Saulosi Chilima’s Last Mile


One day Malawi will have a complete answer as to why President Peter Mutharika went for a political novice as his running mate in the 2014 general elections. With four main parties running for power, the choice of running mate was somehow to determine the election. The candidacy of the youthful Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) was a game changer. He was perceived to woo the youth vote to his side and that stressed the other competing parties.

The then ruling People’s Party (PP) candidate, Joyce Banda, had to drop Khumbo Kachali for the youthful Sosten Gwengwe. Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) went for his political middle aged choice, Richard Msowoya. But the real surprise was on the side of the eventual winner, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Its candidate, Peter Mutharika, went for Saulosi Chilima, who was making his very first appearance in politics.

Chilima was drafted in after being known to most people as Managing Director for Airtel Mobile, one of Malawi’s mobile phone companies. He was the first Malawian to assume that position at the company. Aside his handsome looks and perfect physique, Chilima was seen to be the brain behind the company’s growth. But politics came calling, and took the risk of leaving one of Malawi’s highest paying jobs.

Minding the fact that DPP was in opposition and the chances of assuming power was minimal, it was swim or sink. But he was confident in his decision, and for a time, even won my admiration. In what will go down as the most surprising election result in Malawi so far, DPP managed to wrestle power from PP. Peter Mutharika became the president and Saulosi Chilima deputized him.

He may have gone into government, but to the ruling party, he remained an outsider. This would later reveal that he was picked for the election and not his abilities. Before he was picked for the running mate role, there were people in the party who had ambitions to assume his place. But they had to shelve them and make sure the party came first. But now that they are in power and can no longer be too careful about an election, they will show up.

Chilima has never been DPP in practice. He does give speeches for the party on occasions but he is yet to get the blue baptism. The way he has acted in the last three years shows how much he is a technocrat than a politician. He is looked upon as a person who is ready to sometimes step outside our usual understanding and practice of politics. For a Vice President to tell Malawians to ask tough questions and demand accountability from their leaders; it is usually unheard of. In our setting, that is the work of the opposition. But Chilima said it. Whenever he chooses to be open, there is always a sense of self-sacrifice in his words.

On the other hand, the party he belongs to is totally different. DPP’s tenure has always been characterized with political adamancy and self-righteousness. Sometime back, there was a suggestion from the country’s mainstream media that there was a poor relationship between Chilima and his boss, President Mutharika. This emanated from Malawi’s experience with the failing relationship of President Bakili Muluzi and his deputy, Justin Malewezi, President Bingu wa Mutharika and deputies, Cassim Chilumpha and Joyce Banda. There has always been a point of conflict between the president and his deputy in Malawi.

People had noticed the precedent of seeing the deputies denied national broadcaster’s airtime. It appeared to be the same with Chilima. But he quickly came in and angrily called on the media not to start wars where there are not. But maybe he said it to save the situation. The media may have been quiet over it, but that is what it is. One rarely sees Chilima on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) television. If this is true for Chilima as well, this time, he needs to tread cautiously because when it gets out of hand, it is the same media that will handle him.

To this extent, it is a matter of perception, but not until two weeks ago, when the vice president read the Church’s call to the general public to patronize demonstrations organized by the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) on electoral reforms. The influential religious grouping called on, among others, parliament to pass the 50%+1 electoral system. The ruling DPP was clearly against it and employed all delays and tactics to have the move defeated.

It led to PAC organizing demonstrations across the country. This would have been a bad paint on DPP’s troubled legacy. But on this Sunday, at his usual church, Chilima took the role of making announcements. The church endorsed the demonstrations and it came from his mouth. He may have said it as a church member, but to assume that he did not see the announcements beforehand will be a lie.

He knew what he was about to say; something against his own government. There was no much controversy and nothing in regard to this is yet to come out of the party. There is still justice of peace. But make no mistake, DPP will come back and ask for what really happened on this Sunday morning. They have other pertinent issues to handle and have reserved to sacrifice Chilima for another day. The party has tirelessly fought to win this battle against PAC and Chilima’s words was a stab in the back. It was suicidal and no amount of blood will atone for that sin.

It has just been too much between them. There is no way the party will have him as its running mate come 2019. He has proved not to be a political liability and President Mutharika will look elsewhere. And that is where the real twist and turn will happen. Chilima belongs to the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most influential institutions in Malawi. Besides that, he carries with him the youthful flair and untainted political presence. He could turn to be DPP’s arch-enemy soon.

The party will soon start parading ‘political analysts’ and Chiefs to try keeping him out of the picture, just as it did with Joyce Banda. A fight for the vice president is about to ensue, and it has nothing to do with his making. It is the reaction of those who are yet to trust him and who still looks at him as not deserving to be in the party. Time will tell where this will lead to.

This is 2017, less than two years before Malawi casts its vote for who will govern it. Parties have already started making moves. As usual, the issue of running mate will be key. But with no Chilima in DPP’s options, the second most powerful man in Malawi should expect a purge. The president has his own errand people in the party. Just as they have gagged Chilima for the past years, they will even do more just to make sure the way is clear for someone who is bluer.

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