Daily Trust (Abuja)

11 April 2012

Nigeria: Transition in Malawi - From Bingu Wa Mutharika to Rita Dominic

Photo: Travis Lupick
Civil society demonstrations on July 20, 2011, in Blantyre.

The swearing in of Joyce Banda as Malawian President on Saturday 7th April 2012 was a major turning point in the country's march towards democracy.

It took 48 hours for the partisans of late President Bingu wa Mutharika to accept that they had no choice but to accept their patron was dead and his enemy, the Vice President had to take over power. Although he died on Thursday, the Government insisted he was sick and had been flown to South Africa for treatment.

Bingu was a 78 year old development economist who had his career in the United Nations system. He was put into office by Bakili Muluzi. It will be recalled that following the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1994, Bakili Muluzi had defeated Kamuzu Banda in the elections.

After ten years in power, Muluzi's attempt to change the constitution and get a third term in office was defeated by the people but he was able to impose his candidate, Bingu wa Mutharika just as Obasanjo did in Nigeria. Mr. Mutharika's first five-year term was difficult because Muluzi controlled the party that brought him to power and the opposition had a majority in Parliament. Mutharika survived by focusing on a development agenda that conquered the hearts and minds of Malawians. The country during his first term had the highest growth rate in Africa.

Bingu only had full power during his second term when his own party won an overwhelming 50.7% of the presidential votes leaving John Tembo's opposition alliance with 24% while his party won 114 out of the 192 parliamentary seats contested for. I was an observer during the elections and our impressions were that they were very transparent with political party monitors and civil society observers allowed to witness all aspects of the process from the distribution of voting materials, polling station activities and the counting and collation of votes.

An unfortunate part of the elections however was that there was no level playing ground, as the only television station in the country and national radio, all under state control devoted 93% of their coverage to the president's party. Immediately he fully established himself with his second term, Bingu became very arrogant and dictatorial. When people went into the streets to demonstrate against him, he addressed the nation calling on his supporters to beat up opposition elements as Kamuzu Banda's supporters used to do during the First Republic.

When a major demonstration was organised in July 2011, he sent in the police who massacred 18 people. When he read on Weakileaks that the British High Commissioner has described him as "arrogant and autocratic", he expelled him from the country. He died leaving the economy in shambles and the people poorer than he found them.

In December 2010, he dismissed his Vice President, Joyce Banda from the party for "anti-party" activities. He tried to strip her from the Vice Presidency but she went to court and as was the case in Obasanjo versus Atiku, the Supreme Court ruled that they were elected on the same ticket so he could not remove her.

He then brought his junior brother Peter wa Mutharika back home from Washington University where he was teaching, made him the Minister of Justice preparing him to be the next presidential candidate of the party.

The 48 hours of intrigues following Bingu's death were devoted to scheming how Peter could be sworn in to replace his dead brother with the argument that Joyce Banda was no longer a member of the ruling DPP but once again, the Supreme Court prevailed and the Vice President was eventually sworn in.

I had been extremely saddened by Bingu's degeneration because the Malawian presidential and parliamentary elections of 19th May 2009 were a relatively good branding for democracy. Although Kamuzu Banda ruled the country as a ruthless dictator for thirty years, Malawians have managed to engage along the democratic path since 1994 and have made progress. My memories of the Malawi 2009 elections are however encored on the Nigerian Nollywood mega star Rita Dominic.

I had arrived in Lilongwe airport, Malawi, with a letter from the Commonwealth requesting I be given a visa on arrival to monitor their elections. I was worried about the usual airport humiliation Nigerians suffer.

I handed my passport and waited with trepidation. The question from the immigration officer threw me off guard - "did you travel with Rita Dominic?" I asked who Rita was and he responded that as a Nigerian, how I could ask him who Rita was. I pleaded ignorance and he said Rita was a Nigerian star who like me was to fly in from Johannesburg.

Disappointed that I did not even know Rita, he gave me a form to fill and said when I get into town; I should go to the immigration office and get my visa. I was relieved.

On reading the local papers, I realised the visit of Rita Dominic was causing as much frenzy as the elections we had come to observe. She is known as the lady with the silky skin and the whole country was in a frenzy to see the silky skin. Indeed, the highlight of President wa Mutharika's campaign was the unveiling of a mausoleum in honour of the late dictator, Kamuzu Banda and Rita was the star attraction that had been invited to launch it. That evening, a major concert was to be organised in Blantyre to present Rita to the people of Malawi. Intrigued by the role Rita was playing in advancing Malawian democracy, I convinced the Chair of our observer team, former Ghanaian president, John Kufour to go with me and see this Rita phenomenon.

To my surprise, he accepted and off we went to the sports centre where I quickly contacted protocol and we were led through the crowded VIP entrance to the lounge. Two hours later, the show had not started and the general manager of DSTV Malawi, organisers of the concert, came to explain that the hall was full, the crowd outside was larger than the one inside and the crowd had massed round the VIP entrance so they do not know how to bring Rita in.

I told him President Kufour and I walked through the crowd so why can't Rita do the same. He looked at me as if I was an idiot. Rita, he explained, was a mega star and her security is very important. They cannot afford to take a risk. Knowing our place vis-a-vis a Nollywood mega star, Kufour and I quietly walked through the crowd and left. The manager was right; no one took a second glance at us.

The incident reminded me of an occasion when I was checking into a hotel at Jinja, the source of the River Nile in Uganda. On discovering that I was Nigerian, the receptionists questioned me extensively about Nollywood stars about whom I was ignorant.

Their conclusion was edifying. Given my corpulence, they expressed the possibility that I could be a Nigerian because I look like one of the big ogas with mansions and four-wheel drive vehicles in the films. The decisive moment was when I said I did not know Aki and Pawpaw. Their verdict was unambiguous. As I was totally ignorant about Nollywood, I cannot really be African, and certainly, not Nigerian.

I confess that I have my weaknesses, these days, to prove my Nigerianess, I occasionally watch Nollywood movies and make an effort to know the names of key mega stars. I even know that Aki married recently and the rights to the wedding photos have been sold for purposes of mega branding.

I must confess however that I am unconformable with this Nigerian thing, in my moments of lucidity; I know that it is indeed true that Nollywood is the institution branding my dear country Nigeria. The brand revolves around witchcraft, crime, treachery, drugs, superstition and sex. This is not the Nigeria of my dreams and with Bingu gone I don't have to know Rita. My prayer is that Joyce should not follow the footsteps of Bingu.

Dr. Ibrahim is director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja.

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