Thursday, March 29, 2007

''Two Elephants Trampling the Grass''

Pilirani Semu-Banda

BLANTYRE, Mar 20 (IPS) - The African adage that ‘‘when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers'' is currently particularly apt in Malawian politics.

The fall-out and subsequent power struggle between the country's two foremost leadersùPresident Bingu wa Mutharika and his predecessor Bakili Muluziùhas been detrimental to one specific group of people: poverty-stricken citizens who make up over 65 percent of the population.

The country is staggering under abject poverty, an issue that is of great concern to small-holder farmer Ulemu Kaziputa. ‘‘With all the economic hardships in this country, we need proper leadership. We can no longer do with political games that are costing us our human rights,'' Kaziputa insists.

Since February 2005, when the conflict between the two leaders emerged, Malawi has experienced political tension which has spilt over into parliamentary proceedings and the court system.

The quarrel between Muluzi and Mutharika reached a crescendo after the latter took office under the banner of the United Democratic Front (UDF)ùwhich he then left to form a new political party. Mutharika has subsequently failed to gain support within opposition ranks and has a minority in parliament.

The wrangle between the two leaders possibly contributed to the speaker of parliament Rodwell Munyenyembe suffering a severe stroke and cardiac arrest in June 2005. He collapsed while attempting to douse an intense verbal battle that had erupted between supporters of the warring forces during a parliamentary debate.

This was just after he had ruled that a motion to impeach Mutharika could not be heard in the national assembly. The speaker never recovered consciousness. He died four days later in a South African hospital and the parliamentary session was suspended for an indefinite time.

This unexpected recess ended up delaying a vital budget vote which would have unlocked aid money to address the starvation afflicting an estimated 5 million of the country's 12 million people. A United Nations report indicated that hospitals were over-flowing with patients suffering from malnutrition-related illnesses.

The ongoing hostility between the two leaders has also led to numerous legal cases. These political cases take precedence over other cases because they involve the country's director of public prosecutions, the attorney general or the official Anti-Corruption Bureauùas opposed to cases handled by ordinary lawyers.

One political case that is dominating the courts is where the government is accusing the country's vice president Cassim Chilumpha and businessperson Yusuf Matumula of treason and conspiracy to assassinate Mutharika.

Chilumpha was arrested last April together with 10 others for allegedly hiring men to kill his senior. The state has since dropped the charges against most of those arrested, except the vice president and Matumulaùboth close allies of Muluzi.

Squabbles were prominent between Mutharika and his deputy ever since the split between the president and Muluzi. Several senior officials of the UDF followed him when the president left the party that put him into power but Chilumpha remained loyal to the former president.

Just before the government accused Chilumpha of conspiracy to murder the president, Mutharika announced that his deputy had ‘‘constructively'' resigned from his position by failing to attend several cabinet meetings. The president also accused his deputy of insubordination and running a parallel government.

This issue created another long court battle which eventually saw Chilumpha being reinstated as Malawi's vice president.

Malawians believe that these perpetual court battles have contributed to the backlog in court cases. Malawi's prisons are packed beyond capacity. According to Penal Reform International, the country is among those in Africa experiencing the worst levels of overcrowding.

One of the many people affected by delayed court procedures is Glady Zolima (45). Her husband was arrested over a year ago on suspicion that he murdered his niece. She has to walk about 20 km everyday to provide food to her husband because the prisons only supplies one meal per day to those in custody.

‘‘I know that my husband is innocent but he was denied bail because of the gravity of the charge against him," says Zolima. The case is failing to go to court because the courts are flooded with ‘‘more important cases''.

‘‘Government would rather take its petty cases involving politicians to court than try murder cases. A lot of innocent people are languishing in the country's prisons and are denied justice,'' worries Zolima.

A civil rights group, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, has condemned the court wrangle between the leaders as it is costing the Malawian tax payer dearly. The centre has also alerted Malawians to the dangers of reviving political animosity.

The fight between Muluzi's and Mutharika's camps does not augur well for the country's democracy. Tension reigns among supporters of the two leaders, with all sorts of threats flying around every time either of the leaders addresses a rally.

In his presidential new year's address to the nation, Mutharika unleashed his wrath on members of the judiciary and journalists and accused them of conniving with the opposition to pull down his government. The president has also warned that he would take unspecified action against Muluzi to silence him.

Political analyst Noel Mbowela contends that the political fights between the president and his predecessor are bad for the country's democracy and detrimental to its development agenda.

‘‘These two are promoting hatred among Malawians instead of working towards democratic values such as unity. The country is slowly being divided because of these two leaders,'' Mbowela points out.

The Public Affairs Committee, a grouping of religious bodies, has been working to reconcile Mutharika and Muluzi. This seems not to be working as neither of the two wants to compromise. (END/2007)

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