BLANTYRE, Malawi — It started, as most stories about revenge and bitterness and assas- sination attempts do, with a breakup.xxxxxx First, Malawi’s Pres- ident Bingu wa Muth-arika ditched the party that helped elect him a year into his five-year mandate.
Then he formed his own rival party and went on an anti-corruption crusade targeting his old political cronies, including a former president.
Vice President Cassim Chilumpha was arrested for purportedly absconding with $1.3 million, then let off when the courts made the curious decision that he couldn’t be arrested while in office.
So Mr. Mutharika fired him.
Mr. Chilumpha shot back by organizing an impeachment campaign.
When the courts saved Mr. Chilumpha a second time, Mr. Mutharika borrowed a page from Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s book — not exactly a best-seller on the democracy and good-governance charts — and had the vice president arrested and charged with treason for a purported plot to assassinate the president.
It was claimed Mr. Chilumpha hired South African mercenaries to assassinate the president while he was on a publicity tour inspecting this year’s tobacco crops.
In apparent homage to Mr. Mugabe, Mr. Mutharika had the arrest carried out while the Zimbabwean leader was in Malawi on a controversial state visit.
In the tennis game that has become Malawian politics, it seemed the president had just scored a rather dirty match point.
“There is more than meets the eye,” says Boniface Dulani, a political-science lecturer at Chancellor College, Malawi’s main university. “There is more than just treason; it’s politics as well. We can only hope the courts get to the bottom of this.”
Power grabs and political intrigue are not new to Malawi, a small southeastern African nation of 12 million people sandwiched between Zambia and Mozambique.
Hastings Kamuzu Banda, an American-trained physician who led Malawi to independence from Britain in 1964 and became its first prime minister, manipulated the constitution to remain president for life and retain power in his Malawi Congress Party. However, popular unrest and international pressure forced him to call a referendum on multiparty democracy in 1993.
In national elections the next year, Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) was elected president, and a new constitution written in 1995 ended the special powers of the Malawi Congress Party. Mr. Muluzi was re-elected to serve a second 5-year term as president in 1999.
In May 2004, Mr. Mutharika won the presidential election as the UDF candidate, but the party failed to retain a majority of seats in parliament. Mr. Muluzi helped the party form a national-unity government with several opposition parties. Since then the two leaders have fallen out.
Mr. Mutharika left the UDF on Feb. 5, 2005, citing differences over his anti-corruption campaign, and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP, however, has also failed to acquire enough support for a majority in parliament, and the UDF has pushed forward with an attempt to impeach Mr. Mutharika.