Jonathon Lewis is a hell of a good African expert and this latest column on the President for Life syndrome is an excellent example of his work.

Last November, World Vision International estimated that nearly eight million rural Malawians would be in desperate need of food by December 2001. After two years of devastating floods, and a government decision to sell – at an average loss of 50 per cent – the nation’s entire grain reserve (some 167,000 tonnes), by May 2002 Malawi faced a 600,000 tonne grain deficit and began calling for international aid to relieve the famine.

But international aid presents its own problems. In February 2002, Denmark followed the lead of Britain, the United States and the European Union by suspending aid to Malawi due to widespread government corruption and overspending. In one instance, the EU suspended the release of 15 million euros allocated to the rehabilitation of a lake and demanded the repayment of a further 7 million euros when it was discovered that tender procedures were not followed. Information was also received that members of President Muluzi’s elite benefited from the sale of the grain reserves by buying maize and re-selling it in Malawi at a 500 per cent profit.

In the midst of scandal, corruption and famine, it would not be unreasonable to expect that President Muluzi’s main priority in 2002 would be to clean up his government and feed his nation. But Bakili Muluzi has other things in mind: he wants to become Malawi’s President for Life.

The President for Life syndrome is about as African as it gets. Togo’s President Gnassingbe Eyadema and Gabon’s President Omar Bongo have ruled their respective countries since 1967. Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi first came to power in 1978, and is currently in his sixth presidential term thanks to repeated changes to the Kenyan constitution. Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, despite violent and fraudulent elections. In Tunisia, President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, ruler since 1987, recently saw a referendum passed that will allow him to run for re-election in 2004 and 2009. In Madagascar, Didier Ratsiraka refuses to concede an election loss, despite his opponent’s victory being recognised by the United States.

But there are signs of change. Nelson Mandela stood down after just one presidential term. Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano will step down voluntarily in 2004 after sixteen years in office. Last year Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba abandoned the idea of seeking an unconstitutional third term, and in Namibia, President Sam Nujoma, who changed the constitution to allow himself a third term, has stated that he will not seek a fourth. Even in war-torn Angola, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has stated that his twenty-three year rule is coming to an end. The leaders of southern Africa have made the region one of the continent’s more progressive, which is why Muluzi’s insistence on a third term is so disappointing. But more than that, Bakili Muluzi is showing signs of wanting to lead Malawi back into the dark years that followed his country’s independence.

Muluzi’s period in office has been marked by a number of incidents that should set alarm bells ringing for the future of Malawian democracy. In March 2001, six people were arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the government, charges punishable by death. During the trial the leader of the opposition National Democratic Alliance, Brown Mpinganjira a former political ally of Muluzi was accused of funding the coup plot. However, when all the accused were acquitted due to lack of evidence, the government was implicated in fabricating the charges. In early 2002 Muluzi’s government introduced a new policy making it illegal for non-Malawians to own land. In a situation that draws parallels to that of white farmers in Zimbabwe, the policy was aimed directly at permanent businesses established by Malawi’s Asian community. Last December, Nelson Shaba, a prominent businessman was arrested and imprisoned after writing letters critical of Muluzi and his government. A Presbyterian clergyman was assaulted after being mistaken for Anglican Bishop James Tengatenga, who delivered sermons against corruption and abuse of power. In November 2001, Evison Matafale, one of Malawi’s most popular reggae musicians, died in police custody three days after being arrested for allegedly writing a “seditious document” ridiculing Bakili Muluzi. A government commission of inquiry into his death found that Matafale had died of malaria, contradicting a pathologist’s report that the singer had suffered “traumatic injuries” while in custody.

So suspicions about motives are raised when a corrupt President who resorts to violence to quell dissent wants to change the constitution. Suspicions that have, incidentally, been justified in the last few months. Opposition to changes to the constitution came from both the Law Society of Malawi (representing all of Malawi’s 120 lawyers) and a coalition of churches, resulting in a High Court injunction that prevented parliament from debating the third-term issue. Muluzi responded by promising to use the armed forces to crack down on any protest, a threat that was again referred to the High Court, and again found to be illegal.

By June 2002, Malawi was sliding towards complete anarchy. After the second High Court decision, the Muluzi government pressed forwards with attempts to impeach the judges involved in the ruling. Analysts believe that the impeachment is simply a means to install judges who will agree to amendments to the constitution. This analysis would seem to carry some weight, seeing as two of the judges in question were out of favour with the government already after being involved in acquitting the coup plotters.

But the true colours of Bakili Muluzi were revealed on June 3 when he gave a speech describing himself as a dictator: “Indeed I am a dictator the advantage with me is that I am a good dictator who wants to maintain peace and stability in my country”. But even more concerning was the fact that Muluzi compared himself to Malawi’s first post-independence President, the late Kamuzu Hastings Banda: “Malawi is a blessed nation. Kamuzu Banda was a political gentleman, a civilised politician. I am also a civilised politician.”

This speech is more telling of Bakili Muluzi than anything that has occurred previously in his tenure as President. During Banda’s thirty-year rule in Malawi, an estimated 250,000 people disappeared or were murdered. Banda was implicated in, though never convicted for, the murder of three cabinet ministers in 1983, and often boasted that he disposed of his enemies by feeding them to the crocodiles. If Bakili Muluzi is modelling himself as a “civilised politician” in the mould of Hastings Banda, then a famine is merely the beginning of the misery Malawi will endure.

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