By The Rev. Dr. H. Gene Straatmeyer
The President of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutherika died of a heart attack Thursday, April 5th and there may be problems ahead. I’m asking for prayer that the constitution will be followed. If it is, Joyce Banda, will be the new president.
Malawi is an impoverished country in southern and eastern Africa that we came to love when my wife and I served there as volunteer missionaries in 2001-2002 for the Reformed Church in America. By the time we arrived, the nation had shed British colonialism 35 years before in 1966. However, democracy faltered when the person chosen as the first president, Hastings Banda, turned his position into a harsh dictatorship. President-for-Life Banda was overthrown without bloodshed in 1993.
In 1994 Bakili Muluzi, a Muslim, was elected. The Malawi constitution allows presidents to serve two consecutive five year terms. While we were there, Muluzi, coming to the end of his second term, was attempting to change the constitution to allow him to serve a third five year term. The fear was that if he succeeded, his next step would be to have parliament appoint him President-for-Life which was just another way to becoming a dictator.
It was, according to people of faith, a miracle, a gift of God, when the Malawi parliament voted down Muluzi’s third term. All the necessary votes had been bought or accounted for prior to the parliamentary session. Several of my Malawi pastor friends were at parliament that day and paused outside the chambers before the session to pray, asking God to stop the landslide. Particularly, the Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and several other smaller Christian groups had spoken out in opposition to changing the constitution to accommodate Muluzi’s grab for power.
The vote was taken! Unbelievably, the change to the constitution was turned down. The supporters of Muluzi were upset and angry. Victory parties were ready and waiting in downtown Lilongwe, just a mile away. My friends believed God had stepped in to preserve their democracy and that God had allowed the impossible to remain impossible.
At the next election, after we were back in the United States, Bingu wa Mutharika, a Catholic Christian, was elected. During his first term, Malawi did well. In his second five year term, the magazine Economist says, Bingo wa Mukaritha began “behaving ever more despotically.” A Reuters news report says the president was “autocratic and intolerant of criticism.” Anti-government protests last year led to the death of 20 protesters in Lilongwe as police cracked down. This led the United States and other donor nations to hold back on aide and from there everything went south.
On Thursday, April 5th, Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack! The Vice President is Joyce Banda, a Presbyterian Christian, who is supposed to succeed him. She is a member of the Lingadzi Presbyterian Church in Lilongwi where I served as an associate pastor. We have been in her home when she hosted one of the church’s weekly prayer meetings. We have heard her speak on women’s issues relating to Africa at a Rotary Convention which featured Nelson Mandella from South Africa.
The problem is that in 2010 she was booted from her party and at one time was charged with treason by Bingu wa Mutharika and those who supported him – because she opposed his ideas of getting around the next presidential election and keeping power. She survived that incident but has been in the opposition to the president ever since.
When we served in Malawi, the police and the army were divided in their loyalties, the police for the president and the army for the people. So, it was interesting and comforting when I read that the police were the ones who had killed the 20 protesters but immediately upon the death of the president, soldiers were sent to the home of Vice President Joyce Banda to protect her.
The Christian Churches of Malawi have been constant in their support of a democracy. As the inner circle of deceased President Bingu wa Mutharika is apparently thinking of not following the constitution by not giving the presidency to Joyce Banda, I’d like you to pray that God will not allow this democracy to fall into the hands of non-elected persons.
I know that all of Malawi’s Christians and the churches to which they belong are not only providing leadership in this national crisis, but they are also praying that God will continue to save their nation from the Evil One who is striving to get people, who misuse power, to rule the country. Pray with the Malawi Christians that democracy may be continued in this land that is called “The Warm Heart of Africa.” Joyce Banda is a great leader and if and when she becomes president she will continue to need our prayers.
On Saturday, April 7, 2012, Joyce Banda was sworn in as the new President of Malawi, thanks to pressure on the opposition and parliament by the United States and other democracies. Here are excerpts from President Banda’s speech upon being sworn in:
“This is a unique occasion.” (Started with asking all to stand for two minutes of silence to offer respect of late Bingu wa Wutharika’s soul.
“May his soul rest in peace.”
”I am not here to give a long speech considering the circumstances we are in. Let us focus on mourning our father, former president Mutharika.
“I also would like to report to all you people that this afternoon I had a cabinet meeting. We felt the holy spirit in that room. It was a good meeting, as a nation we should realize that, because it was significant and marks a starting point for healing the wounds of this nation…”
“I thank you all for showing me great humility and honor as I accept the huge responsibility. I also thank you all for the peaceful transition and I appeal to the nation to mourn the former president with dignity and thank all of you who have come to witness this occasion from all walks of life irrespective of political, spiritual, regional backgrounds…”
“I want to ask all of us to move into the future with hope and the spirit of oneness and unity. I sincerely hope there is no room for revenge, that we shall stand united…
“As a God fearing nation we shall allow God to come before us because if we do not do that, we have failed.”