Africa is easily associated with failed elections, flawed constitutional arrangements, lack of democratic accountability, and volatile and violent political transitions. The death of a Head of State not only marks the end of an era but is itself cause for much anguish - not so much in mourning the passing of a leader but in fear of the unknown.
As the leader is the government, the ruling party and the State, all rolled in one, his demise easily marks the end of all three requiring massive reconstruction.
The departure of a leader - be it by natural attrition of the type alluded to in holy books or through the ballot - could, if not properly managed, become the source of blood-letting and refusal to transfer power by remnants of the old order. Given the ethnic cleavages and embedded business interests usually of a primitive accumulation nature that normally accompany the quest for and retention of power, the demise of the centre of patronage is not only career-limiting to many but also life-threatening to some and an ethnic and economic horror to others.
Usually, the conflation of state, party and government sucks in the security and justice sectors as instruments of enforcing the leader's (and his party's) hegemony, covering up and legalising the milking of the public coffers, and eliminating political and other opposition - both figuratively and literally. The state media pliantly propagates messages and images of an omniscient, omnipotent and even death-defying leader - and often uses messianic religious references when talking about the 'leader'.
This subordination of institutions to individuals has long been regarded as one of Africa's foremost problems by scholars of African politics and political economy. Indeed, America's first president of African descent, Barack Obama, summarised this key point by stating that "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions".
So when one of Africa's 'strong men' died recently, his constitutional replacement almost 'overnight' by one of his opponents was met with phenomenal relief. Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, for whom the bell tolled on Easter weekend, died while at the height of an active dear-leader, personalisation of the State (by his office and his cronies) - a campaign that had ingloriously entrenched many of the negative stereotypes about Africa.
Ironically, wa Mutharika became Malawi's president through devious political engineering by his predecessor, Bakili Muluzi. In 1999, wa Mutharika stood for president and finished last out of five candidates. He managed to secure a paltry 22,073 votes - or just 0.47% of the 4,663,751 votes cast. In the process, he wrote himself off as a politician worth noting. Except that Muluzi had clearly taken notice.
But why he was plucked from obscurity by Muluzi and then dusted off and dressed up as the country's next president boggles the mind. There is a common belief that Muluzi - having enriched himself during his term as president - was looking for a political nonentity who would remain eternally grateful to him and would therefore let him enjoy his ill-gotten wealth unencumbered by annoying inquiries, investigations and potential court appearances for alleged corruption and abuse of power. Boy was he mistaken!
No sooner had the words 'so help me God' rolled off wa Mutharika's tongue as he took the presidential oath of office then he was after Muluzi - much to the delight of long-suffering but hard-working Malawians. His anti-corruption rhetoric coupled with economic growth and an agricultural 'revolution' were praised far and wide. All well-meaning Malawians and well-wishers abroad rallied around him and showered the 'economic engineer' with accolades.
But, as with many of his peers on the continent, this was just the calm before the dear-leader storm - the most important elements of which included an inveterate allergy and violent reaction to criticism and opposition from all mere mortals. In three short years, after his landslide re-election in 2009, that storm had engulfed the warm heart of Africa and turned hope into fury and happiness into anger.
Those who had worked shoulder to shoulder with the president when times were hard and he had very few political friends in parliament, found themselves on the receiving end and subject to vitriolic attacks in the state-controlled media. With his new-found super majority in parliament, the president threatened to 'smoke out' his opponents and urged his party faithful to 'protect' him: code-words for physical attacks on pro-democracy and human rights activists.
And, comply they did, causing mayhem and forcing many to go into hiding.
Mutharika died a despised man. A man under whose presidency Malawi's economy experienced unprecedented growth and decline, all at once. A man under whose leadership Malawians were sharply reminded of the brutality of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Here was a president who had to be referred to as 'His Excellency the Ngwazi Professor, Dr' and whose ministers wore pictures of the president on their lapels!
Here was a man who, unfortunately, did not live long enough to answer for the death of 18 unarmed Malawians in July 2011 and for many more avoidable deaths, thanks to economic mismanagement and the resultant increase in medical and sanitation-related mortality.
The ascendancy of Joyce Banda to the high office of President of Malawi was never wa Mutharika's wish. Having used her as an election tool, he hounded her (and others) out of the governing party, assuming she would resign and fade away. But she held her ground. And he found that he had no constitutional power to fire the vice president, nor were the legal instruments in place to impeach her. And, so it was that the country had an elected vice president effectively outside government and jobless.
Lest we be fooled, it should not be assumed that the enforcement of Article 83(4) of the Constitution regarding the vice president's ascendancy to the office of president in the event of the president's death was due to the principled observance of the rule of law on the part of wa Mutharika's surviving underlings, many of whom had been part of a long-running vilification campaign against Joyce Banda. In the hours following the death of the president, a number of permutations were mooted, all of which were aimed at avoiding the inevitable: respect for the constitution and the vice president's takeover of power.
To their credit, reason triumphed. Elsewhere, the military and other securocrats would have been manipulated by corrupt politicians to subvert the constitution.
But how did we end up here - where an elected vice president ended up outside government and effectively prevented from exercising the mandate flowing from a credible electoral process? How did we end up with the blatant subversion of the will of the people of Malawi by a fledgling dictatorship?
Unlike elsewhere, Malawi's problems are not in its constitution and laws. They are man-made, they are political. They arise from lack of political will to lead with probity. The international community needs to re-engage Malawi once more, strengthen democratic institutions and enhance service delivery.
In particular, parliament must reclaim its place as the repository of the will of the people of Malawi under whose trust, leaders govern. It cannot be a lame-duck, rubber-stamp institution.
As the dust settles and the warm heart emerges once again, the law must take its course against all who flouted the law and abused power and authority under wa Mutharika. That their master has passed away does not absolve any of his cronies from their individual and collective responsibility for the crimes and misdemeanours of the last three years.
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