Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-MALAWI: Muluzi Fires ‘Rebels’ From Cabinet

Frank Phiri

BLANTYRE, Apr 11 2003 (IPS) - "There’s no time for friendship this time around. No! No! Not at all. Only those willing to serve the people will remain in cabinet," Malawi’s President Bakili Muluzi said just before firing senior members of his cabinet last week.

On April 9, the Malawian leader made sure that he lived up to his word. He fired five of his top ministers, three of whom protested his choice of an anointed successor for next year’s general elections.

Among the five were cabinet workhorse and ruling UDF (United Democratic Front) first Vice President Aleke Banda, Environmental Affairs minister and former UDF chief whip Harry Thomson, minister without portfolio Uladi Mussa and former youthful Justice minister and Attorney General Henry Phoya.

Earlier this month Malawians breathed a sigh of relief as Muluzi announced that the ruling UDF party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) has endorsed the 68-year-old economist Bingu wa Mutharika as the new presidential candidate.

A sigh of relief because Malawi has, for the past year, been gripped in political tension and violence over incumbent president’s quest for continued stay in office after his second five-year term of office expires in May, 2004.

On two occasions efforts by the ruling party to change the constitution to allow President Muluzi to run for a third five year-term met with stiff and vocal opposition from the country’s opposition parties, human rights NGOs, the diplomatic community, churches and students.

The Malawi Constitution allows a ruling president two consecutive terms of five years each. Muluzi became president in 1994 ending three decades of single party dictatorship in Malawi. The Southern African country will hold presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2004.

Muluzi who has never ceased to surprise by his appointments, continued with the tradition by replacing Aleke with opposition Alliance for Democracy (Aford) President Chakufwa Chihana for whom he had resurrected the post of second Vice president of the ruling party. The former trade unionist and first Malawian to denounce the former dictatorship of Kamuzu Banda, resigned from the UDF in 1996, pulling his party out of a coalition with the government.

Muluzi also appointed three other Aford members in ministerial posts a move which analysts say points to a Government of National Unity (GNU).

The three are Khwauli Msiska who becomes deputy minister of Economic Planning and Development, Aford National Chairman Chipimpha Mughogho who becomes minister without portfolio, Wallace Chiume minister for Local Government and James Luwe, deputy minister of Water Development. Also axed from cabinet is Sports minister Moses Dossi and Deputy Defence minister Samuel Kaphuka.

The President also named Speaker of Parliament Sam Mpasu, currently leading an election observer team in Nigeria as Commerce minister, a post previously held by Peter Kaleso who was the first to get the chop after openly opposing the Third Term bill.

But Muluzi maintained his successor, Mutharika as minister for Economic Planning as well as his Finance minister Friday Jumbe. Analysts, however, say they expected Jumbe to be relieved of his duties so that he could pave way for an inquiry which aims to establish his role in the plunder of the country’s strategic reserves when he was general manager of grain market, Admarc.

The sale of the maize is strongly believed to have worsened the hunger which continues to rock the impoverished, landlocked southern African state. Secretary to the President and Cabinet, Alfred Upindi, says there is nothing wrong with the President choosing ministers from the opposition as the Constitution empowers him to do so. He also confirmed that Muluzi was eyeing a government of national unity.

"He has the powers to appoint anyone he feels can contribute effectively in national duties," says Upindi.

There are reports that the axed three top ministers may resign from the UDF to join the opposition, while the former Justice minister would become the Speaker of Parliament.

Earlier this month Muluzi made an appeal to Malawians not to focus their attention not on politics anymore, but on development issues and economic affairs. In reference to the 6.5 million population that live on less than one US dollar per day, Muluzi said: "I feel very concerned with the poverty levels despite our tireless efforts. My concern will be to continue to work towards improving the living standards [of the people]. Let me state here that this is not my farewell speech," he said.

In Malawi, 70,000 people die each year from HIV/AIDS related diseases according to the National Aids Commission. "This should now be our agenda from now onwards. It is therefore very important that we pay attention to these issues," he stated.

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