Malawi: To believe or not to believe rumors of a coup plot

Following Victor Kaonga's Monday May 12th breaking news post of the unusual arrests in Malawi of high ranking former and current military and police officers, as well as opposition figures, amid government accusations of a coup plot, Malawian bloggers and netizens have been reacting to the news with shock, skepticism, bewilderment, and ambivalence.

The rumors of the coup plot are the culmination of a tense two-week period, during which parliament has been deadlocked, and peace talks amongst political party leaders, including the country's president Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, have been thwarted over the contentious Section 65 of the Malawi Constitution. In this post, we explore the genesis and trajectory of this unfolding story, pointing out how some Malawians are doubtful of the claims, while others believe the coup to be a possibility.

Canceled trip to Dubai

The roller coaster of events started on Saturday May 10th, with online newspaper Nyasatimes reporting that President wa Mutharika would be embarking on an official tour of the Middle East, leaving behind a letter to be delivered in his absence to the speaker of parliament, instructing him to prorogue parliament. On Sunday May 11th, the president was reported to have addressed a political rally, where he warned that his predecessor, former president Dr. Bakili Muluzi, currently in the United Kingdom on a private visit, risked being charged with treason on his return for plotting to overthrow the government using Section 65 as a pretext.

The same day, listserv-based Makongolomwinani News Services (MNS) posted a one-sentence item on the Malawi listserv Nyasanet, announcing that President Mutharika had canceled the trip to the Middle East because the governor of the Reserve Bank, Victor Mbewe, had refused to release MK600 million (US$4 million) meant for the trip.

Rumors of arrests

On the morning of Tuesday May 13th one Nyasanetter, Lazarus Ndovi, posted the first mention of arrests, affecting former army commander Retired General Joseph Chimbayo, former Inspector General of Police Joseph Airon, former mayor of the City of Blantyre, John Chikakwiya, and secretary general of the UDF, Kennedy Makwangwala. It was later learned that former commissioner of Police Matthews Masoapyola, was also among those arrested, according to a Nyasatimes article. No mention of a coup was made in the posting, although the subject heading said the arrests were for “treason”.

The first blog reaction came from Kondwani Munthali, also on Tuesday May 13th, who used a major portion of his post to react to allegations made earlier by minister of information and civic education, Hon. Patricia Kaliati, insinuating that Munthali had leaked information to Nyasatimes for an article that claimed that the Malawi government was going to assist Zimbabwe clear a Chinese ship docked in Angola, carrying arms destined for the Zimbabwe military.

Munthali had written on his facebook page on Thursday May 8th, saying,

Kondwani will be arrested anytime on false allegations. The Minister of Information has told a press breifing this morning. Be ready for more news…

On Saturday May 10th he updated his status to “Kondwani very safecalm down now people-just someone trying intimidate me. But am good and safe and will remain for as long as God wants to be.”

On Tuesday May 13th he expressed new fears, writing “Kondwani is not sure where Malawi has gone to!!!Nobody is any longer safe!!” Towards the end of his blog post the same day Kondwani indicated that there had been arrests in Malawi, pointing out that he did not see how the arrests would “solve the political impasse”.

Skepticism creeps in

As interest in the issue grew on Tuesday, doubts started showing almost immediately. Chatonda Mtika, co-moderator of Nyasanet, posted his reaction to another set of allegations made by Hon. Kaliati purportedly accusing British and Taiwanese governments of planning to supply military hardware to the coup plotters. Mtika wrote:

muluzi has made no secret of his desire to see bingu vacate sanjika, so there is no news here. it is quite possible that muluzi may have been contemplating some “coup”, using opposition numbers in parliament, to bring down the government. but for kaliati to accuse britain of supplying artillery for the alleged coup, it is not only careless; it shows her luck of understand of what is happening around her.

Mtika went on to add that he did not believe that the Taiwanese government could be “that naive to think that the udf would automatically roll back the dpp changes once it took office. and, even if that were possible, taiwan wouldn't want to get her hands dirty in a bloody coup.

On Thursday May 15th Munthali posted another item on his blog, in which his incredulity of the coup story became apparent:

I would have been easily convinced if I did not know most of the people on the list. I mean the set up looks much of a comedy and I am sure conconted in a hurry. Lets wait and see how a convincing case can be built from unsigned documents, funny minutes and even dates which are 6th June 2008 on which the people attended a meeting to plot the “kupu”.

More doubts appeared from blogger Boniface Dulani, who posted an item also on May 15th, titled “Illusions of a coup.” Dulani outlined two grounds on which the allegations of a coup did not make sense, observing that for senior ranking military officers, there was no clear motivation to engage in a coup. Dulani's second reason for doubting the coup arose from the fact that Malawians will be going to the polls in twelve months, and thus Muluzi, whose party elected him as presidential candidate, having already served two terms as Malawi's first post-dictatorship president, could not be that impatient to return to office. Dulani wrote:

I am sceptical that Muluzi – notwithstanding his zeal and determination to get to the Presidency- would be so foolish as to think of a military route to the presidency when elections are only a year away.

Adding his voice to the growing doubts was Trevor Chimimba who on Friday May 16th wrote on Nyasanet in response to Dulani's post:

I may be out of touch with Malawi realities, but honestly, I sometimes do not understand what is going on in that country. If this experimentation with democracy is failing, it is important that the political leaders learn where to draw the line. Democracy 101.Leave the military out of politics.” Chimimba went on to describe some of the military officers arrested as personal friends of his whom he had a hard time believing would ever contemplate staging a coup: “Tell me that they have committed something else, surely it cannot be treason. These people should be home with their beloved families.” Chimimba concluded his post by pointing out that “President Mutharika is making the same mistake of other “expatriate” Presidents. He is isolating himself from the people and surrounding himself with sycophant advisers who see daggers where none exist.

Benefit of the doubt

Other reactions have sought a middle of the road approach, expressing the belief that the coup plot could be real. Nyasanetter Hesse Mhango, while acknowledging the need to be skeptical, given the president's history of coup claims, wrote about the credulity of a plot, given what he called the desperation of former president Dr. Bakili Muluzi:

There must be a plan B for getting to Sanjika as the candidacy of Muluzi is barred by the Malawi Constitution. Therefore, the zeal to get back to power spells real danger to Malawi because Muluzi, or those around him, show signs of desperation and are probably willing to do just about anything to achieve their goal. Let's no one forget that the whole process to change the Constitution was being done by means that were either borderline or outright criminal.

However, not all bloggers have found the coup issue worthy spending their time on. Blogger Buckaroo Thandi states upfront:

You know I won't make mention of the coup d'etat situation here, I'm wary of being coup d'etated myself so I'll go on ahead and say please read about it from reliable sources, speak to people who are in the know and pray that the nation will get over this with minimal damage. There is so much that needs to be done in Malawi, I hope to God a coup is at the very bottom of the list, we don't need fighting to solve anything.

Section 65, the heart of the matter

The eye of the storm, Section 65 of the Malawi Constitution, prohibits members of parliament from abandoning their party and joining another party in parliament without seeking a fresh mandate from their constituents. From September 2007 to April 2008, President Mutharika prevented parliament from meeting, fearing that once parliament met, the Speaker would invoke the dreaded section, and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would lose most of its parliamentarians, who joined the party by crossing the floor. The political temperature in Malawi has been high since President Mutharika formed the DPP in February 2005, nine months into his presidency, when he abandoned the United Democratic Front (UDF) whose chairperson and erstwhile Malawi's president, Dr. Muluzi, had plucked Mutharika from opposition ranks to campaign for him as the UDF's presidential candidate over other aspirants.

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