By Ajong Mbapndah L
Life after the Presidency is certainly not a death sentence, says Prof Peter Mutharika, the immediate past President of Malawi. I am now able to reflect. I am reading a lot of history, writing about my 14 years in politics and my over 40 years as a professor of Law at some of the best universities in the world, Prof Mutharika tells PAV in an interview to shed light on his post Presidential life.
Since leaving office under circumstances he could have challenged, President Mutharika says the desire to put country first led to his adoption of a low profile so as to give his successor a chance to succeed. Without any signs of rancor, President Mutharika says he has wanted nothing but success for current President Lazarus Chakwera for the good of all Malawians.
Laughing at claims that he left Malawi as a sinking ship, President Mutharika said there was nothing to write home so far about the current government. Besides the scandals that have plagued the administration of his successor, President Mutharika says there is little to give them credit for except on projects and initiatives started by his own administration.
Even with his accounts sealed by the current administration in what he views as political persecution, President Mutharika sees the future with optimism. Among the priorities he has is the rebuilding of his party with a new generation of leaders who will effectively answer the call to serve Malawi during future elections.
Thanks very much Sir for accepting to grant this interview, first how is former President Mutharika faring and what has he been up to since he left office?
President Mutharika: The former President is well and in good health. Since he left office, he is spending a lot of time reading and writing but also engaging Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials around the country in the restructuring process.
Free from stress and high-profile pressures of Presidential duties, can former President Mutharika tell us what a typical day now looks like for him?
President Mutharika: On a typical day, I get up in the morning, exercise, drink green tea and get on the phone to respond to the many phone calls and requests from within Malawi but also from outside. After that I continue with my reading and writing.
What did you make of the entire process that culminated in you leaving office, you were proclaimed winner, the Constitutional Court annulled the elections, a rerun was ordered, and your opponent was proclaimed winner, did you have any personal issues with the way the democratic process played out in Malawi in 2019 and 2020?
President Mutharika: I have a lot of reservations about what happened. First the 2019 elections in which I was declared the winner were described by all the observers: UN, USA, European Union, African Union, the Commonwealth, COMESA, SADC as “free, fair, transparent and credible”. The opposition decided to challenge the elections on the ground that the elections were rigged. The Constitutional Court concluded that there was no rigging and that the irregularities (there are always irregularities in any election everywhere) did not affect the outcome of the election. And yet the Court decided to nullify the results of the election and ordered a re-run. This was a dangerous precedent for Malawi and this region. A distinguished member of the English Bar has described the decision of the Court as a “Judicial Coup d’état”. The Court decided against all the evidence before it to nullify the election. What happened was not justice but politics of justice. The fresh Presidential elections that were called by the Constitutional Court were conducted without foreign observers. Local observers were beaten up, attacked and some were killed especially in the 3 Central Region where the opposition party, now ruling party, dominates. It was after these observers were chased away that massive rigging took place. It was a travesty. However, my colleagues and I decided not to go to Court because we did not expect justice from the very Court that committed an injustice. Secondly, we had ten months of violent demonstrations by the opposition, and we decided that the country should not go through another year of demonstrations and uncertainty.
Let’s talk about your legacy, in what shape did you meet Malawi when you took office and in what shape was the country when you left it to your successor?
President Mutharika: When I took office in June 2014, Malawi was in a shambles. The cash gate scandal during which billions of dollars were stolen during the administration of President Joyce Banda had completely destroyed the economy. Inflation was out of control; interest rates were astronomical, and the exchange rate was unstable. We managed to reduce inflation and interest rates to single digit and stabilized the exchange rate. Six months after I took over, we were faced with the worst floods in the history of Malawi. For the 4 following two years, we were faced with the worst hunger in the history of this country. We managed to resettle all the people displaced by the floods and we managed to feed all the people who were facing famine. No single person died from hunger.
When you look back at the six years you served as President, what are some of the fond memories you left with, and on hindsight, what are some of the things you could have done better or handled in a different way?
President Mutharika: I enjoyed interacting with our people- the youth, women, chiefs, and the faith community. The youth, women, members of the faith community, traditional leaders and civil society organizations were brought into the governance structure through appointments to boards and commissions. I also enjoyed my contribution to the global community. I had ten global championships in such areas as youth, women, education, global health, global trade etc. I very much enjoyed interacting with others in the global community. On the issue whether I could have handled better I probably should have forcefully stopped the violent demonstrations. They did a lot of damage to the country.
What is the nature of relations between you and your successor, since you left office, has there any meetings or contacts with your successor initiated by you or by him?
President Mutharika: Yes, there have been contacts between myself and my successor. We have met once, and we have talked on the phone a couple of times. Our relationship is polite and correct.
‘Ours is a system that needs an overhaul, that’s why we are talking of changing direction for this sinking ship which had been weighed down by greed, nepotism, corruption, executive arrogance and all the economic atrocities that were committed by a cartel of state criminals,” President Chakwera said in an interview last year, do you recognize the Malawi you left behind in his assessment?
President Mutharika: No, I do not recognize the Malawi he is talking about. In view of what is happening since he took over, he was probably surmising about the Malawi that now exists under his leadership.
In a recent interview, you accused the current government of political prosecution because your accounts were frozen by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB),and we learned it is in relation to your role in a 5-billion kwacha ($6.6 million) cement scandal , first have you been given access to your accounts , and in follow up, what makes you see this as persecution as opposed to the judiciary doing its job?
President Mutharika: I have not yet been given access to my accounts. I had no role whatsoever in the importation of the cement. I only found out about it a year later. The President is entitled to bring in items for personal use duty free. Apparently, one of my assistants and a local business cement dealer agreed to import this huge amount of cement (1.4 million bags) and used my tax exemption number without my knowledge. My accounts had nothing to do with this cement as I did not order it. They decided to freeze my accounts but not the accounts of the businessman who imported the cement. This is clearly persecution.
On the cement scandal that has been mooted, is there any wrongdoing on your part or associates who may have erred while acting on your behalf?
Talking about corruption, considering its severity from administration to administration in Malawi, what specific efforts were put in by your government to confront the challenge?
President Mutharika: Corruption is a very complicated issue. We tried to strengthen the Anti- Corruption Bureau through more funding. We also tried to strengthen the other Anti- Corruption agencies such as the Financial Intelligence Agency, the Fiscal Police, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions and others. We even sought assistance from the UK, and they provided us with two experts in the ACB and the DPP’s office. We made great progress and up to now some 57 cash gate suspects have either been convicted or are facing trial.
What is your assessment of the way President Lazarus Chakwera is running the country and how will you score his administration after a year in office?
President Mutharika: It is difficult to assess President Chakwera because so far not so much has been done. Apart from adopting the projects my government had in place when we left, there is no single initiative of their own on which I can assess them.
As one of the most respectable elder statesmen that Africa has today, what message does President Mutharika have for leaders who have been in power for eternity, what can you tell them about post-presidential life, is it actually a death sentence as perceived by some of them?
President Mutharika: I can tell them, to use the usual cliché, that there is life before and after the Presidency. Life after the Presidency is certainly not a death sentence. I am now able to reflect. I am reading a lot of history, writing about my 14 years in politics and my over 40 years as a professor of Law at some of the best universities in the world. For me the 14 years I spent in frontline politics were in a way an interlude to my academic journey to which I have returned through research, writing and international lectures.