By Staff Reporter
MALAWI threatened to jail anyone speculating about President Peter Mutharika’s absence this week as a perplexed nation sought answers over his whereabouts.
Mutharika, thought to be 76, left Malawi on September 15 to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, United States. He delivered his speech on September 21 and the UN summit ended on September 26.
But as other world leaders returned to their countries, Mutharika simply vanished from public view and Malawians heard nothing further.
Malawians took to Twitter with the hashtag #BringBackMutharika as speculation swirled that Mutharika had either become ill or had died. His brother, Bingu, died of a heart attack while president in 2012.
The speculation led to a dramatic statement by the Malawian government, harrumphing that Mutharika was in “very good and robust health” and still carrying out his duties while in America.
It also reminded Malawians that spreading such “baseless, malicious and sickening” rumours was criminal.
Mutharika, Malawians were told, was not on leave but “continuing to carry on his functions and duties whilst in the USA”, although officials would not disclose who he was meeting.
“Once again, the government reiterates that the President is enjoying very good and robust health in the USA and that when he concludes the official duties he is currently undertaking which are for the benefit of all Malawians, the nation will be advised in the next few days regarding the dates he will return home.
There is therefore no need to panic,” government spokesman Malison Ndau said.
Ndau’s statement did not help quell the questions and speculation.
“When you are not informing people as to why the president is still not coming back far beyond the activity for which he travelled, you invite such speculations,” Oscar Shida Nkhoma wrote on the Malawi government’s Facebook page.
Whyte Mkandawire also chimed in: “The million dollar questions haven’t been answered and that makes the whole statement useless. The questions are: what is he doing in the US and when is he coming back?
What official duties that cannot be mentioned?”
Malawian lawmakers want the president to disclose all expenses incurred on his tour, including those of his entourage.
A new statement issued on October 11 said the President would return home on Sunday, October 16, a whole month later.
Whether Mutharika is in fact ill or merely spending time with his three adult children, who live in America, the government’s refusal to be transparent about the President’s whereabouts displays arrogance, says Boniface Dulani, a political scientist at the University of Malawi.
Mutharika, a lawyer by profession, was educated in the United States where he attended Yale University and retains strong links.
He is not the first African leader to perform a disappearing act. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s 79-year-old, wheelchair-bound president has rarely been seen outside since suffering a stroke in 2013.
Paul Biya, Cameroon’s 83-year-old leader, spends extended periods in Switzerland.