Catholic bishops, Mutharika on collision course

05 Nov 2010
Lilongwe - Nine Catholic bishops in Malawi last Sunday released a pastoral letter questioning the administration of President Bingu wa Mutharika on various governance issues.In the epistle, the bishops accuse the government ofr lack of consultations on national issues.Titled ’Reading the Signs of the Times’, the letter, which was read in all Catholic Churches across the country, the bishops had noted with “concern” that “proper consultations on matters of national issues were not being done.”It specifically refered to the recent directive to change the national flag, the postponement of the municipal elections and the government’s move to allow the president to set municipal elections date.“Much as the government has a right to propose changes on areas of national importance, proper consultations are imperative if the resulting decision is to be upheld as representing the will of the majority and the common good.“Consultations must give room to contrary opinions and allow for debate and dialogue,” reads part of the statement adding: “If this is not done, it leads to intimidation of individuals or institutions.”Government early this year launched an expensive campaign mainly targeting villagers, to entice them to change the country’s national flag which Malawi had flown since independence from Britain in 1964.“Things have changed and we are in a new era,” Mutharika said when he unveiled the new flag, adding that flags depict developments in a nation. A full sun over black, red and green replaces the independence flag’s half-rising sun which Mutharika said was “inherited from the British as part of their claim that they had brought light in darkness”. “We cannot continue to be at dawn in 2010 as we were in 1964,” he said. “We can’t continue to leave in the past.” The current epistle is the first direct attack on Mutharika’s administration by the Catholic church, the largest religious group in Malawi with a following of close to four million people. The church is largely credited with initiating political change in Malawi by issuing another challenging epistle titled ‘Living Our Faith’ to the dictatorship of the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda in 1992.This followed the change of government from a signgle party state to a multi party democracy with President Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front as the first democratically elected leader since 1964. The bishops, led by the head of the powerful Catholic church in Malawi, to which both Mutharika and First Lady Callista belong, challenged with “dismay the continuous unbalanced reporting and news coverage by state media.”Read two days after government banned the Weekend Times the statement said “Informed decisions are made by an informed public…the public media, paid with tax payers, have to ensure that the general public remains informed.”The statement attacked the continued postponements of the local government elections, now slated for 2011.It also noted that “this year there is an indication that we have another food surplus” and urged government to move swifly in areas where there are some pockets of hunger.The bishops also noted the souring relations between the president and his deputy, Vice-President Joyce Banda. Since some sections in the ruling DPP started campaigning for the president’s brother, EducationMinister Peter Mutharika, to succeed the elder Mutharika when he retires in 2014, Banda has been a subject of ridicule and vilification in the state media. The bishops noted: “We are concerned with the lack of respect to the Office and the person of the Vice-President. We ask the Government to see to it that the Office of the Vice-President be given all respect and necessary support.” Government officials refused to respond to the letter.