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President who lost control of his puppet

For a man facing more than 80 charges of corruption, totalling around US$14 million (Dh51m), Bakili Muluzi is remarkably indignant.

LIMBE, MALAWI // For a man facing more than 80 charges of corruption, totalling around US$14 million (Dh51m), Bakili Muluzi is remarkably indignant. "We felt very, very betrayed," Mr Muluzi insisted, referring to the successor he hand-picked as head of state and whom he is now trying to dislodge in elections in two months' time. The bitter struggle for power in Malawi, a small country at the southern end of Africa's Rift Valley, is a potential object lesson for those leaders, such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, who hope to rule through proxies after their allotted terms are up. Mr Muluzi was instrumental in bringing multiparty democracy to the country and ousting the reviled dictator, Hastings Banda, at the first such polls in 1994, before being re-elected five years later. While he deserves much credit for his role in removing Banda, a notoriously repressive leader, his own rule became mired in scandal, and after trying and failing to change the constitution to allow him to seek a third term, he installed the little-known Bingu wa Mutharika as presidential candidate for his United Democratic Front, expecting him to follow his dictates. Since his election in 2004, Mr wa Mutharika has proved anything but pliable, breaking away from the UDF to form his own party, sidelining Mr Muluzi's supporters, and having his predecessor arrested for corruption. Now the former president plans to stand against his former protégé, arguing that the constitutional limits on office only apply to consecutive terms. But behind the legal arguments and pontifications - a decision is expected this week on his eligibility - lies an illustration of the brazen nature of African power. In his sprawling compound in Limbe, on the edge of the southern city of Blantyre, where a 22-seat mirrored conference table surrounds a display of plastic greenery and orange lights, Mr Muluzi dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated. "It's the usual African politics when you find someone strong and popular," he said. "Banda arrested me seven times; I won freedom for our people and the same thing is repeating. It's usual in Africa. In 2004 this president actually won because I was there and assisting him; that's why they are fighting me." The meaning of assisting him may be explained by Dumbo Lemani, a late confidant of Mr Muluzi, who was reported to have claimed that the party rigged the election in Mr wa Mutharika's favour. Mr Muluzi, 60, said he felt "very betrayed" by the incumbent's split from the UDF, and it was the main reason for his attempting a comeback. "I believe in democracy. This man is taking us back to dictatorship. It's terrible here in terms of human rights. I fought for pluralism in this country. Bingu is wanting to bring us back to a one party state. I'm not going to allow that." As far as the corruption case is concerned, he admits that there were transfers into his bank account from Morocco, Rwanda and Taiwan, but insists they were all above board. "I have been in office for 10 years, I had a party to run. It's not as if I have got 14 million today: I don't have. It's not as if I opened a foreign account. There's no corruption, nothing." Humphrey Mvura, his party spokesman, went further. "As the president if he wanted to plunder some aspects of the economy, he would have done a lot more than what's being talked about," he said. "They see it coming from Morocco, they think this must be black money; they see it coming from Rwanda or from a bank in China or Taiwan, they think it must be black money. "It's normal, if you are a sitting president you ask your colleagues, 'Look, I'm going through an election, can you assist me?' It came straight from abroad into his account, there were no transfers from the reserve bank, no transfers from any government account." Behind the protestations it was an extraordinary admission, even though foreign funding of political parties is legal in Malawi, and Mr Mvura also insisted that having been elected on a UDF platform, the party could take credit for Mr wa Mutharika's reforms. "We are the chiefs who have brought in that change," he said - using words that assume a right to rule. In terms of electoral support Malawi is regionally divided, with Mr Muluzi's backers - to whom he has a habit of tossing 50-kwacha notes (Dh1) - concentrated in the south, and confident of victory. "We love Muluzi because he is a good leader," said Barnett Nyumbu, 34, a driver, outside the compound. But Nandini Patel, chairman of the Institute for Political Interaction, a think tank, said: "During Muluzi's tenure, corruption was rampant; anyone would say that. It was commonly known that every project that went through there was a 10-per-cent cut. It was a corrupt regime. He never made up his mind to be out of power." Even though she expects Mr wa Mutharika, who has impressed donors since taking office, to win the poll she expressed deep concerns about him, pointing out he had given himself the title of Ngwazi, or chief of chiefs, an honour previously claimed by Banda. Under the despot's rule, Malawians dropped their voices when talking about him, and she does the same when referring to the current president. "This is a dictator in the making," she said, pointing out that relatives of hers have been threatened with consequences to their businesses because of her political activities. "I was scared of Muluzi; I'm scared of Bingu. I never met Banda, but it's no different, it's the same. They all come from the same culture."

sberger@thenational.ae

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