Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Until the death of former President Bingu wa Mutharika, few people understood the point of the post of Vice-President in Malawi. While it is constitutionally-protected, the post has proved to be a poisoned chalice for everyone who held it until Joyce Banda’s sudden promotion. And even she had suffered severely as VP beforehand – with public attacks from her boss and his political cronies.
And that is the rub – the constitution affords the VP protection of tenure but leaves room for the VP and the office to be rendered ‘non-existent’ by the president – something that has happened on every occasion since Malawi took its first multi-party democratic steps in 1994.
The drafters of the country’s democratic 1995 constitution clearly felt that the previous system, which saw Kamuzu Banda serving for 30 years without a vice-president, needed to be amended to ensure that there was a VP. Indeed, they went further than that and actually provided for two VPs should the president desire.
But the constitution stipulated that the first – or ‘real’ – VP could not be removed from office by the president but only by parliament through impeachment. And this has caused every democratic president of Malawi a headache.
Justin Malewezi served as first VP under President Bakili Muluzi and began a trend that has continued up to now when the two men fell out – after Muluzi had hand-picked Mutharika to represent the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) party in the 2004 presidential elections. Malewezi resigned from the UDF and went on extended official leave. Muluzi unsuccessfully tried to have Malewezi sacked on the basis that his conduct amounted to resignation. But despite government pressure and intimidation (something else that would be repeated) Malewezi completed his term as VP.
Cassim Chilumpha took up the VP mantle under President Mutharika in 2004 but soon an unbridgeable rift developed between them as well – after Mutharika ditched the UDF and formed the Democratic Progressive Party, while Chilumpha remained in UDF. Following Muluzi’s failed example, Mutharika then ‘sacked’ Chilumpha on the basis that he had resigned as VP by not attending cabinet meetings. But the Constitutional Court rescued Chilumpha by ruling that the VP had not resigned ‘constructively’.
Far from being the end of the fight, Chilumpha found himself accused of plotting to kill Mutharika and is still facing treason charges. But like his predecessor, Chilumpha also served out his full term as VP even though he performed no official functions.
And then came Joyce Banda, who was Mutharika’s running-mate in the 2009 elections and who, after their landslide win, became the country’s first female VP. Needless to say, the good times did not last long.
Mutharika ‘appointed’ his brother, Peter, to represent the DPP in the 2014 presidential elections causing yet another rift between president and vice-president. Mutharika fired Banda from the DPP for not supporting Peter – so she formed the Peoples’ Party (PP). However, despite Mutharika’s best efforts to remove her from office and a vicious campaign in the media against her, she remained VP.
In 2011, the authorities decided to enact impeachment procedures while also asking the Constitutional Court to declare that Banda had resigned as VP by forming an opposition party that was campaigning against the government. However, Mutharika died before any progress could be made on either the impeachment or the court case.
And with his death, Banda automatically became President, according to Section 83(4) of the constitution – although many of Mutharika’s closest allies and ministerial cronies tried for a few days to circumvent the law and ensure that Peter took over as acting president. But the decision of the Malawi Defence Force to back Banda and the constitution ended the fiasco and a few days later, she was officially sworn in – to widespread acclaim.
The constitutional protection offered to the VP played a crucial role in ensuring this smooth transition. Indeed, despite their best efforts, Mutharika’s cronies could not manipulate the constitution and stage a ‘coup’. It was a triumph for constitutional government and the rule of law – two things that had come under severe attack in the latter years of Mutharika’s presidency.
But surely it is now time for Malawians to reflect on the vice presidency: is it worthwhile to maintain the constitutional protection that the VP enjoys without putting mechanisms in place to prevent the victimisation of the VP that has been perpetrated by every single government so far? Does it make sense for the Constitution to protect the VPs’ tenure while leaving room for them to be sidelined and essentially paid to do nothing?
Or perhaps Malawians just need to accept that their VP is much like VPs in other countries – powerless unless the president wants to let them exercise power. And maybe the only problem is that presidents in Malawi keep on choosing vice-presidents who they do not want to succeed them – thereby laying the foundation for a crisis when the ‘real’ successor is picked.
And maybe Joyce Banda will give the office some much-needed direction since she is the first VP to ever succeed to the top post. It is yet another thing that Malawians will be watching closely.ShareThis