This post is part of our International Relations & Security coverage.
Years of diplomatic incidents between Malawi and Zambia culminated recently in Zambia’s donation of five million liters of fuel to Malawi. The gift was ostensibly for the funeral of the country’s late President Bingu wa Mutharika, who died on 5 April 2012, after a heart attack. The political wrangling that has led up to this gesture, however, has a complicated backstory.
In 2007, Michael Sata – then the Zambian opposition leader – travelled to Malawi for a private visit, but was deported on arrival at Chileka Airport and driven 400 kilometers back to Zambia. Four years later, Sata was elected Zambia’s president.
At the time of his deportation from Malawi, Sata reportedly joked that Bingu had given him a fully fueled Lexus GX with a private chauffer (i.e., the immigration officer) for the journey, which was far more than Levy Mwanawasa, then the President of Zambia and Sata’s political opponent, had ever done.
Shortly after Sata’s election as President he was automatically invited to attend a heads-of-state summit for COMESA, the Common Market for East and Southern Africa. As the summit was being held in Malawi, however, where Sata’s deportation was still pending in the courts, the new Zambian president declined to attend the summit, telling a Malawian special envoy:
“His Excellency Bingu wa Mutharika is aware of the predicament I am in. I would have loved to take this trip as my first official foreign visit. I thought you were bringing the revocation [of the deportation case] but you have not. Once you have rectified those issues I will come some other time.”
In Sata’s place, the Zambian government sent its Vice President Dr Guy Scott to the summit. The next time Sata would meet the Malawian leader was in South Africa at the centenary celebrations of the ruling African National Congress.
“As President Mutharika, who arrived late for the dinner, walked past where the Zambian head of state sat at the VIP table, President Sata stood up and the duo – previously regarded as enemies – hugged, exchanged “kind words” and laughed.
After they hugged, President Sata asked Mutharika, “kumunzi kuli bwanji? How is the village?” and the Malawian leader responded: “kuli bwino. Nanga mubwela liti? The village is okay. When are you coming (to Malawi)?
In his response, President Sata told Mutharika, “tizamu uzani. We will tell you.”
Zambia and Malawi share common languages and customs along their border, which stretches from Mozambique in the south to Tanzania in the north.
A few months earlier, however, Joyce Banda (then the vice-president of Malawi, and now the president) had been to Zambia to attend the neighboring country’s independence celebrations on a trip that did not go down well with the Bingu administration. When she arrived in Malawi, she was threatened with arrest allegedly because her trip had not been officially authorized by the Malawian government.
Unfortunately, President Bingu died shortly thereafter, leaving behind a shattered economy in the grips of serious shortages of foreign exchange, electrical power and fuel, with Joyce Banda taking over as president.
The afore-mentioned donation of fuel to Malawi was the first significant display of Zambia’s acceptance of President Banda’s new government. The irony of all ironies, though, is that, in the Banda administration, Zambian President Sata’s Malawian lawyer, Ralph Kasambara, is now Malawi’s Justice Minister.
Regarding the donation of fuel, Zambia’s Energy Minister Christopher Yaluma, who had travelled to Malawi, said in April:
“This flagging off [for the shipments of fuel] being witnessed today is a mere donation towards the funeral arrangements of the deceased president. Yesterday 15 fuel tankers left and will have reached Malawi this morning.”
Because of the shortage of electricity to power refrigeration facilities in Malawi, President Mutharika’s body was transferred to South Africa, where he was buried on April 23.