Malawi’s Catholic bishops write rare scathing letter to the President

By CDI Staff |
Malawi's President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera
Malawi's President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera attends the Climate Ambition Summit at the United Nations Headquarters on September 20, 2023 in New York City. | Kena Betancur/Getty Images

On February 25, 2024, the Catholic Church in Malawi released a letter on Facebook criticizing President Lazarus Chakwera’s government for corruption, nepotism and “glaring failure of leadership.” The the 14-page pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops of the Episcopal Conference was titled “The sad story of Malawi.” It was addressed to Malawians but directed at President Chakwera’s administration.

The bishops said that they decided to write a public letter after failed attempts to engage the government and the President on meaningful change on the governance of the country.

“Mindful of our prophetic role to be the voice of the voiceless, we have privately engaged the State President several times. Still, we fail to see any positive change in the general governance of our dear Malawi or any improvement in the plight of our poor brothers and sisters across the country,” noted the joint statement signed by 10 bishops including the President of the Episcopal Conference, Archbishop George Tambala. 

The letter, which was read in Malawian Catholic churches, detailed 10 areas of concern that the Episcopal Conference wants addressed immediately and comprehensively to stop the country from “sinking even further.” Wide-spread corruption, a compromised judiciary, false promises, religious intolerance, nepotism, victimization of elderly people and fruitless engagements with the President were some of the key areas of concern raised.

“Sadly, corruption has seeped into all areas of life in Malawi. This is the reality we are in now. Every effort has been made to systematically hollow out and weaken oversight institutions, almost all of which have now been rendered useless.”

Chakwera’s coalition government achieved a historic win over the then incumbent Peter Mutharika in 2020. The church has accused the government of taking people towards slavery instead of the ‘promised land’ that Chakwera’s government promised to deliver.

Malawi’s constitutional court overturned Mutharika’s election win on February 4, 2020 and then announced a fresh election. This resulted in a win for the opposition coalition of Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party and Saulos Chilima’s United Transformation Movement on the promise of getting rid of endemic corruption and creating a million jobs.

The coalition – called the Tonse Alliance – also rode to power on the back of popular street protests against the former president and his administration. Chakwera’s past life as a theologian and as a former President of the Malawi Assemblies of God added the much-needed credibility and impetus to the Tonse Alliance.

Golden Matonga, director of investigations at the Platform for Investigative Journalism in Malawi, notes that the celebration of a new dawn in Malawi was premature.

“Corruption, once again, has dogged the new government. A recent survey carried out by Afrobarometer found that two-thirds of Malawians believe corruption is getting worse under the Tonse Alliance,” Matonga told Chatamhouse.

A scandal has now threatened the stability of the coalition and by extension the government.  The president stripped the powers of his deputy and coalition partner, Chilima, for his alleged involvement in receiving money and gifts in return for awarding public contracts.  

The Catholic bishops expressed concern over persistent political squabbles.

“What is seen are continuous fights that either end in circles of expulsions of members from parties or court injunctions and cases. In our view, these are actions that are driving democracy backwards and have the potential to throw this country into chaos and further dehumanizing poverty.”

Responding to the clergy’s letter, Malawi’s Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu said that the government will continue to engage the church in national matters but, “we are not going to engage them in item-by-item response…”

The government has blamed the economic challenges on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine that exerted inflationary pressure and two devastating cyclones.