‘Nankhumwa turmoil poses a conundrum for DPP’

…fear his 2018 majority win undercuts rivals

…damned if they fire him, damned if they dont

When Kondwani Nankhumwa won as DPP vice president of the South on 3rd July 2018, it was widely regarded as a money triumph over political stamina. Some said he was inexperienced, and others said he had the backing of President Peter Mutharika, others focused on his education or lack of it, and public oratory skills.

Five years later, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) old guards who includes former vice president (south) George Chaponda and former finance minister Joseph Mwanamvekha are not sure what would happen if Nankhumwa stood for presidency at a convention. 

Once beaten, twice shy. Nankhumwa has become a headache for the party leaders and from his recent rallies, not a problem for the party followers.

“The boy is unpredictable. We have left the problem of Nankhumwa too long, he will finish us,” a senior member of the party told The Investigator Magazine on the latest attempt to discipline the Leader of Opposition.

Nankhumwa in 2018, then considered a political lightweight forced Dr. Chaponda to withdraw from the race and then went on to beat Mwanamvenkha and Henry Mussa by a wide margin- he got 774 votes, against 401 for Mussa and 407 for Mwanamvekha.

This was almost 50% of the estimated 1600 delegates. This is scary to any contestant as the voting delegates have not really changed in five years since the last convention.

Disciplining Nankhumwa

The DPP vice president is not only popular with the old guards, but he is a “problem child” that needs control and discipline every time he opens his mouth, someone goes to check word by word to interpret their meaning.

On Wednesday he was set to appear before another disciplinary meeting accusing him of undermining the party leadership- a common accusation, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the UDF used to deal with political rivals.

The crime- he addressed a political rally to drum support for the party without authority. Two versions have emerged with people close to Mutharika claiming that Nankhumwa was allowed after he spoke to the former president to address his rallies in his region but later it was reversed since people felt he would use the podium to castigate Mutharika.

Mutharika himself has spoken to Nankhumwa on the phone before, but it is not clear his position as he is said to be influenced by people with vested interests in succession.

“Nankhumwa has no issues with Mutharika. He regards him as his political father and mentor. When the two talk there is no malice. It is after the talk that things keep changing. Nankhumwa says politics is his career, people are trying to cut it short. He is fighting for his political survival,” said one of Nankhumwa’s staunch allies.

From Mutharika’s side, Chaponda, administrative Secretary Francis Mphepo, Publicity Secretary Shadreck Namalomba and Organising Secretary Chimwemwe Chipungu are the key faces while Nankhumwa has Secretary General Gleselder Jeffrey and Nicholas Dausi among others who speak openly against each other.

The Nankhumwa factor has contributed to the delay in holding of the DPP convention, which was supposed to be held by July 2, as nobody is sure of the outcome.

DPP convention dynamics

Party conventions are the only forum where grassroots leaders assume powers to elect leaders that they want.  The party convention has never elected a leader from the vacuum.

The next DPP convention will be elected president where either the incumbent Peter Mutharika is facing a serious challenge or an open contest where newcomers and old-timers are trying to win delegates’ votes.

“Unfortunately, delegates to party conferences have long memories. Most politicians after winning, especially when in government, forget the party machinery and focus on their constituencies. Few leaders survive the next convention because they have isolated themselves,” explained an analyst we hired to interpret party dynamics from our monthly opinion poll results.

The DPP’s first convention in 2006 was a formality to confirm its first leader, Late Bingu wa Mutharika. In 2009 there was nobody running against him and later picked Joyce Banda as his running mate leaving the popular ones Henry Chimunthu Banda who was Secretary General and Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe.

Many speculated that the late Bingu picked Mrs Banda as he considered her politically weak and feared Chimunthu Banda and Gondwe, alongside Henry Phoya, Ken Lipenga and others could upstage his succession plans.

“When Bingu died, a few people remained. People like Chaponda, Nankhumwa, Ben Phiri, Peter Mukhito and Norman Chisale gained closeness to Mutharika. They became a nucleus of the party and with politicians in parliament Patricia Kaliati, Henry Mussa, and others they sustained the party,” explained a DPP former minister.

He said as the party was rebuilding in 2014, Phiri, now MP for Thyolo Central and Nankhumwa were at the centre of the party politics and that the two coordinated the party structures.

“In 2014, Mutharika won a majority convention vote against then-Speaker Chimunthu Banda and after elections, he took Ben Phiri to State House and gave Nankhumwa politically powerful cabinet portfolios. Dr. Chaponda started off at Foreign Affairs whose last occupant during the first DPP regime was Peter Mutharika himself. These were the three centres of DPP power” narrated our analyst.

By the next convention, Ben Phiri was no longer at State House, Dr Chaponda was out of the cabinet after the ‘cyclone ministry of agriculture’ damaged his reputation and Nankhumwa, among the three close political allies of Mutharika remained alone and reached out to the party members every ministry he was posted.

The five-year second DPP term had its own political tsunamis, including the coming of Saulos Chilima in 2014 and his departure in 2018.

The SKC effect

The introduction of a corporate executive into politics changed the DPP outlook and fashion and Saulos Chilima, then known for his Airtel executive role, managed to attract young and educated groups that traditionally shun politics.

good old days Chilima with Prof Mutharika

The DPP had started forming groups such as “Young Professionals” and “Blue League” whose composition was mainly urban and educated youth and the coming in of Chilima, led to many more becoming active frontliners in politics.

Chilima, however, was becoming popular with his business-like manner of doing things, outright speaking against some contractors and his fashion sense. This caused discomfort among those who had planned to succeed Mutharika in 2014.

“Chilima lacked the party machinery system, he was never given any party post, he was an outsider. As people started to consolidate power, the first victim of a potential succession battle was Chilima, followed by Phiri (now christened field marshal by his admirers) and then Chaponda,” he explained. Some fingers pointed at Nankhumwa, some at unnamed people at the State House surrounding Mutharika.

The vice president was alienated alongside people like Patricia Kaliati and others who then formed a circle that would include Bon Kalindo, Paul Chibingu,  Masangwi, Ngalande and eventually Callista Mutharika joined the fray.

Chilima would get out of the party before the convention and took with him a huge portion of the party and supporters in the eastern, central, and northern regions who felt the party had slid to become a Lhomwe grouping.

The DPP is yet to fully recover from Chilima’s departure and Mutharika at a fundraiser earlier this year acknowledged that his former deputy took his vote share and sent it to President Chakwera.

The fight for the presidency

Looking at the 2018 DPP convention, Nankhumwa had almost 50 percent share of convention delegates and when Everton Chimulilenji was named running mate, the stunned faces of DPP senior officials were captured on camera.

Chimulilenji who would be dropped as running mate a year later, proved his appointment was a fluke and a political disaster. However unanswered questions remain as to who exerted such influence on President Mutharika to appoint a political character that would not attract votes.

“The 2019 elections shook the party politburo and members alike. Remember in 2018 there were loud cheers when Nankhumwa was elected. People had thought either Atupele Muluzi from UDF or someone politically significant would-be running mate. There was a sense of betrayal that leaders felt towards the party president. That was when everyone stepped up their presidential ambitions,” revealed another insider.

The 2020 fresh presidential polls saw President Mutharika campaign only two days while Atupele Muluzi and Nankhumwa crisscrossed their turfs to woe voters. The DPP would perform well in areas where they focused the campaign.

But the fight for the presidency for the party had just started.

The presidential candidates

After the 2020 elections Mutharika retreated to Page House and there were strong signals of his immediate retirement from politics.  He would serve his term as a party president until July 2, 2023, when he would hand over to a new party leader.

On 20 November 2021, Mutharika cemented the belief that he would handover power when he met Bright Msaka (vice president for the east), Nankhumwa, Mwanamvekha, Dr. Dalitso Kabambe, Paul Gadama and Prophet David Mbewe who had expressed interest to run as party president.

The candidates started crisscrossing the country, engaging different structures and at one point Dr. Kabambe attracted the largest following before Nankhumwa came back on stage. 

As campaigning progressed it became apparent that Nankhumwa was attracting large crowds, he organised tours and events for party women and youth and suddenly even in parliament he had a majority as attempts to remove him were foiled in parliamentary votes.

Msaka who headed the reforms for the party and Kabambe who was once rumoured to be the anointed successor, started making ground and The Investigator Magazine polls of May and June show them at par with Nankhumwa who has had a marginal lead among the other candidates.

A convention election without Mutharika’s candidacy would reduce the race to the three-way race between Kabambe, Msaka and Nankhumwa but with memories of 2018 still fresh, everyone is scared unchecked Nankhumwa could carry the vote.

The party vice president for its stronghold has been in and out of court, mainly being accused of insubordination, selling the party to the enemy, and bringing the party into disrepute.

presidential candidates at DPP

The DPP presidential fight has now been reduced to stopping Nankhumwa, which is threatening to see another split of the party if the trends continue, which is likely to dim the party’s ambition to bounce back into power.

Project APM

As a party leader, Mutharika has presided over a factionalised party and seems to have delegated his powers to mainly unelected officials, which has always set them against those that were elected to their positions.

If Mutharika finally confirms is running for the presidency, he is likely to win a majority of convention votes, but he will still have to deal with Nankhumwa whose supporters could dominate the executive and make his return a headache.

“The problem with Mutharika is he consults too widely and in the end, he gets the wrong advice and gets confused. He can win the convention simply because he is a Mutharika and is seen as a father figure for the party. But for elections, for a party that has not recovered from Chilima’s exit, if Nankhumwa is pushed out, it will impact his southern base more, it will be difficult for the party to get 50 plus 1,” said a senior member of the party involved in research.

So far, the political rumour mill points out that Mutharika might run for a short term and handover to his preferred successor. This logic becomes complicated as already two names are being suggested including Kabambe and Chaponda.

However, though a Mutharika candidacy could give other parties a run for their money in 2025, failing to deal with internal divisions and having a disunited front will likely make the party fail to attain 50 +1 and consequently fail to win again.

How to solve the Nankhumwa problem

Out of the five aspiring presidential candidates, only Nankhumwa and Manamvenkha have been in a serious convention race and the former came close to getting 50 percent of the convention votes and the latter managed 401 votes or 25% of the convention delegates.

This means in a fair analysis, the two have a base among the convention delegates that could put them ahead against new contestants such as Msaka, Kabambe and Gadama, but becomes complicated with Mutharika joining the race as well.

The DPP is obsessed with internal strife that it forgets that Malawians are looking for ideas and leaders that will solve the current economic crisis that has reduced hard-working citizens to become beggars.

The DPP leaders need to swallow their egos and sit with each other and work out a plan for how they will accommodate each other and compete with each fairly without breaking an already fractured party.

Otherwise, Gwanda Chakuamba’s fight against John Tembo cost him the presidency in 1999, which Chakuamba revenged by leaving MCP in 2004, denying Tembo his lifelong dream to become a president.

The UDF turn came in 2003 during its first President Bakili Muluzi’s third term when he fired the Brown Mpinganjira and others and the eventual dumping of the party by Justin Malewezi and Aleke Banda after Bingu was imposed. The UDF has never recovered.

The DPP’s first damage was the departure of Joyce Banda and Khumbo Kachali, which worsened with Chilima’s exit. The national vote share for the party which was 60 percent at its peak in 2009 has crumbled to around 35 percent in 2020 and is likely to go down further should the party continue with its internal fights.

Unfortunately, Malawi politicians lack logic when engaged in political fights, gossipers and handclappers take more prominence, and the problem of Nankhumwa will haunt the DPP until elections day, unless both sides accept democracy is the rule of the majority, no matter how much we dislike them.

The party and its leaders need to find a solution, yesterday.

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