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A Cover-Up, an Attempted Coup and Then Justice in Malawi


Malawi road crew
A road crew in Mwandama, Malawi, part of a Millennium Villages Project sponsored by the UN, the Earth Institute of Columbia University and Millennium Promise. The country showed resilience last year in thwarting a coup.

WASHINGTON — Malawi, a tiny, young country landlocked in southern Africa, is sticking up for justice and truth. On the morning of April 5, 2012, its president, Bingu wa Mutharika, died of a heart attack. About two days later, his vice president, Joyce Banda, was sworn in to succeed him, adhering to the Malawi constitution. Yet not everything until that moment had proceeded on course: the president’s death was not officially announced for two days, as his supporters maneuvered to place his brother, Peter Mutharika, in the presidential office instead of Banda.

Their plot failed, thanks largely to the strength of two institutions — the Malawi Army and the country’s Supreme Court — and the courage and respect for the law by certain people. The carefully documented March 2013 report of a commission of inquiry established by President Banda sheds important light on the story of Malawi’s successful institutional and individual response to major political stress, offering lessons for other nations in the constraint showed by the military as well as the high court’s strength.

The Malawi report is a riveting read. Its 10 commissioners, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, Elton Singini, included the former chief executive of Air Malawi, a former inspector general of police, a Roman Catholic priest and civil society groups. Determined to document the truth, the commissioners took sometimes-repeated testimony from 123 occasionally conflicting witnesses.

The commission found that the president’s death created great immediate confusion among Malawi’s political leaders. This was hardly surprising, since Vice President Banda had been excluded from the government and the leading political group, the Democratic Progressive Party, for refusing to endorse Mutharika, the president’s brother, as the party’s presidential candidate in 2014.  The commission found that she had been “ignored, disrespected, and despised” and basically unable to carry out executive responsibilities.

Since Banda had been dropped from the political circle, party colleagues tried to conceal the president’s death in what can only be described as a cover-up of major scope. Indeed, they had even failed to inform the minister of justice and the attorney general the afternoon of the death. The president’s body was shipped by air ambulance under the name of Daniel Phiri to South Africa, and the public was told that he had gone to South Africa for treatment. Reportedly, this maneuver was intended to allow time to prevent the constitutional accession of Banda. Mutharika was declared dead by South Africa but not made public, and his body was sent to a mortuary at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital. This coincided with some Mutharika relatives and others removing property from the president’s living quarters in the Malawi State House, taking clothing, jewelry and supposedly suitcases of money. They tried to walk off with a TV screen but a government auditor stopped them.

Bingu Mutharika, former president of Malawi
Bingu wa Mutharika, a president of Malawi, now deceased. ERIC MILLER/WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

Late on the same day of Mutharika’s  demise, his partisans met with Gen. Henry Odillo, leader of the Malawi Defense Force, to discuss the possibility of temporary military assumption of power.  He rejected this idea repeatedly. On the morning of April 6, the day after Mutharika’s death, the cabinet agreed to seek a court injunction to prevent Banda from being sworn in. The ministers’ plan — unconstitutional on its surface — was to elect an acting president and vice president. But the minister of justice and attorney general decided not to seek the injunction. Yet toward midnight, a group of six ministers from the Democratic Progressive party released a statement to apparently prepare the public about the government’s intention to stop the swearing-in of Banda and to have the dead president’s brother sworn in as acting president.

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Despite rumors in local media and rumblings in the international press, it was only on the morning of April 7, under pressure from South African President Jacob Zuma, when Malawians were finally informed of Mutharika’s death. Late that afternoon, Banda was sworn in as president. The report said that during the confused set of meetings and consultations between the president’s death and the swearing-in of Banda, some participants consulted the American ambassador in Malawi, who advised everyone concerned to respect the country’s constitutional process.  Contacts were also made with the UN in Malawi about a possible mediator between the conspirators and Banda. The UN representative, Richard Dictus, said that he would have to consult his headquarters in New York, and his involvement stopped there: not a great day for the UN’s support for the rule of law.

After the report’s release, three of the most prominent leaders who tried to prevent Banda from becoming president were arrested for treason. They were also accused of inciting the Malawi Defense Force to mutiny. All 11 people who were arrested have been granted bail.

The report went through its own trial, deemed a “witch hunt” by opponents of President Banda. Certainly, it is true that the commissioners were mostly political enemies of the former president and his cronies.  But the report’s tone and thoroughness suggest a sober analysis of sometimes conflicting testimony and independent critical judgment. As Justice Singini said, the inquiry was “of considerable significance in the history of the country.”

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A. Edward Elmendorf, who lives in Washington, is a former president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA. He is a member of UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force and spent most of his career, before retiring, at the World Bank.

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