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Malawians are missing their president. The last time that happened, the president was dead.

14 Oct 2016 Malawi
By Kim Yi Dionne, Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

Billboards of Malawi President Peter Mutharika flank the country’s main roads, like this one in Zomba, so that even when he’s abroad, Malawians can find him everywhere. (Kim Yi Dionne/Monkey Cage)

Originally posted on Monkey Cage Blog.

This post is part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa.

  Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

After attending the United Nations General Assembly last month, Malawi President Peter Mutharika has yet to return home. Malawians are wondering where he is and why he has been away so long.

Some Malawians are even joking about their president’s absence using the hashtag #BringBackMutharika, which trended on Twitter in Malawi.

But the government hasn’t found this spotlight on the president’s absence very funny. Moreover, the government is worried about rumors circulating that Mutharika has prolonged his time in the United States because he is ill and seeking medical treatment.

This week, a government spokesman issued two statements. The first was an exasperated plea to Malawians to “IGNORE THE RUMOURS,” saying that the president was “enjoying very good and robust health” and warning that spreading rumors about the president was a criminal offense. The second announced the president would return this coming Sunday, which means he will have been outside Malawi for a month. (These followed a statement last week that proclaimed Mutharika would have returned last weekend.)

Why is the government so preoccupied with quashing rumors about the president’s health? Because presidential ill health is something with which Malawians are recently familiar. Most have had the experience of a sitting president — Mutharika’s older brother — dying in office.

In 2012, President Bingu wa Mutharika died after suffering a heart attack. Although he died the morning of April 5, the State House issued a press statement later that day that he was ill and being flown to South Africa for medical treatment.

The following day, Malawi’s minister of information, Patricia Kaliati, and five other ministers appeared on the government-run TV broadcaster. Although the president had died more than 24 hours earlier, the ministers kept quiet about his condition, with Kaliati saying only that more information would be made available “in due course.” Kaliati asked the Malawians watching not to listen to any “misleading information” but to trust only official government sources — even as those same sources were actively concealing the president’s death.

It was on April 7 that the Office of the President and Cabinet finally announced Bingu wa Mutharika’s death. As I wrote in an article with Malawian political scientist Boniface Dulani, a faction of the ruling party delayed informing the public about Bingu’s death to stall until it could prepare an extra-constitutional succession plan.

Malawi’s constitution is clear: When a president dies, the vice president assumes office for the remainder of the president’s term. That eventually happened in 2012, but the intervening 48 hours were a test of Malawi’s democracy.

The secrecy surrounding Bingu wa Mutharika’s death in 2012 and the later revelation of a major corruption scandal that plagued his successor Joyce Banda have left Malawians with little trust in their government.

Afrobarometer, a public opinion survey measuring political attitudes, has been asking Malawians since 1999 how much they trust the president. The most recent survey, collected in 2014, registered the lowest trust ever measured for the president; 46 percent of Malawians said they did not trust the president at all — which was more than double the proportion reported in any earlier wave. Trust in the ruling party was also at an all-time low in 2014. Citizens’ trust in parliament in 2014 had also dipped from the previous wave.

Although Malawi’s government has changed since the 2014 Afrobarometer survey, I suspect Malawians continue to have low trust in the presidency. Low trust in government even seems reasonable given Peter Mutharika’s prolonged absence and the inconsistency of government statements about his absence.

My experience in Malawi leads me to also think that most Malawians wish their president good health and want him to return promptly. But if he — or one of his successors in the future — were to be ill, Malawians have opinions on what should happen.

Should Malawians be faced with another situation where their president is incapacitated or has died, they don’t want a repeat of what happened in 2012. Afrobarometer asked Malawians in 2014 whether they wanted to keep the current arrangement, where the vice president assumes the presidency until the next scheduled election. Alternatively, Afrobarometer asked if instead Malawians wanted there to be elections within three months of the president’s death to select a successor. Only a third of Malawians wanted to keep the current system; 63 percent preferred the fresh elections option.