Former minister in court, new-universities dream dashed

Malawi’s former education minister Peter Mutharika has appeared in court on treason charges. With this the dream of his brother, the late president Bingu wa Mutharika, to establish six new universities appears to be shattered.

The developments coincided with a demonstration by tertiary students this month over low allowances.

Peter Mutharika, who was education minister under Bingu wa Mutharika, is charged with plotting to block current President Joyce Banda from taking over the reins after his brother’s death last year.

The former education minister, who is now also the interim leader of his late brother’s Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, has presidential ambitions and is expected to run for that office next year.

Apart from the treason charges Mutharika, along with former cabinet ministers Goodall Gondwe, Jean Kalirani and interdicted chief secretary to government Bright Msaka, has also been charged with perjury. The matter was adjourned to 29 April.

Perjury is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment, while the penalty for treason is death.

Mutharika was education minister while the country was being rocked by academic freedom protests, and he was accused of doing nothing to tackle the crisis. His name was also linked to the death of student activist Robert Chasowa, whom the state now says was murdered even though the previous regime alleged that he committed suicide.

If the elder Mutharika had not died, the DPP party had planned that Peter Mutharika would assume leadership of the party and run for president in general elections scheduled for next year.

During his presidential tenure, Mutharika published a proposal to build six new universities over the next decade, but his dream seems to be crumbling under the new government. The institutions were to include:

Malawi University of Science and Technology in Thyolo for health and medical sciences, applied engineering and technology; Bangula University in Chikhwawa for cotton research and water resources management; Marine University in Mangochi for aquaculture and the Green Belt Initiative; Nkhota Kota University in Nkhota Kota to cover the hinterland; Mombera University in Mzimba for livestock development; and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Bunda.

During his time, Mutharika had negotiated a US$80 million Chinese loan for the new science and technology university, which has since been built, although funding problems have delayed the opening. The institution was to have an initial intake of 1,000 students.

The Chinese loan was said to have come from China's Export-Import Bank, with a repayment period of 20 years and a grace period of five years.

Recently, Malawi’s Public Universities Working Committee said that about US$75.8 million was needed for the university to open and be fully operational, but the government has no money.

Malawi’s cash problems have also slowed down implementation of the other projects, and prompted students to take to the streets, demonstrating over low food and accommodation allowances.