the streets, there was a lot of doubt if Muluzi would succeed to calm down the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC). As expected the meeting indeed in a deadlock.
Now the question is: Can he, in his old age and retirement, does he have anything to offer to calm the storm brewing over Malawi in the aftermath of the May 21 elections?
Word on the street is that, Muluzi has come wiser over time and he is the right man to lead dialogue alongside the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) and others who have been calling for peace.
Muluzi’s record to broker peace is well documented. Soon after the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) announced that Bingu had won the 2004 General Elections, violence reared its ugly face in the cities following protests over the results. In Chilobwe in Blantyre City, young Epiphania Bonjesi was killed by a stray bullet from Police officers following riots in the township. The situation was tense.
However, Muluzi invited Gwanda Chakuamba who was disputing the election results to his BCA residence and reached a deal that ended the riots. He too invited Brown James Mpinganjira (BJ) of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to the negotiation table. Just like Chakuamba, BJ told his supporters to accept the outcome and move on. Peace prevailed thereafter.
Muluzi also stepped into the void in 2012 following the demise of late Bingu to appeal for calm in the country and let the Constitution prevail by allowing Joyce Banda, then estranged vice-president, to take over as the republican president. And like in 2004, the country was saved from descending into chaos.
Apart from a cloud of corruption still hanging over his head and being too close to Peter Mutharika, Muluzi remains relevant today as he has always been in times of crisis.
Word on the street is the HRDC leadership should at least show respect to the former leader and give his dialogue efforts a chance.
He still has a lot to offer.