Assassination plots not new in Malawi

The plan hatched by the duo was to create some form of stampede as Banda addressed a rally. In the ensuing scuffle, one of Gwede’s officers was going to assassinate Banda and throw away the weapon, a retired police officer told the Nation newspaper on Sunday in Blantyre. Muwalo and his co-accused, mainly police officers from the notorious Special Branch, were arrested in October 1976 at the Chichiri offices of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), as they were about to board the cabinet minister’s Range Rover and leave for Mzuzu. This was barely a few days before Banda was scheduled to fly to the north for the tour. The “assassination” conspirators were later that year taken to Kwacha Traditional Court in Blantyre for trial that lasted until 1977. Muwalo and Gwede were sentenced to hang. However, Gwede’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment while Muwalo was executed. On Friday 28 March this year, a contingent of police officers swooped on Mudi House, the Blantyre residence of Vice President Cassim Chilumpha in the leafy suburb of Mandala, and arrested him on alleged treason charges. Justice Minister Henry Phoya said Chilumpha and others had plotted to assassinate President Bingu wa Mutharika last March in Mzimba during a crop inspection tour. The government is yet to take the VP to court for trial and prove its allegations of treason and the purported means of executing the assassination plot in Mzimba. Up to Friday, the defence team was battling to obtain bail for its client in the Blantyre High Court. It is expected that Justice Charles Mkandawire will make a ruling on this issue when the court resumes sitting tomorrow. However, the similarities in the venues for executing the assassination “plots” as stated by government, beg the question: why should such a devious, highly divisive scheme that can tear the country asunder be planned to hatch in the north? Political scientists, historians and politicians that we approached expressed different views and interpretations as to why a potential presidential assassin would choose to stage such a diabolical scheme in the Northern Region. Recalling the situation and political atmosphere that prevailed in the era of the abortive Muwalo and Gwede conspiracy, which case went through a traditional court as was the norm during Banda’s reign, historian and author Desmond Dudwa Phiri said the Northern Region is a victim of political games in this country. An old-timer who has felt and experienced the chill and grill of the turbulent political wind from colonial times, through the one-party dictatorship of Banda to the present time of a threatened democratic culture, Phiri recounted that during the Banda era there was a general perception that people from the north did not like the President. Thus, Banda’s political foes took advantage of the perceived disgruntled state of northerners to use the region as their assassination zone. It was felt that northerners were unhappy about being denied opportunities for development or advancement, despite having a lot of highly educated people. “Muwalo capitalised on that to scheme his plot with Focus Gwede . . . so that the news should not be a surprise package to the country,” said Phiri. Dr Wapulumuka Mulwafu, head of the history department at Chancellor College, views things in a slightly different spectrum. He said the Northern Region could be a strategic location where “the men of the sword” would execute an assassination plan and be able to flee into neighbouring countries such as Tanzania and Zambia before the police apprehended them. “The jungles and forests would offer a good hideout for the culprits,” he contended. The poor communication infrastructure in the Northern Region also makes it ideal for such machinations. “An assassin can carry out mercenary duties and the police would not easily catch up with such a person due to poor communication,” he said. Blessings Chinsinga, a political scientist at Chancellor, said the schemers first consider the popularity of a president in a region or province and decide to execute their plan in an area where he has not garnered enough grassroots support. “By doing (this), the assassination would be understood and people would not be surprised,” said Chinsinga. In another breath, Boniface Dulani concurred with Mulwafu that the Northern Region would provide easy hiding places because of its sparse population. However, he bemoaned that such tendencies only put the region in a bad light as the rest of the people begin to view it as an assassination zone for presidents. “But if you look critically, you will notice that the schemers come from different regions but use the north to carry out their heinous crimes. Muwalo and Gwede came from the Central Region but in their wisdom they chose the north,” argued Dulani. A former security detail of Banda minced no words in justifying the choice of the north for carrying out such hideous schemes. He said the issue of sparse population is a prime consideration for setting up a high profile assassination anywhere. “You see, in security matters to make sure the scheme is successful, it is important to ensure minimum casualties in an assassination plot. Otherwise you will give yourselves away,” he said, preferring anonymity. Politicians who were close to Banda and must have vividly followed developments surrounding the Muwalo-Gwede conspiracy, preferred to remain silent when approached for comment on events that ensued from the time of arrest and prosecution in a court chaired by a traditional chief. MCP president John Tembo recalled there was such a plot but said he is ignorant of the details or reasons that led to the arrest of the people who were implicated. He also had no idea why any one would pick on the north as a slaughter ground for a president of this country. Robson Chirwa took cover in the fact that he had just ventured into politics during that period. He said matters of security were the domain of intelligence officers in the police force and the dreaded but now disbanded Malawi Young Pioneers. “We never discussed these things ourselves. We were kept out,” claimed former cabinet minister Chirwa. He later, in his political career where survival depended on one being in good books with Banda, rose to the position of administrative secretary of the MCP. It remains to be seen how the government would prove its case in the present alleged treason conspiracy. ‘ The National.

May 2006
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