ast night, on the Hot Seat, a radio program on which I am a panelist and often play, the devil’s advocate, we hosted a man of the cloth; Bishop Zak Niringiye. He came ten minutes late having to negotiate the dense Kampala traffic made worse by the latest large conference the city has hosted. For almost a week delegates of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a grouping of lawmakers from around the world held photo ops, issued statements against the state of democracy around the world, and zoomed around in buses, sirens blaring, as Uganda pulled all stops to give them V.I.P treatment. Sometimes as denouncements rained down from the delegates on democratic bad boys like Mali and Syria, downtown Kampala, especially the mall strip of “Garden City” and “Nakumatt” sounded like a war zone as police sirens wailed frustratingly at the congestion. Before our guest settled in Charles Mwanguhya, the host of the show, and I discussed the rumored passing of the Malawian leader Bingu Wa’Mutharika. The last time I was in the same room with the late President was at another large conference in Kampala, the African Union summit. Then Somalia dominated the condemnations. The Malawian leader ,who was chairman, sounded very hawkish I thought even braggish in the company of African big men like the late Libyan leader Muamur Gadaffi whose colorful style; large entourage caused a ruckus outside.
I wondered then about the stability of Malawi as I do now after Bingu’s death. Social media had pronounced him dead by the time the show got underway. It made sense that there would be a delay in the announcement. The whole affair reminded me of Togo and the passing of Gnassingbe Eyadema in 2005.
Malawians will have a lot more to say about their President. He was embattled at the end. Following protests over the cost of living, he called protestors the work of the devil and blamed external factors. His government locked out the elected Vice President as he reportedly eyed a family succession hoping to install his brother at State House and possibly continue to rule “Putin style”.
His death has thrust Malawi into a political crisis seen elsewhere on the continent where personalized regimes attempt to negotiate political succession in the guise of political transition. Sons or brothers or more accurately family rule has been the main issue interrogated in the different iterations of the Arab Spring.
The Ben Ali family, the Gadaffi family, the Assad family or the Mubarak family all sought to project their aristocracy over modern institutions that pretended to be democratic. In times of crisis the attempt to “give power back”, or hold elections, write a new constitution or other attempts at surviving change become very difficult to pull off.
In Malawi now officially the Vice President Joyce Banda should be the successor according to their constitution. Just months ago, this first female VP was chased away from cabinet meetings as real power lay elsewhere not in the formal office she held. This is not a Malawi issue alone it’s also an African one.
When Bishop Zak joined in to talk education policy, the other elephant in the room was the educated gossip that the man of God was looking to become a man of the people. A charismatic leader, the Bishop was recently the number two at the Anglican Diocese in Kampala. He has retired to devote himself to public service by raising issues like bad education. His other job is as chair of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) that provides litmus of African government’s and their commitment to do good things. I asked him repeatedly if he eyed a political career, which is what I had heard. He said he was committed to serving the public. Clearly his political career has begun.
One of the issues that Bishop Zak and a collection of “apolitical” civil society groups are championing is the return of term limits to the constitution. Uganda was one of the first to lift Presidential term limits in 2005 allowing the current President Yoweri Museveni to run again for election. He is in his 26th year in power. We will return to this subject soon as it has to do with Uganda’s own political “transition”. I do not oppose the return of term limits but I think the issue is one of a basket of non-issues that obscure real reform.
Tending to change is not about changing laws alone. If feudalism can disguise in modern systems change has to be addressed differently, sensitively and honestly. The stakes are very high even for the as the sun sets on imperial presidencies on the continent.