From Private sector to political icon: Malawians mourn Chilima

On December 6th, 2023, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, I received a phone call that would etch itself in my memory forever. The caller identified himself as Dr. Luckie Sikwese, a Principal Secretary in the Office of the Vice President of Malawi. I had just arrived in Malawi, excited and full of anticipation to launch my first book, “Funding Handbook: Navigating Resources with Purpose.” Chiko had just picked me up from the airport, and we were still within the airport premises when the call came through.

Dr. Sikwese informed me, “Mr. Yakobe, the Vice President is considering attending your book launch as a guest of honor next week. I will confirm with you on Monday through a letter.” The news was exhilarating. My marketing team, led by Chimwemwe Chiweza and Talumba Ndilowe, had delayed releasing the final poster for the event, awaiting this crucial confirmation to create a buzz on social media.

Although the Vice President couldn’t ultimately attend, I deeply appreciated the thought and the plan. It was an immense honor that the second-highest official in the country even considered attending the launch of a book by an unknown young man like myself. However, my name, “Peter Yakobe,” was not entirely new to the Vice President. Our paths first crossed in 2016 when I was selected as a Mandela Washington Fellow for the Young African Leaders Initiative. The then US Ambassador to Malawi, Virginia Palmer, took us, the fellows, to meet the Vice President. During that meeting, he shared his personal number, which I used to communicate with him over the years.

In one instance, he delegated the then Minister of Youth, Francis Kasaila, to attend an event in Zomba on his behalf. Two years ago, I had the privilege of presenting a report to him while working with the National Youth Council of Malawi (NYCOM), alongside my colleagues Felix Chiyenda and Mclean Banda, and the then Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Youth, Dr. Oliver Kumbambe, and Director of Youth, Judith Msusa.

Tragically, on June 10th, 2024, Vice President Saulos Chilima died in a plane crash in Chikangawa Forest, in the northern part of Malawi. The nation was plunged into sorrow, reminiscent of the profound grief Americans felt when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in 1963.

Why have Malawians mourned Chilima so deeply, even though some did not agree with his politics and methods? Chilima entered the political arena in 2014, chosen by President Arthur Peter Mutharika as his running mate. Three years later, he made headlines by forming his own party, accusing his former party of corruption and nepotism, allegations which they denied. He then contested against his former party and Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), finishing in a distant third place. However, the elections were annulled by the high court, leading to a re-run where Chilima partnered with Chakwera. Together, they won the elections, with Chakwera becoming President and Chilima as the Vice President.

Malawians have mourned Chilima because he introduced non-tribal politics in a country where political allegiance often follows tribal lines. Chilima attracted supporters from all over the country, transcending tribal affiliations. Despite not garnering enough votes to become President, his approach signaled a significant shift. Coming from the private sector, Chilima brought a refreshing blend of hard work, innovation, and efficiency to government operations, qualities sorely lacking in the traditional political landscape.

Chilima inspired Malawians to dream and showed them that government could operate differently, producing excellent results and fostering a free and prosperous society for all. He infused energy and seriousness into governmental affairs, characteristics that set him apart from other leaders vying for the upcoming elections. As a proud Malawian, I am grateful for the opportunities I had to meet and interact with the late Vice President. His legacy of vision, integrity, and commitment to public service will continue to inspire us. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

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