Here’s how one of the world’s poorest countries could be transformed – Susan Dalgety

The dramatically reinstated Vice-President of Malawi, Saulos Chilima, tells Susan Dalgety that the government should borrow to invest in the country, one of the poorest in the world.
Malawis re-instated Vice-President, Saulos Chilima, says the country can become a middle-income economy (Picture: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)Malawis re-instated Vice-President, Saulos Chilima, says the country can become a middle-income economy (Picture: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)
Malawis re-instated Vice-President, Saulos Chilima, says the country can become a middle-income economy (Picture: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images)

This week has been a tale of two vice-presidents. America’s Uncle Joe, Obama’s right-hand man, Joe Biden, former Vice-President of the world’s richest country, stumbled from New Hampshire to South Carolina in search of the African American votes that may yet save his presidential ambitions.

But he looks a broken man, his ebullient personality dampened by the rise of noisy left-winger Bernie Sanders and the more moderate, if slightly duller, Pete Buttigieg. Vice President Biden’s retirement from the public stage may be only a few weeks away.

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Saulos Chilima, on the other hand, is a vice-president with a future. First elected as Malawi’s number two in 2014, the former telecoms chief executive failed in his bid to become his country’s youngest president last year. His former party boss, Peter Mutharika, won a second term.

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The country where average income is £263 a year and aid workers stay in £220-a-n...

Some said his political career had ended before he reached 50. “He is going back to the corporate world,” they whispered. But last Monday, Malawi’s constitutional court ruled the 2019 presidential election null and void, called for a new poll by 2 July, and in a move that surprised everyone, including Chilima, re-instated the 2014 presidential team until the new election.

‘Call to national duty’

Dressed in casual but smart sports gear, sitting behind the desk of his private office in one of Lilongwe’s leafier suburbs, Vice President Saulos Chilima looks more like a corporate boss working from home than a senior African leader.

Apart from the very friendly soldier on guard at the entrance to his home, there is no pomp or ceremony surrounding him. No entourage. No hangers-on. Just a few builders working on his home and that smiling soldier. “I’ll be with you in a moment,” he said, “Please sit,” he added, as he finished some paperwork.

A few minutes later he turned his full attention to me, and in perfect English, invited me to ask my questions. “We have 30 minutes,” he added, in a very business-like manner.

I glanced at my list. “Why did you give up a successful career as chief executive of Airtel to become a politician,” I asked, too quickly.

He relaxed. Then laughed. “I will repeat what I said before, it was a call to national duty. People told me that I had the potential to contribute to the greater good, so I discussed it with my family, with other people.

“Some told me politics was difficult, but I opted to set aside my private sector career to respond to the call, to see if my expertise, the knowledge that I had acquired over many years, could be used to benefit many more people than just myself.”

Marathon runner

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His CV is a glittering testament to a successful career in the private sector. An economist by trade, with a PhD in knowledge management, he worked for Unilever and Coca-Cola before joining Airtel Malawi, where he rose to chief executive. During his time in charge, the company grew from 375,000 customers in 2006 to 2.8 million by 2012.

And his sports gear is not for show. He runs marathons, is a regular gym-goer, and at 47, still plays basketball. “Our bodies are the best God-given gifts. These we must look after and invest in accordingly,” he said in a recent interview.

A devout Catholic, father of two children, Sean and Elizabeth, his wife Mary is regarded as a huge political asset. “She is full of life, very bright,” says one associate. “She will make a great first lady,” says another.

But first Chilima has to be elected President. He missed his first chance last year, when he came third with 20 per cent of the national vote. Lazarus Chakwera, leader of the MCP, polled 35 per cent and Chilima’s old boss scraped in with 38 per cent.

He won’t be drawn if he will stand in the new presidential elections in a few months’ time.

He smiled. “We will see, there are discussions happening,” he says, enigmatically, alluding to talks between his UTM party and other opposition groups.

Good governance

The numbers may look stacked against him, but the court’s ruling that the new election must be run on a 50 per cent plus one basis gives him a chance of victory. And what if he did become leader of one of the world’s poorest countries?

“I wish we had the luxury of saying this is priority number one, number two, number three. Unfortunately, we don’t.

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“Food security is an issue. Health is an issue. Unemployment. Education. Security. Gender is an issue.

“They need to be dealt with in tandem. But if we say, let’s try and do some prioritisation, we need to deal with food security once and for all. We must make our agriculture sector work properly.

“We also need to do away with avoidable diseases, through better health and education.

“Then you would begin to look at young people, the empowerment of women. We must develop our human capital.

“And for all of this to work, you must have good governance as the centre-piece. We need to get rid of fraud and corruption. The judgement last week showed the rule of law works here.”

‘Three meals a day’

The successful corporate boss who cites Coca-Cola’s business model as an inspiration is also a classic Keynesian. At times of trouble – and Malawi’s economy is most certainly suffering – Chilima believes the government should borrow to invest in the country’s future.

His party’s 2019 manifesto promised “one million jobs in one year”, a pledge that many ridiculed, not least the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi during a recent HARDtalk interview.

But Chilima is unabashed. “Of course, it can be done, it is doable,” he told me.

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“We have to find a way of jump-starting the economy. One way is a loan fund for the people who already have business. Invest there, so their businesses will grow, and they employ more people. Invest in the village banks, the co-operatives where people lend to each other to support economic activity.

“Invest in infrastructure, and the construction sector absorbs a lot of people immediately. They need suppliers, and they need to eat. The chain continues. We have a simple promise,” he says, drawing the interview to a close, 13 minutes after my allotted half hour.

“We want a happy nation, to be a middle-income economy where people enjoy three meals a day,” he says, walking me back to the gate. “And we can do it.”

Vice President Biden’s political career may be drawing to a close in the southern states of America, but here, in the heart of southern Africa, it feels as if Vice President Chilima’s is just about to take off.