- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

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.

The vice president, meanwhile, has remained in the UDF, thus causing friction with the president.

The average Malawian seems mostly tired of the constant political bickering — the feud has dragged on since 2004 — and they privately insist there is no truth to the treason charges.

In a culture whose main dialect has no equivalent for “assertive,” they are embarrassed by the leaders’ unwillingness to compromise.

Under the Malawian Constitution, the elected president is free to do what he likes — including setting up his own political party and choosing ministers from among friends and business connections — and the people are free to wait out his five-year term.

“I just don’t see how the government is going to get away from all this and save face at the same time,” Mr. Dulani said.

“I think the government has the choice of continuing with these cases, or letting them die out quietly. To do otherwise, they lose a lot credibility in the process.”

Udule Mwakawungura, acting executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, called the first two years of the Mutharika regime “a period of constant bewilderment and anxiety.”

He said that in the face of opposition, Mr. Mutharika has moved further and further from transparent governance into leadership by dictates, while often skirting rules laid out in the constitution.

In May, Mr. Mutharika honored Dr. Banda, once reviled as a dictator, with a $620,000 mausoleum, called him a national hero, and vowed to continue his work.

Malawi, one of the world’s 10 poorest countries, receives more than $400 million in foreign aid every year, yet three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

A year ago, foreign donors had to pull the president and vice president away from each others’ throats in order to get them to focus on the fact that their voters were starving from a failed harvest.

“Obviously, it’s bound to make donors a bit jittery on the future the country is going to have,” Mr. Dulani said.

“The whole attention of the government is on that,” said Peter Mwanza, president of the University of Mzuzu. “[Mr. Mutharika] is worried about what other schemes are there.”

The failed political partnership is the product of Mr. Muluzi, the former president who was pried out of office when parliament refused to amend the constitution so he could run again for a third term.

Christians, at 75 percent, form the majority of Malawians, but the 20 percent Muslim minority also holds considerable political clout.

“The [United Democratic Front] were trying to balance their support by having a Christian presidential candidate with a Muslim as a running mate. It was a strategy of maintaining support from the Muslim quarter, but to run away from characterization as a Muslim party,” Mr. Dulani said.

“We ended up with two characters who obviously cannot work together, and now we are paying for it,” he said.

But with the courts clogged with competing lawsuits and the vice president stewing under house arrest while newspapers and analysts slyly suggest there is nothing to the treason charges, is there any hope for reconciliation?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Mr. Dulani said.

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