A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi

By Harri Englund | Go to book overview

Introduction
The Culture of Chameleon Politics
Harri Englund

Zinthu zatani?

Disgrace, public and sudden, befell Brown Mpinganjira, a self-proclaimed “democrat” and one of the key figures in Malawi's “second liberation” in the early 1990s. In November 2000, after steering the United Democratic Front (UDF) through two election victories since 1994, Mpinganjira was dismissed from President Bakili Muluzi's Cabinet on corruption charges. When Mpinganjira was Minister of Education, a “family friend” had allegedly bribed him on four occasions in order to be awarded lucrative contracts by the ministry. In December 2000, Mpinganjira was expelled from the UDF. He responded by founding the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), defined, in a terminology reminiscent of the era when only one political party was allowed to exist in Malawi, as a “pressure group”.

For some, Mpinganjira's honour was restored almost as swiftly as he had been disgraced. He explained his dismissal as a consequence of his opposition to Muluzi's secret plan to undertake a third term in office, a plan at variance with the constitutional provision that allows a state president to stay in office for only two terms. The events in the early 1990s, moreover, had already become usable history in this bid to win the hearts and minds of Malawians. Both the local and international press participated in returning a democrat's aura to Mpinganjira. Barely three months after his dismissal, with the corruption charges still looming, Mpinganjira was touted as the “true founder” of the UDF, a hero whose fearless activism in the early 1990s was instrumental to the dismantling of Malawi's postcolonial autocracy.1

Mpinganjira's changing fortunes illustrate broader themes in Malawi's political pluralism. Allegiances among the political élite seem increasingly unpredictable and erratic. When the systematic challenge to Kamuzu Banda's authoritarian regime commenced, first as clandestine discussion and mobilisation in the late 1980s and then with the much-publicised pastoral letter of Malawi's Catholic bishops in 1992, the political divisions seemed clear enough. There were, on the one hand, the conservatives who clung to the ailing and ageing Life President, the “father and founder” of the nation, viewing multipartyism as an affront to both national unity and the Life President's unquestioned authority. Opposed to them were the democrats who, emboldened by aid donors' insistence on respect for human rights and good governance, staged protests and formed pressure groups. A referendum in June 1993 confirmed that the democrats were actually in the majority: Malawians chose a multiparty system of government. The pressure groups became political parties, with the UDF and the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) at the helm of the ostensibly new breed of leadership. Despite its efforts to reform itself, the Malawi Congress

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1
See e.g. “Brown Bites Back”, BBC Focus on Africa, April-June 2001, pp. 28–29; “The Origins of the UDF”, Pride, January-February 2001, pp. 31–32; “The Man in the News: BJ”, Pride, January-February 2001, pp. 34–35; “‘Living Dangerously?’: Hon. Brown J. Mpinganjira”, The Lamp, May-June 2001, pp. 22–23.

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