Malawians, everyone hopes, do not collectively have a short memory. Banda was arguably the most odious ogre to emerge on the African continent in modern times. Few Malawians, and for that matter Africans, would have forgotten already the suffering he visited upon his people. Banda suppressed dissent and used a paramilitary force, the Young Pioneers, to intimidate, harass and eliminate political opponents.
When Bakili Muluzi took over from Banda in May 1994, the world heaved a sigh of relief. The relief was even more satisfying because that was also the year that South Africa, only a month earlier, had held its first non-racial democratic elections preaching peace, unity, the preservation and the restoration of human dignity.
Nelson Mandela had, after 27 years of incarceration, been released from Robben Island and later Victor Verster prison on February 11 1990. The 1990s therefore marked a new beginning for Africa. It was also the same decade when Zambia had peacefully transitioned from Kenneth Kaunda’s dictatorship to multiparty democracy.
Towards the close of the same decade Zimbabwe saw the emergence of credible opposition to Robert Mugabe’s own dictatorship.
To his credit, Banda did not blame his country’s woes on foreigners as has become the catchphrase among the new generation of African despots.
Banda had diplomatic relations with some of the most villainous regimes in the world. When everyone else was shunning relations with apartheid South Africa and Zionist Israel, Banda had diplomatic ties with them.
In a leaked cable former British High Commissioner to Malawi Fergus Cochrane-Dyet is alleged to have said of wa Mutharika that he was “becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism”. The irony is completely lost on wa Mutharika that by sending the British envoy packing he was confirming what the diplomat had averred in the leaked cable.
Cochrane-Dyet said in the cable that local civil society activists were afraid after a campaign of threatening phone calls and said the government was restricting the freedom of the media and minorities.
Reports indicate that the deterioration of media freedoms and minority rights, and the perennial lack of fuel and shortage of foreign exchange had exposed the government to criticism from local non-governmental and civil society organisations. Two colleges of the University of Malawi were closed after a stand-off between the government and academic staff. The stand-off began after a lecturer was detained by police for allegedly discussing the North African uprisings with his students. The lecturer and some of his supporters lost their jobs a few weeks later.
But wa Mutharika, by causing the severance of diplomatic ties with the UK, has cut his nose to spite his face. A whopping 40% of Malawi’s budget comes from abroad and the UK just happens to be the largest donor. Of course wa Mutharika has strengthened his country’s ties with China and Iran in a kind of “Mugabesque Look-East Policy”. His admiration of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is an open secret. He named one of Malawi’s most important roads after Mugabe.
But the recent turn of events in Malawi should be worrisome for the rest of the continent. The fact that Malawi is turning back the hands of time and throwing the southern African sub-continent back to the Kamuzu Banda days should worry not only Malawians but everyone else in the region. The democratic movement has suffered a body blow and in countries such as Zimbabwe where steps towards democratic change have met intractable hurdles the blow cannot be more debilitating.
When perceived advocates of democratic change turn into despots all those who believe in the democratic process not only lose their morale but feel betrayed by pretenders masquerading as champions of people’s rights.
Wa Mutharika is hardly the only pyseudo-democrat in sub-Saharan Africa who has betrayed his own people when the democratic process turns against him. We saw recently how the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo was pulled like a mouse out of a bunker for refusing to surrender power after losing an election.
It must be remembered that Gbagbo was the staunchest advocate of democracy in fighting the entrenched dictatorship of the Ivorian founding father Félix Houphouët-Boigny who ruled the country from independence in 1960 to 1993. According to biographers Gbagbo was imprisoned in the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s, and he lived in exile in France during much of the 1980s as a result of his union activism.
His about-turn therefore can only be described as shocking.
Wa Mutharika has never really been democratic but fate thrust democracy upon him. Historians say wa Mutharika was actually a beneficiary of Banda’s development programmes. In 1964 — shortly after what was dubbed Cabinet Crisis, wa Mutharika was one of the 32 Malawians, selected by Banda to travel to India on a scholarship for “fast track” diplomas and possible posting into the then white-dominated civil service. In other words, wa Mutharika did not go into exile in reaction to the political crisis in Malawi but as a beneficiary of it.
According to online publications wa Mutharika has upheld the memory of Banda as a national hero, saying that he would continue Banda’s work. In September 2004, he restored Banda’s name to the national stadium, the central hospital, and the international airport; Muluzi had removed Banda’s name from all three places. Wa Mutharika was present at the May 2006 unveiling of a mausoleum for Banda that cost US$620 000.
He also has his own delusions of grandeur. He has built a white marble mausoleum for his late first wife Zimbabwean-born Ethel Zvauya in imitation of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
The lesson to learn from the Malawian debacle is that there are many false prophets on the road to true democratisation. Checks and balances should be put in place to prevent them from assuming power.