On the 10th of February, 2014, Arthur Peter Mutharika announced that his choice of running mate in the presidential elections that year was Saulos Klaus Chilima, who was just two days shy of his 41st birthday. By many measures, it was a fine choice, not merely because it tapped into the very pulse of the aspirations of an electorate consisting mostly of youthful voters. Chilima also had to his credit the accolade of being a nationally recognized shining star from the corporate world, where he had risen to the helm of a telecommunication giant and built a reputation for executive excellence and energy.
But in that singular decision, as well as the subsequent moment they were sworn in together as the country’s State President and Vice President, Mutharika was oblivious to the central role Chilima would eventually play in dismantling his political credibility and restoring the country’s faith in the strength of its constitutional democracy. In the four years that followed, Chilima saw first hand the rising wanton abuse of public resources and his boss’s incapacity to reign in his vultures, and knew that this was the sort of problem history would judge him harshly for if he did not rise to the occasion to confront it. He proposed Public Service Reforms, but to his frustration, Mutharika clipped his wings just when they were ready to be implemented, a fate suffered by other veeps on account of the Constitution’s neutering of the Vice President’s office. It became abundantly clear that if Chilima was to do anything about the corruption, he had only two options, either confronting Mutharika’s gubernatorial failures from inside the ruling Democratic Progressive Party or doing so from the deck of another party. The choice was clear enough to everyone that even before Chilima could declare which way he would go, a faction inside the DPP began publicly campaigning for him to go with the first option, pledging that they would support him if he did so. It was Mutharika’s worst nightmare, a deafening chorus of dissent within his own party calling on him to resign, led by his own sister-in-law to boot, and this only weeks before his party’s convention to nominate a presidential candidate for the 2019 elections.
If Mutharika thought it a relief to see Chilima finally announce his decision to not stand against him in the race for the DPP nomination at that convention, it was a relief too premature. Chilima moved quickly to dump Mutharika’s party and launch his own called UTM, taking with him the influential leaders of DPP’s Directorates of Youth and Women, among others, who worked relentlessly to attract dozens of thousands of supporters across the country within less than two months, all before the party was even registered. Chilima’s UTM rally speeches, denouncing the graft in the Mutharika administration with clinical incision and compelling oratory, quickly became a weekly staple for Malawian voters. Apart from his charisma, magnetism, and militant marketing and organization, part of the public intrigue Chilima generated had to do with something more intangible, something almost unprecedented in the history of presidential elections. There is no record anywhere of a sitting Vice President using his constitutionally powerless office to launch a politically powerful campaign against the failures of a sitting President and advocating his ouster. He was a charged lightening rod disrupting the settled currents of the country’s political grid, not only making himself a political force of nature in the process, but also reserving for his movement a seat at any table discussing the future of Malawi’s democracy and presidency.
While it is not unusual in Malawian politics to see a politician dump his party and join another, Chilima’s renunciation of Mutharika’s DPP was unlike any of those, for he did so to launch a transformative nationalist platform from a brand new party, a symbolic repudiation of the whole political establishment. And for many voters, there was something admirable about a man willing to disown his party because it had become too corrupt and start a new one as a fresh broom offering to clean up the nation’s mess. As if the heavens were bent on giving the DPP a taste of its own medicine, this move was akin to 2004 when the then President Bingu revoked his membership in the ruling United Democratic Front to found the DPP on an anti-corruption nationalist platform. In the face of these crowd-pulling Chilima factors, Arthur Peter Mutharika, his powerful office notwithstanding, was utterly powerless to do anything to pull out the advancing thorn in his side. In fact, Chilima’s campaign of vitriol in that seven-month period from July 2018 to January 2019 was so effective that it was arguably a stronger check and balance against the abuses and excesses of the Mutharika Administration than both the judiciary and legislature were at that time. As a result, by the time Mutharika was presenting his nomination papers to the Malawi Electoral Commission in February 2019 to seek a new term of office from Malawians, Chilima’s campaign had already rendered him unelectable. It was thus a foregone conclusion that the only way Mutharika was going to emerge the winner of the coming presidential election was if the poll was intentionally botched.
Predictably, the poll did indeed get intentionally botched, and Mutharika was declared the winner, a new and more servile Vice President picked up from the roadside at his side. It was not to last, for within hours of their inauguration, Chilima dispatched a team of savvy and tenacious lawyers to file a petition at the High Court, seeking the nullification of the presidential election. Mutharika helplessly attempted to have Chilima’s petition thrown out, arguing that it was embarrassingly and incurably flawed, but a panel of five High Court judges, constiting of a Lady and four Lords, dismissed this as baseless and moved Chilima’s petition to trial. There, he was the first to testify against the botched election, supported by a courageous UTM roving election monitor named Mirriam Gwalidi, now famous for staring down the Attorney General’s condescending cross-examination with remarkable composure. And so even though he was no longer Vice President, Chilima’s petition ensured that the nauseating lawlessness that had become normative in the Mutharika Administration would still be answered for.
That answer came down on the 34th day of 2020, a unanimous decision by the Constitutional Court to nullify the 2019 presidential election in favor of Chilima’s prayer. As icing on that cake, the ruling also restored him to his status quo ante of Vice President until a fresh poll could be held. Mutharika, dazed and weakened, rushed to court with a request for the ruling to be suspended pending an appeal, but at the court, Chilima’s Counsel Soko put up a legal defense against it so intellectually devastating that the request was as good as dead on arrival, rendering a lawless second term for Mutharika a certified historical fantasy. In the end, until a fresh poll is held, Mutharika is having to just accept that the young renegade he had chosen to be no more than his Vice President on that morning in February 2014 had in turn chosen to become more than a political tool for the entrenchment of the ruling party’s corruption. Mutharika has no choice but come to terms with the fact that even though the criminal machinations of his party have been mercilessly exposed and decimated by Chilima in what may seem like an act of political betrayal, it is the sort of betrayal that will go down in history as one of the best things anyone has ever done to give Malawi its best chance of rescue and self-correction in decades.