After a two-week delay, Malawi’s new president, Peter Mutharika, has finally named half of a proposed 20-member cabinet. In the process, the new president has raised a few eyebrows over his commitment to the constitution and the rule of law – something the country’s already disaffected donors are likely to add to their basket of excuses to withhold aid. Earlier this month, Mr Mutharika appointed the former finance minister, Goodall Gondwe, to take up the job he held in the government of Bingu wa Mutharika, the current president’s brother. On Thursday, June 19, Mr Mutharika announced several new posts, including Henry Mussa as the new labour minister, and giving Jean Kalilani the health portfolio. Kondwani Nankhumwa returns to the Cabinet as the minister of information, tourism and civic education.
What is striking is that Henry Mussa, Kondwani Nankhumwa and Jean Kalilani were part of the so-called ‘Midnight Six’ of cabinet ministers who, in April 2012, attempted what was effectively a coup by seeking to prevent Vice-President Joyce Banda assuming the presidency as per the Malawi constitution when the previous President Mutharika died in office. His brother, the current head of state, was subsequently charged with sedition and treason, charges he will now not face as he has immunity in his capacity as president. The six ministers held a midnight press conference on 6 April 2012 at which they concealed the fact that the president was dead and attempted to circumvent the constitution by installing Peter Mutharika as president on the basis that Ms Banda was not eligible because she had been expelled from the ruling party and formed her own. The military, civil society and opposition parties disagreed and forced the plotters to back down, and Ms Banda was installed as the president.
The elevation of the plotters to senior cabinet posts is being seen as a reward for the risks they took in attempting to prevent Ms Banda from becoming Malawi’s president and to install his brother instead. The move does little to allay fears that Malawi will return to its old ways and start on a slippery slope to an economic morass. Aside from their involvement in the attempted coup, the old ministers remain tarnished by their role in a discredited and increasingly authoritarian regime, under which the country slid backwards at an alarming pace. Mr Mutharika added several new faces as well to his initial 10 names, but these are largely unknown quantities and an assessment will have to wait on performance. But the reinstatement of several old guard members does not inspire confidence that the new President Mutharika is going to continue the progress at economic and governance levels left by his predecessor.
WHY DO WE CARE? It was our pre-election view that, despite her failings and shortcomings, Ms Banda was the only choice that would take Malawi forward and away from its dark recent past under Bingu wa Mutharika. Now the Mutharika dynasty will continue and what slim hope there was that President Mutharika II would follow his predecessor rather than his brother have been dashed by the rewarding of what amounted to coup plotters with cabinet posts. The donors who had concerns over Malawi under Ms Banda will not have those fears allayed; in fact, the contrary is likely. The appointments smack of cronyism for which Malawi has a considerable reputation, and are a slap in the face of the Malawi constitution and the rule of law.