WHEN ZAMBIANPRESIDENT Michael Sata offered an " olive branch" to his Malawian counterpart recently, expectations were high that finally the two leaders would put their diplomatic row of 2007 behind them. But alas!
Acrimony between the two leaders dates back to March 2007 when the Malawian government deported Sata on his arrival at Chileka airport in Blantyre. Sata, then Zambia's leader of the opposition, had come to visit his long-term friend, former Malawian president Bakili Muluzi, who was the then leader of main opposition party the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Although he had a return air ticket, Mutharika's government humiliatingly bundled Sata into a 4X4 immigration car, which drove him all the way to the eastern Zambian town of Chipata (near the Malawian border), a day's journey to his residency in the capital Lusaka. A flight back to Lusaka takes no more than an hour and half.
Although no reason for the deportation was given at the time, Sata's visit was made at the height of animosity between Mutharika and Muluzi. With presidential elections fast approaching in 2009, the two men were embroiled in acrimonious electioneering in which Muluzi was avowing to unseat Mutharika. Hence, Sata's visit to a man threatening to dislodge a sitting president was not taken kindly, and he was deported on arrival as a persona non grata.
Following the incident, Sata filed a lawsuit against the Malawi government for illegal deportation - the case is still pending in court, according to his Malawian lawyer Ralph Kasambara.
But following his election as Zambian president last September, the issue has evolved beyond a simple diplomatic spat. For example, a month after his election, Sata turned down an invitation to attend the 15th Summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Heads of State and Government, which was held in Malawian capital Lilongwe. Sata reportedly said, since the Malawian government had not formally revoked a persona non grata status, nor issued any apology, he could not go to Malawi, to avoid the "deportation embarrassment". He instead sent his vice-president Guy Scott to represent him. The Malawian government responded saying "by virtue of being a Head of State, Sata was free to visit Malawi any time".
It seemed the issue would be all water under the bridge when on 30 December, Sata, who was hosting Muluzi in Lusaka, asked him at a joint press briefing to convey a message of "reconciliation" to President Mutharika, saying "bygones are bygones".
"The main reason former President [Muluzi] came was to reconcile Zambia and Malawi. I have agreed and I have given him a message to convey to Professor wa Mutharika that as far as I am concerned, let bygones be bygones," he told the press.
But Sata's "olive branch" wilted in a salvo from Malawi's presidential spokesman Mutharika Hetherwick Ntaba, who just fell short of accusing Sata of having a hand in Muluzi's scheme to undermine President Mutharika's administration," when he accepted to visit the opposition back in 2007. …