African viewpoint: Is Malawi reverting to dictatorship?

President Bingu wa Mutharika (R) and his former deputy Joyce Banda in 2009 Bingu wa Mutharika fired his deputy (L), comparing her to fallen archangel Lucifer

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers Malawi's relationship with autocracy.

Once, as the last century ended and this one began, I arrived in Malawi in search of Hastings Kamuzu Banda's legacy.

It had been barely five years since the founding father of the Malawian nation had passed on to join the great dictator in the sky at the biblical age of 100 and something - and his people were still in awe of him despite the arrival of democracy and multiparty politics.

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Before you start faulting me for being intolerant because I have sacked Joyce Banda from DPP, fault God for sacking Lucifer from heaven”

End Quote Bingu wa Mutharika

I reflected on the shortness of African time, of how only a century and a bit before my arrival, this stunning nation set around a lake had proved so attractive to the missionary explorer David Livingstone and thousands of missionaries after him.

There are those who talk of "African time" as being a languid, drawn-out entity, which does not follow the rules of the clock.

But in reality African time is compressed - so that many events and histories occur within the blinking of some divine eye.

Seen through this prism, our political evolution has been moving at a furious pace, but even that does not seem quite quick enough.

Take the news coming out of Malawi over the last few months - how one talented technocrat, President Bingu wa Mutharika, shifted through the gears of power with such tenacity that he is morphing into the intolerant autocrat.

Relations between the president and civil society organisations have been reaching breaking point, as Mr Mutharika has taken to banning demonstrations over fuel shortages and warning his citizens not to be "inspired by Egypt".

Hastings Banda (C) on a state visit to the UK in 1985 Hastings Banda, seen here on a visit to the UK, ruled Malawi with an iron fist for three decades

Then there is the issue of his successor - even the blind can see that his second term has become the campaign tent to shoehorn his own brother, Peter, to be the Democratic Progressive Party's candidate for the 2014 polls.

Those who disagreed with his choice are simply expelled from his party, which at the moment is looking neither democratic nor progressive.

One person to be shown the door for refusing to tow the presidential line was Joyce Banda.

The president explained his action: "When God noted that Lucifer was being big-headed, he did not hesitate to evict him from the heavenly government.

"I am not the first to fire someone, it started in heaven. So before you start faulting me for being intolerant because I have sacked Joyce Banda from DPP, fault God for sacking Lucifer from heaven."

Even Malawi's great dictator Banda was not given to such analogies; and every missionary who ever trod the warm heart of Africa must be doing somersaults in their graves at a job half-done in Bible lessons and humility.

As human rights organisations begin to sing a chorus of protests, the 77 year old's feelings have been hurt to the bone by criticism of his increasingly autocratic governing style.

Newspapers are being targeted and articles deemed "contrary to public interest" are being censored by Mr Mutharika's government.

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Of course the inspector general is not a student, and could not have heard the lecture nor the context in which it was delivered except through planted spies”

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Now we hear that students have been swallowing tear gas and that several lecturers at Chancellor College in Zomba have been dismissed following an unsavoury stand-off between academics and the police.

The row, it appears, was not about salaries, but about how Peter Mukhito, the inspector general of police, quizzed political science lecturer Blessings Chinsinga over comparisons he had made in the lecture hall between Malawi's current fuel and economic malaise and the circumstances that led to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.

Of course the inspector general is not a student, and could not have heard the lecture nor the context in which it was delivered except through planted spies.

Nonetheless the president weighed into the row, seeing conspiracies everywhere and warning of dire consequences if the academics were bent on fermenting rebellion, condemning student demos and closing the university of which he is the chancellor.

His eccentric intolerance has gone further - suggesting in his public speeches to supporters that they should not allow people to criticise their father (meaning himself) and that they should be taught a lesson with some corrective fists.

Fergus and Flossie
Patients in a hospital in Chiradzulu, Malawi (Archive shot 2005) Most of the $153m the UK gives to Malawi each year in aid is for the health sector

We have seen this kind of posturing from those African leaders who profess to holding degrees in violence, and the belligerent nature of Mr Mutharika's comments was noted by the diplomatic circles in his country with disastrous consequences.

Last week the Malawian government asked the British high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, to leave Malawi after the leaking of one of his diplomatic cables citing President Mutharika as a "combative president… autocratic and intolerant of criticism" and that "the governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights".

Within a day, the UK government had retaliated by asking Malawi's acting high commissioner Flossie Gomile-Chidyaonga to leave her London post, and the lady was forced to miss the wedding of the year.

And so two people - one called Fergus and the other called Flossie - have become victims of President Mutharika's eccentric leadership.

All of this would mean nothing if Malawi was not so reliant on foreign aid.

The UK is his country's main donor, giving up to $153m (£93m) every year. And where one donor scrambles away, others may soon follow.

But it may not matter to the president, who seems keen to turn back the hands of time to an era of absolute dictatorship, when the country was awash with spies spilling its citizens' secrets to keep them in tow and a dictator at the helm.

As churches and newspapers and human rights bodies scream for the president to rediscover his own diplomatic manner, the universities are closed, the fuel queues remain long and there is not an oil well or diamond mine in sight to help Malawi go it alone without the donor dollars and the odd pop star in search of a child to adopt.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


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  • Comment number 42.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 41.

    I have never been one for protests, I don't believe there is much to be gained for disrupting an economy which is already eroded by the aged rulers that we choose to lead our nation. If you want someone to lead the nation, I am more than ready to do so. I know a band of people who would do a better job in leading the nation to a better and brighter future. I am tired of watching us self destruct.

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    Comment number 40.

    When I protested outside Malawi's Embassy in London recently about corruption and nepotism I was photographed by security staff there.proof for me that, even abraod, the regime tolerates no is depressing to see how many African countries are turning back into dictatorships

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    Comment number 39.

    As a citizen of Malawi, it is disheartening to see how a man who we voted into power could bring the country to the mud. How long will this country continue to suffer corruption, dictatorships and poor governance? May God have mercy on us all

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    Comment number 38.

    I am not sure who this journalist/filmaker is. Everyone in the region knows that Dr. Hastings Banda (who I respect and adore) died in 1997 at the age of 91. He was born in 1906. Please check your facts before misleading people. Bingu's predecessor, Bakili Muluzi used to muzzle the press too. Remember what happened to then MBC reporters Patrick Phaka, Irene Banda?

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    Comment number 37.

    Bingu was praised and awarded for his African Food Basket programme. His agricultural subsidy scheme went well, despite objections from international donors such as the World Bank and the IMF. (He would be contravening the IMF aid conditions) The negative press reports started shortly after Bingu implemented his irrigation scheme, despite the UK and USA's opposition and threats of stopping aid.

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    Comment number 36.

    Malawi, the warm heart of Africa,, and President Bingu, top news makers over the past few years.But what is fact and what is speculation, opinion or mongering.Malawi does not have a history of violence, throughout modern history. What is the cause, Bingu, his enemies or people uninformed about the facts? Who did Bingu offend in the last few years? Recent tax legislation was preceded by aid cuts.


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