Sunday, August 21, 2005

On President wa Mutharika's firing of deputy Chief of Staff

The two Malawi internet listservs I'm subscribed to, Nyasanet and Malawitalk, have since Wednesday August 17 been dominated by postings on what the president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, is alleged to have said about Malawians from the Northern region of the country. The president is said to have fired his deputy chief of staff, Joshua Nthakomwa, and to have angrily told him in the process: "I don't want northerners around me! Get away from me, I don't want northerners around me!"

Contributions on the topic have been charged, some expressing shock and anger, and others questioning the source of the allegation. Some have suggested that the Northern region of Malawi, long marginalized in Malawi's political, should become sovereign and self-governing. Some have spoken with Mr. Nthakomwa himself, whom they report denying that the President said the words he is alleged to have said.

I've been hoping that I'll chance upon some tangible, credible evidence that President Bingu wa Mutharika uttered the words that have dominated postings these past few days. So far there's none. All that we have to go on for want of authenticity are unnamed sources quoting other unnamed sources, as has already been observed by others.

I do understand that the story can not be dismissed on the basis that it is originating from unnamed sources; we have had true, genuine stories broken out through unnamed sources before. However there does not appear to be any other evidence to corroborate the claim that the president did say those words. None of the major, credible newspapers in Malawi have printed anything on the issue so far. Mr. Nthakomwa himself has denied the claims that the President said anything close to what is reported. We will see if Monday morning brings any new, credible evidence.

In Malawi itself, people I have spoken with have expressed surprise at the news. "I'm hearing it from you," someone, my own credible unnamed source, told me this afternoon.

Others have expressed hope that the new Presidential spokesperson, Chikumbutso Mtumodzi, will come forth and issue a statement. Let's hope he will be able to do so. But as it appears, this has so far been a "made-for-the-internet" story, with the result that people in Malawi are not even aware of the existence of the story. Should this continue to be the case in the next few days, with no major, credible paper reporting on the story, there will probably be no official press release from State House, the issue not meriting any such action. But I could be entirely wrong; a few days of waiting won't hurt.

As has been pointed out already, there are a number of northerners in key, important and well-deserved positions in the Bingu government, such as Ralph Kasambara, Goodall Gondwe, Mary Nangwale, not to mention Zikhale Ng'oma, who was chief of staff himself until recently. As for Mr. Nthakomwa, he was in his position only in an acting capacity, and knew that soon the president would be appointing someone to fill the position vacated by Zikhale Ng'oma.

Until we see more evidence corroborating the words Bingu is said to have uttered, providing more details as to where and when exactly the event took place, there's a big chance that this story was in fact manufactured for specific strategic reasons. In the process, a few well-placed netters and talkers may have been used merely as conduits, unwittingly. A few days ago we saw reports to the effect that the Northern Region Parliamentary Caucus was reviewing its support for the President, accusing him of neglecting the North in terms of infrastructure and key appointments. The Caucus's secretary, Hon. Abbie Shawa, said he was speaking on behalf of the Caucus. Later we saw another report, quoting three MPs from the North who not only disowned the statements aired by Hon. Shawa, but also revealed that the Caucus never discussed the issue, and therefore Hon Shawa should clarify that he was speaking for himself.

Whatever the truth turns out to be, Bingu and his DPP are said to be enjoying a lot of support from the Northern region, a development which is troubling other political parties. We may have to poise ourselves for more of such reports, with some of us hitting the ceiling and making absurd, inflammatory suggestions. If there will be any credibility to these stories, they will have to provide more specific, credible, corroborating details.

In no way I'm trying to claim that the President can not have uttered those words. I'm just trying to show that such reports need to be analyzed in the context of opposition politics and the politics of ethnicity in Malawi.


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