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Signs of possible Mutharika’s comeback to power next year in Malawi

The former vice-president’s death will likely create a political dilemma or an opportunity for President Lazarus Chakwera.

Political tensions have been high in Malawi since the death of former vice-president Saulos Chilima in an aircraftonJune 10th -with conspiracy theories targeting President Lazarus Chakwera.

Chilima was killed when a military aircraft on an internal flight crashed into Malawi’s Chikangawa Forest in dense fog on 10th June 2024. He will be laid to rest in his home village in the Ntcheu district.

Chakwera and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) formed the Tonse Alliance with Chilima’s United Transformation Movement (UTM) and several smaller parties to contest and ultimately win the 2020 elections. The High Court ordered those polls after it ruled that incumbent president Peter Mutharika’s victory in 2019 was rigged.

The charismatic Chilima was an important, probably critical, part of that combined victory. But cracks soon began appearing in the alliance. Relations soured between Chakwera and Chilima.

In November 2022, Chilima was arrested over allegations that he had received US$280 000 from British businessman Zuneth Sattar – a perennial suspect in corruption cases – for helping his firms secure Malawi Defence Force contracts. His supporters suspected the case was politically motivated. Then in May this year, the charges against him were dropped, allegedly on Chakwera’s order.

The main source of tension was about who should run as the Tonse Alliance’s candidate in the 2025 presidential election. Chakwera unilaterally announced he would seek re-election. UTM members accused Chakwera of reneging on an agreement that Chakwera would run for president for the first five years and support Chilima in running for the second five. There were suggestions, though, that Chilima then decided he would run against Chakwera.

Chilima had helped capture the youth vote for Chakwera in 2020, but it then looked like Chakwera and the MCP decided he had become dispensable, and dropped him.

These tensions fuelled the conspiracy theories about what caused the crash of the military aircraft that killed Chilima and nine others. The UTM demanded a commission of inquiry – a good idea in principle, though no evidence of foul play has emerged. The aircraft was flying from the capital Lilongwe to the northern town of Mzuzu but was turned back before landing because of bad weather. It crashed soon after.

Chakwera was booed by some at Chilima’s funeral, and there have been incidents of stoning of vehicles. The alliance suspected former president Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was taking advantage of the suspicions about Chakwera and the tensions between the MCP and UTM to stir trouble.

Chakwera’s choice of UTM Vice-President Michael Usi to replace Chilima as the country’s vice-president seems to have created more new problems. Malawians were watching the decision closely to discern Chakwera’s intentions.

It was expected he might appoint a vice-president from his own MCP party because of the tensions between him and Chilima and their respective parties. However, that was what the alliance expected. 

So appointing Usi seemed to make sense. But many in the Alliance are upset by Chakwera’s choice. Usi was widely regarded as having gone over to Chakwera’s side after he appointed him minister of natural resources and climate change.

‘Chakwera insisted that Usi, like other alliance members appointed to cabinet, swear allegiance to him rather than to their parties.’ Usi had virtually ignored his UTM duties ever sinceThe result was that Usi had become alienated from his own party

Thus, Usi’s appointment appears to have done nothing to revive the Tonse Alliance, ‘which exists only on paper.. That is largely because Chakwera had not fully honoured his agreements to appoint alliance members to Cabinet. The danger is that the UTM likely may go over to Mutharika’s DPPChakwera has proved a grave disappointment to many Malawians after the euphoria of his and Chilima’s 2020 victory and the overturning of Mutharika’s rigged victory. He now may be inadvertently setting the country up for a comeback by Mutharika next year.

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