President Bingu wa Mutharika likes to be in the limelight. He likes to be in the lead, too. This was clear from his childhood at Kamoto Village in Thyolo, where he wrote his name on a baobab tree about six decades ago.
The tree stands where it stood. The name still visible, although the tree has grown and the letters have gone faint. That attempt to keep his name on a tree was a show-off, fun and power of childhood dreams. This is a surface interpretation. The depth of it was that Mutharika wanted to grow like a baobab which is what he has done.
His presidency which he assumed on May 24, 2004, is the culmination of his life, a journey that is showing five clear faces.
Mutharika wanted to become president of Malawi long before independence in 1964. “If he did not want the highest office,” says a source in Thyolo, “then he wanted something big. I suspect he thought he would be the second president of this country.” And as if he had forgotten, he continued. “Even the first. He was a boy with a big heart.”
So for four decades Mutharika was preparing for the highest office in Malawi and he did not keep this a secret. He told people he met while working outside Malawi.
A Blantyre woman in her 70s remembers meeting Mutharika in 1970s. “I knew that he wanted to be a president long before my last born [who was born in 1979],” she says. “Not because he wanted to get rich, but to develop Malawi.” No wonder in 2004, she advised her children and grandchildren to vote for Mutharika. “He has plans for this country,” she told her children who doubted the UDF candidate.
Those were his wishes and he had to strategise which he visibly did from 1998 when he announced that he would contest the 1999 elections on his United Party’s ticket. He came out last in the presidential race.
That, though, was not his end. He dissolved the party and joined the UDF. He worked with former president Bakili Muluzi and won his confidence. In the end, he was made presidential candidate. How did he manage to win Muluzi’s confidence?
Part of the answer is in what Ken Zikhale Ng’oma told the media in 2005 that Mutharika used to send sugar and other things to Muluzi’s mother at Kapoloma in Machinga. It might have been real sugar or something sweet like sugar.
The real test, though, was during the campaign when Mutharika played second fiddle to Muluzi. For records, Mutharika is more educated than Muluzi; Mutharika is older than Muluzi. But during the campaign, Mutharika taught people a lesson of humility which is a great lesson in life.
He spoke to please Muluzi. Mutharika was, in fact, given two minutes during which he had to say his plans for Malawi and thank Muluzi for developing this country.
The acceptance of this and the humility it carried were a strategy. Just that. Speaking to Chancellor College students two years ago, Mutharika said he has a formula to the highest office in the country. He did not elaborate but, most likely, he meant his strategy: How he has worked through the decades to get the presidency.
Yet his formula might not work again because circumstances may not allow. But still there are lessons from his strategies.
This term refers to someone who sees what will happen in the future, some kind of a prophet. But in case of Mutharika, he sees what others don’t see.
Throughout the decades, children in Malawi were taught that Malawi is a hinterland, a landlocked country away from the ocean. Mutharika came and said no. There are Shire and Zambezi rivers that connect Malawi to the Indian Ocean, he said and came up with Shire-Zambezi Waterway Project.
It is not yet done but it is a project that gives hope, a plan that opens eyes and shows that geography is not destiny as Napoleon said—he was wrong—but what people decide to do with their geography.
One academic staff from the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at Chancellor College says Mutharika is rewriting political science theories.
Once he won the presidency, his mentor, Muluzi, organised a coalition of parties to make a majority in Parliament, so that Mutharika could not have challenges with the budget, for example.
But Mutharika turned down the offer by leaving the UDF and choosing to work with a minority government which, some thought, would not work.
But he has survived for a full term—almost. There was Section 65, now forgotten. Malawi has survived although it appears it is Mutharika who has survived.
The feeling among Malawians, those who put Malawi first, is that “yes, we can!” There is a kind of confidence and pride that Mutharika has invoked in Malawians who love Malawi, not political parties.
He has given hope in the face of difficulty and uncertainty, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead, beyond the darkest years. He had an ailing wife. He had impeachment threats. He had a budget that was being troubled every year. But he kept ruling this country as if everything was fine. He took a longer view and not an immediate one which is often full of the present, the troubles, and not hope at all.
Mutharika has said things that were meant to provoke thinkers but, sadly, such speeches go unnoticed. The media goes for the ordinary political tones but not the theoretical depth. Speaking in Mzimba recently, Mutharika said our culture is superior to all foreign cultures. He even spoke of “our God” versus “their God”.
He meant to celebrate the African Synod of the Catholic Church. He meant to say Nyau is as good as Christianity only that Nyau has been demonised while Christianity has been over-praised. Mutharika meant to say Chipembedzo cha Makolo is equally powerful as Christianity.
By saying this, Mutharika was confirming that our ways of life are more important than the ways of the West and the East. This is in line with his thinking which has defied international advice.
Mutharika has implemented the fertiliser subsidy programme against advice from the West.
He meant to say our MPs can dress the Malawian way in the House. Mutharika meant to say that our Speaker, lawyers and judges can dress the Malawian way while on duty.
Sadly, the President said this while dressed in a suit like a white man. It would have carried weight if he said so while putting on something African. He would have sent a powerful message if he went to the UN General Assembly dressed the African way, not the English way.
The first four faces are good for Mutharika. They single him out of the two other presidents who have ruled Malawi: the Ngwazi with an iron fist and Muluzi in a free-for-all administration.
Right from his inaugural speech, Mutharika talked of being different, mainly from Muluzi. Mutharika knew Muluzi had failed Malawi and, being a strategist, Mutharika calculated how to win the support of Malawians who had denied him the vote having won with a mere 34 percent.
He spoke in new tones. He won wide support both national and international. He would have a Cabinet of about 20, appointed on merit. But by attempting to be different, Mutharika is becoming like any other president in Malawi.
One area Mutharika wanted to be different was the Cabinet. He promised a small Cabinet of technocrats. But now he has a Cabinet of 41 members. Faced with political challenges, Mutharika acted the way Muluzi did by blowing up his Cabinet to appease some politicians and have the illusion of winning support from their areas. But he has resisted the temptation to buy political loyalty visibly.
So, Mutharika may, after all, not be that different. He is just like any other president; somehow like Kamuzu, somehow like Muluzi. Yet different, in a way.