Written by: Tony Stiglitz

The heavy current of breaking news reports that flooded Malawi’s airwaves, social media, blogs and print following the announcement of Mtambo’s decision to get into cut throat politics was simply overwhelming to so many people and on so many levels. This was a big event, and one too big to ignore. It is undeniable that for a story relating to a larger than life character of his stature, everyone will have something to say, and so as expected, in the spirit of constitutional freedom of expression on an issue related to it’s very proponent, there was no platform short of diverse commentary and opinion.
Some have hailed the move as genius, others have equated it to a deserter in war time while still more see it as a time for others to rise to the occasion, especially Trapence and Sembereka.

But the million kwacha question, the elephant in the room, is how did this happen, how did he get here - to this decision, what’s the long-term impact of such a decision on himself, and what will be the implication of this move on civil society, and on Malawian politics.

Evison Chizza Nkhoma calls Mtambo’s going into frontline politics “a genius move” while being uncomfortable with the loss of popularity, and at times even credibility, that has dogged civil society leaders once they transition to politics, a case in point being Mabvuto Bamusi, Kamlepo Kalua and Mwakasungura.

In Thokozire’s WhatsApp opinion, she states that contrary to alternative views, it was not his being HRDC Chair that made Mtambo a lightning rod, but his charisma - a trait that he is known to possess in deep reservoirs capable of carrying him safely into the foreseeable political future.
It goes without saying that the essence of having strong civil society leaders with such traits is their capacity to seamlessly provide the desired leadership as regards putting necessary checks on the conduct of affairs by various society players, something that will now be lost. As Wilson Chawaza Phiri puts it, in contrast to politics, “I would prefer a very vibrant human rights activist in the likes of Mtambo who can provide checks on the government, whichever government it is.”

Chawaza Phiri’s sentiment is a reflection on a popular sentiment that sees the recent spate in demonstrations as a necessary social phenomenon, something Malawi has not seen for some time to date – probably not since the pre-1994 democracy movements led by Chakufwa Chihana – but essential.

In her Facebook opinion, Manganaye Kambauwa echoed a popular sentiment, calling the move strategic. “HRDC cannot be allowed to endorse or start a political party. That’s why he has left HRDC….”

According to Kambauwa, Mtambo’s plan is to capitalize on his charisma, his crowd pulling capacity - and the fact that people listen to him, in bringing support to his preferred side, something he couldn’t have done in his role as a civil society personality.

The sudden announcement comes on the heels of Mtambo’s recent surrender to the Police in compliance with an arrest warrant issued earlier in March 2020. Since his release on bail, Mtambo went on what many saw as some sort of a with draw, and questions lingered on whether the custody suite had softened him to some remarkable extent.
There was little if any in the form of active communication, from Mtambo himself or from HRDC, until Saturday the 28th March 2020 when his interviews were featured in both Weekend Nation and Malawi News.
Could it be safe to say that it was during this time that he made the decision to jump from the Frying Pan of civil society into the flames of political fire? Is this when he began plotting the necessary moves that would lead to the decision and the announcement? Did the arrest act as a furnace where he underwent some sort of smelting process that brought out a man very different from the one who went in,  bent on taking down the forces that he now increasingly came to see as an emblem of elements ready to tear the constitution in service of self?

Mtambo’s speeches have always tended to advocate for the upholding of the rights of the people, no matter the public perception. That is what people will miss, because there is something unique in the content and the delivery of his message that makes you trust him, something that says he will go to the ends of the earth to defend that which he believes in to be right.
A few months after the 2019 elections, he had an interview with Zodiac radio where he stated in no uncertain terms that he will always defend what is right even if it’s not popular, a case in point being the issue of LGBTQ rights, a subject that has the knack to bring out the worst in human emotion.
That’s why it’s no surprise that in the announcement signaling his entry into politics, Mtambo said he is doing this as a way to help rescue Malawi from what he deems - not in so many words - to be the fangs of “accidental and transactional politics”. He even goes as far as referring to his Citizens for Transformation as “a liberation and transformation movement. “
There is a certain inkling in Mtambo’s pronouncement, one that says it’s time he took the human rights fight up a notch by taking on - right from the very trenches of political warfare where he will have more room for unfettered maneuvers - what he sees as opponents of human rights.

He referred to the targets of his mission as “impunity, executive arrogance and economic stagnation”, for “the change which all Malawians aspire for, a rescue from what he calls ‘clueless, oppressive and corrupt rule’ for a meaningful, inclusive social, political and economic transformation for all,” declaring it “a time to wear revolutionary boots, step out and demand what the citizens need.”
It’s easy to look at his messaging and wonder who is talking, a human rights activist or a politico. That’s because the man and his message have not changed. From where he is standing, the game has changed and to win it, you need to get muddy.

So when did these ideas start building up inside him. Definitely not within a few weeks. Such ideas take long. But it is also completely possible that it all came to a head with the arrest, a resolve solidifying step of sorts, seeing no reason why something he deemed to be a harmless remark - with its only purpose being to enforce what he saw as a constitutional obligation - would be used as a reason to arrest a “law abiding citizen” in a democracy, as put by his lawyer Khwima Mchizi.

Politics has been known to be a ‘kill or get killed' domain where people play dirty to survive and rise to the upper rungs of the political pecing order. Looking at Mtambo’s civil society background, most of those who heed his call before his days of politics are worried about things like whether he is hard enough- in the political sense -  to sustain attacks of different forms in varying degrees, and whether he will be up to scratch and not the sort that will throw a grenade for an inbound missile, or bring a razor blade to a panga fight. You get the drift.

His decision to endorse the MCP-UTM Alliance is an indicator of how the politics will play out, at least in the foreseeable future. The impact of working alongside veterans like Chilima and Chakwera will only be gauged later on, probably after the elections but what’s obvious is that proceedings will definitely see a shakeup.
Maurice Munthali, Publicity Secretary for MCP, wished Mtambo “all the best in his new role as Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed Citizens for Transformation.” Earlier in the same communication, he makes reference to the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi which “provides for the rights, freedoms and choices of any citizen in terms of association and calls Mtambo’s endorsement for the opposition alliance as “a morale booster.”

It’s no secret that not many people knew what HRDC was all about before Mtambo took over the helm in his role as Chairman. That’s the other reason why people who believe in the robustness of the civil society are worried about his departure. People are still yet to find out whether Trapence or Sembereka have what it takes to lead in the trenches of the perpetual war being waged against the rights of many a man, woman, child and other members of society whom certain societal elements have deemed it right to confine to outer fringes of society as undesirables. Do they though? Only time will tell.


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