personal tribute to a Malawian leader who stood against hunger and poverty but courted controversy

Saulos Klaus Chilima, the former vice-president of Malawi who died recently in a plane crash, brought to Malawian politics several qualities that made him stand out. But he was also a controversial character.

He had a business background and an unusual combination of social science and economics qualifications. Above all, he struck me as someone who was deeply committed to reducing hunger and poverty in Malawi.

I got to know Vice-President Chilima between 2016 and 2021 when I was leader of the International Food Policy Research Institute’s country programme in Malawi. The organisation’s mission is to provide research-based solutions to reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition.

In Malawi, we did this by working on food markets, pricing and trade, and conducting studies on humanitarian and other social safety policies. We also investigated priorities for agricultural investment. We always worked closely with government ministries, civil society and development partners.

During my five-year term I engaged about 12 times with Chilima, who had by then become the country’s vice-president. He spoke openly about corruption, hunger and poverty, and youth unemployment in Malawi, often using clear and straightforward language that didn’t win him friends.

In my view, Malawi has lost a politician many expected to win the 2025 presidential election. It has also lost an energetic, inspirational and progressive future leader. As he was only 51 years old and in robust health, he might have led Malawi for many years to come, and gone on to assume important regional or global leadership roles.

Early years

Saulos Chilima was born in 1973 in Ntcheu district in central Malawi, about half-way between the country’s two biggest cities, Lilongwe and Blantyre. He spent most of his early life in Blantyre. He attended a Catholic secondary school in Dedza district.

After graduating from the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College with a general degree in social sciences in 1994, he worked for Lever Brothers Ltd for a few years. He resumed his studies, graduating with a master’s in economics in 2005.

He went on to hold managerial positions in a number of firms, and became known for his brutal work ethic but fun-loving character, and his love of basketball and football. He became CEO of Airtel in Malawi in 2010.

He led the company through several notable innovations, including the introduction of Airtel Money and upgrading its network to 3G.

Outspoken and controversial

There were a number of occasions when Chilima spoke openly about corruption in the country. For example, in 2016-2017, when Malawi was facing a food emergency, he acknowledged that both hunger and corruption were endemic. The country needed both food aid and financial assistance: by early 2017, 6.5 million Malawians were receiving some kind of assistance and food had to be imported from neighbouring countries.

The crisis had begun in 2015 with late rains and flooding, and was compounded by policy failures.

Chilima acknowledged that there was inefficiency and corruption in the Malawian government, including the Department for Disaster Management Relief, which he headed. At the same time, he wasn’t afraid to criticise the United Nations and other donors, once telling the acting UN representative that she was being too defensive about the UN’s failings during the humanitarian response.

One of his memorable statements was in Lilongwe, the Malawian capital, at the Compact 2025 Roundtable in October 2017, where he said that “maize is not food”. He was referring to the urgent need to diversify Malawi’s heavily maize-based diet.

Chilima was echoing what nutritionists and food policy analysts had been saying for years. But having someone of his status say this in a public meeting made a huge difference. Within minutes everyone in the room, including the ministers of finance and health, a number of ambassadors and the International Food Policy Research Institute director general, were repeating this phrase.

He then wrote an article for Malawi’s The Nation entitled “Moving from relief to resilience”.

By mid-2018, Chilima’s political ambitions had got him embroiled in several bitter disputes with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, after he had announced that he would run for the presidency in the May 2019 elections. President Peter Mutharika sacked him in a cabinet reshuffle in November 2018 but could not remove him from the vice-presidency.

Chilima campaigned on economic development issues, in particular youth unemployment. This is a huge problem in Malawi. Around 43% of the population is under the age of 15, according to World Bank data. When combined with scarce land and natural resources and limited investment in industry and services, this means there are simply not enough high quality jobs to go around.

Young people in Malawi, particularly those living in rural areas who have not completed secondary education, have little alternative but to work in agriculture like their parents.

In May 2019, the International Food Policy Research Institute published a policy brief which questioned the feasibility of Chilima’s key election promise to create one million jobs in his first year in office. He subsequently softened his pronouncements on solving youth unemployment.

Chilima and many others challenged the election outcome – he and his party had come third – alleging vote rigging and other electoral malpractices. The Constitutional Court ruled in thier favour and said the elections had to be re-run within six months.

Then followed a period of upheaval in Malawian politics during which the vice-presidency was temporarily occupied by Democratic Progressive Party loyalist Everton Chimulirenji. During this time, the former vice-president forged the Tonse Alliance with the Malawi Congress Party and eight smaller opposition parties. He became the running mate of Lazarus Chakwera, the Malawi Congress Party’s presidential candidate. They were duly elected as president and vice-president of Malawi, respectively, with 59% of the popular vote.

Chilima also took on the role of economic planning and development minister, helping steer the Malawian economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was arrested in November 2022 on corruption charges and suspended from government duties. It was alleged that he had accepted money in return for awarding government contracts. The charges were eventually dropped in May 2024, a few weeks before his untimely and tragic death, by which time he had resumed his official duties as vice-president.

by : Bob Baulch, Professor of Economics, RMIT University Vietnam

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