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Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
08LILONGWE389
2008-07-08 08:44:00
CONFIDENTIAL
Embassy Lilongwe
Cable title:  

MALAWI: RELIGION AND POLITICS A COMBUSTIBLE MIX IN

Tags:   PGOV  KDEM  MI 
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VZCZCXRO1760
RR RUEHLMC
DE RUEHLG #0389/01 1900844
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 080844Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY LILONGWE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5352
INFO RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/HQ USAFRICOM STUTTGART GE
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
						C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 LILONGWE 000389 

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR AF/S - E. PELLETREAU, ALSO FOR INR - RITA BYRNES

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/03/2018
TAGS: PGOV KDEM MI
SUBJECT: MALAWI: RELIGION AND POLITICS A COMBUSTIBLE MIX IN
2009

REF: A. LILONGWE 280

B. LILONGWE 366

Classified By: Political Officer John Letvin for Reason 1.4(d)



1. (C) Summary: Malawi's population has been strongly
influenced by Christian missionaries and Muslim slave traders
for over one hundred years. Most Malawians define their
identity primarily by region (northern, central or southern)
and by religion. Unlike many other Africans, Malawians
identify somewhat less strongly with their ethnic group. The
most politically-influential religious organizations in
Malawi remain the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian
(CCAP), the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM), and the
Catholic Church. While the CCAP remains split into synods
with widely differing political views, the Catholic Church
remains a relatively united national voice that comments on
the political environment annually in a pastoral letter. MAM
continues to be a strong advocate for the Muslim population,
primarily concentrated in southeastern Malawi, but a recent
decision by its leader, Sheikh Kanyamula, to support Cassim
Chilumpha as the United Democratic Front's presidential
candidate caused division in the organization and strained
relations with former president Bakili Muluzi. Since
churches and mosques are the only non-governmental
organizations that reach nearly every village in Malawi, most
religious leaders feel a duty to provide some form of civic
education. Such efforts, however, have complicated the
clergy's ability as mediators of political disputes, with
every major religious organization accused of some bias by
some stakeholder. Regardless of their differences, all major
religious leaders are somewhat concerned that religion will
continue to be politicized in the personal feud between
current President Mutharika, a Catholic, and Muluzi, a
Muslim. Such manipulation of faith could ultimately lead to
violence in the run-up to, and aftermath of, next May's
national elections.

Background


--------------------------





2. (U) Malawi has a population estimated at over 13 million,
of which approximately 80% are Christian and 13% are Muslim.
Malawi's religious make-up was greatly affected by
missionaries and the slave trade. Among missionary groups,
the Free Church of Scotland, the Dutch Reformed Church (South
Africa), and the Church of Scotland were the most important
in the early development of Christianity in Malawi,
establishing the Livingstonia, Nkhoma, and Blantyre Synods
respectively. The three synods eventually united to form the
Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) and remain the
largest Protestant denomination in Malawi. Islam, originally
established among the Yao people along the southern lakeshore
of Lake Malawi, arrived via slave traders from Zanzibar in
the 1870s. Although still largely concentrated in

southeastern Malawi, Muslims, nearly all adherents of Sunni
Islam, can now be found in all urban areas of Malawi. The
White Fathers brought Catholicism to Malawi in 1889, and the
Roman Catholic Church has since grown to be the largest
single denomination in the country with over two million
members. The Catholic bishops' March 1992 pastoral letter,
which criticized the economic disparity and restriction of
freedom in Malawi, is credited with starting the process that
led to democracy in Malawi. While other religions and
denominations exist in abundance in Malawi, the CCAP, Muslim
Association of Malawi (MAM), and the Roman Catholic Church
remain the most influential in politics today.

Livingstonia Synod - A Major Influence in the North


--------------------------



--------------------------





3. (SBU) The Northern Region of Malawi, home to the
CCAP-Livingstonia Synod, contains approximately ten percent
of Malawi's population. The Livingstonia Synod dates back to
1875, when it was founded by Dr. Robert Laws in honor of Dr.
David Livingstone. The synod has a history of promoting
education which over time has led to a more literate,
educated population in the northern region of Malawi than in
other parts of the country. This educational superiority led
during the colonial period to what many other Malawians
considered an overrepresentation of northerners in government
and other desirable jobs, and subsequently to a backlash and
discrimination. Northerners are predominantly Tambuka
speakers, while 80 percent of Malawi speaks Chichewa,
creating a second differentiating factor for the region.



4. (SBU) While the region's 33 seats in the 193-seat National
Assembly are more than it should have based on its

LILONGWE 00000389 002 OF 004


population, the region's perception that anti-Northerner
sentiment will block anyone from the region from winning the
presidency makes many still feel politically neglected.
Heading into the 2009 presidential elections, the
northern-based Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) party, which
captured all 33 seats in the 1994 election, has dwindled to a
lone parliamentarian in the National Assembly. AFORD's
decline has left the region up for grabs, and sweeping this
battleground region could potentially be the key to winning
the presidency in 2009. Political rumors continue to swirl
that President Mutharika could choose respected Minister of
Finance Goodall Gondwe, a popular MP from Mzimba in northern
Malawi, to be his running mate in 2009 in an attempt to
cement Northern region support.



5. (C) Reverend Howard Nkoma, General Secretary of the
CCAP-Livingstonia Synod, told emboff that he saw no reason
why the church could not make statements on politics that
were consistent with church beliefs. While adding that the
synod should remain non-partisan, Nkhoma also said he
believed Malawi was founded on Christianity. Nkoma made it
clear he had no love for former president Bakili Muluzi (a
Muslim) or the United Democratic Front (UDF). He said it was
wrong for the UDF to pursue implementation of the
floor-crossing prohibition of Section 65 after Muluzi
blatantly recruited opposition MPs to the UDF during his ten
years in power.



6. (C) However, Nkhoma did not give a free pass to Mutharika
and the DPP either. At the front of the secretariat
building, the Livingstonia Synod has a billboard that reads
in Tambuka, "No to Quotas, No to Chichewa". The sign is in
reference to recent initiatives -- backed by the GOM -- that
a regional quota system used from 1989-1994 for university
selection be reintroduced. The sign further protests the
Malawi Special Law Commission's suggestion that the
government update the Constitution to mandate Chichewa as the
national language of Malawi. In general terms, Nkhoma
suggested that the Northern region was being oppressed by
Malawi's larger central and southern regions, and that if
Mutharika reinforced this oppression through measures such as
quotas or language, he would lose the region no matter who
was his running mate.



7. (C) Rev. Maurice Munthali, Publicity Secretary for the
Public Affairs Committee (PAC) - an influential interfaith
civil society organization - and heir apparent to Nkhoma as
head of the Livingstonia Synod, has been one of the most
outspoken critics of Mutharika for violating the
Constitution. Munthali commented to emboff that much like in
the days of Kamuzu Banda, a country left to politicians alone
is very dangerous and civil society must provide balance to
politicians' desires. Munthali believed that while the North
appeared to favor DPP now, in the end a wide range of
independent and smaller party candidates endorsed by the
Synod would take most seats in the region as they did in 2005.



8. (C) Moses Mkandawire, Director of the Synod's Church and
Society program that provides civic education, has also been
outspoken about Mutharika and the DPP. Mkandawire publicly
blasted Mutharika in late April, saying politicians should
not make the public suffer for their personal differences and
condemned the non-listening attitude of Mutharika and the
DPP. The comments drew fire from DPP secretary general
Heatherwick Ntaba, who responded that the Livingstonia Synod
was "spiritually bankrupt". Although Ntaba later apologized,
in mid-May Mkandawire and Munthali both told emboff they were
warned they were on a list of civil society leaders who could
be arrested in conjunction with the alleged May coup attempt
(ref A). (Comment: Neither have been arrested, but the events
have harmed the relationship between DPP and the Livingstonia
Synod.)

Nkhoma Synod - For the Central Region and the MCP


--------------------------



--------------------------





9. (SBU) The Central region of Malawi has 40 percent of the
country's population and is the stronghold of the Malawi
Congress Party (MCP), the polticial vehicle of former
dictator Kamuzu Banda. Banda's roots in the Central region,
and his resulting favoritism towards its people, helped
entrench the party even beyond Banda's rule, but the CCAP
Nkhoma Synod has also played a part. The Nkhoma Synod,
founded by missionaries from the Dutch Reformed Church of
South Africa in 1889, joined the Livingstonia and Blantyre
Synods in 1926 to form the CCAP. Due to its strong ties with
South Africa, the Synod benefited from the MCP government's
recognition of apartheid South Africa. While 89% of the

LILONGWE 00000389 003 OF 004


Northern region and 85% of the Southern region voted for a
multi-party system in Malawi's historic 1993 referendum on
democracy, only 32% of those in the Central region supported
the shift away from MCP's one-party rule.



10. (C) Pastor Canaan Phiri, head of the Malawi Council of
Churches, told emboff that the Nkhoma Synod is still 100%
behind the MCP. Chris Chisoni National Coordinator of the
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) hypothesized
that Nkhoma Synod still remembers the relationship it had
with MCP presidential candidate John Tembo when Tembo was the
right hand of Kamuzu Banda, and there was little chance of
anyone moving the Synod -- and by default, the region -- away
from the MCP.


Muslim Association of Malawi - Divided in the East


--------------------------



--------------------------





11. (C) While Malawi's core Muslim areas were staunchly UDF
in the 1994-2004 elections, new leadership at the Muslim
Association of Malawi (MAM) has sought to disassociate the
organization from politics in general and the UDF in
particular. Sensitive to past claims that if you were not a
UDF supporter you were not Muslim, Sheikh Yusuf Kanyamula,
chairman of MAM, said the organization would prefer to see
Muslims act as a balance of power between Christian groups.
He said the group's primary interest was to stop people from
allowing democracy to backslide, citing corruption and
disrespect of the constitution as the two main problems in
Malawi government. The views have made Kanyamula a critic
(and target) of both Mutharika and Muluzi. Kanyamula's hope
is that a new generation of Muslim leaders will arise to take
the reigns from Muluzi, who Kanyamula believes has already
had his turn. Kanyamula was recently a strong supporter of
Cassim Chilumpha, the current vice-president and another
Muslim, in his bid to unseat Muluzi as the UDF candidate, but
told emboff he feared violence if he attended the April UDF
convention. (Comment: With Muluzi's selection as the UDF
candidate in April, it is now unclear what influence
Kanyamula and MAM can have with the UDF.)



12. (C) Sheikh Imran Mohammed, a prominent theology lecturer
at University of Malawi and member of the PAC board,
concurred with Kanyamula's assessment that politics is
becoming a divisive issue for Muslims. Mohammed told emboff
that religious tension is being created by politics where
little previously existed. Mohammed commented that in this
environment, little disagreements, such as last year's
decision to begin teaching a Christian-based Bible Knowledge
class in primary school, could be magnified. Both Mohammed
and Kanyamula believed the further use of Christian-Muslim
divisions for political gain could foment violence in hotly
contested districts such as Machinga, Balaka, and Liwonde in
the next elections.

Catholics - National Reach


--------------------------





13. (C) Based on their ground-breaking 1992 pastoral letter,
which criticized the one-party state for a growing gap
between rich and poor and noted serious restriction of
freedoms including censorship, the Catholic Church has been
seen as a leader in the political formation of a democratic
Malawi. More cohesive than the CCAP, the Catholic Church
continues to use its national reach and its widely-read
annual pastoral letter to comment on the current political
situation. This year's letter entitled "Taking
Responsibility for Our Future" focused on the democratic
climate in Malawi and the May 2009 elections. Some
opposition politicians expressed discontent with this year's
letter, claiming it lacked the fire of previous documents
from the Banda and Muluzi years. They believed that
Mutharika's Catholic roots were muting the Church's criticism.



14. (SBU) In the letter, the bishops condemned the lack of
intra-party democracy, pointing out that dictatorships at the
party level lead to dictatorial tendencies once in
government. The letter pleaded for the executive and
legislative branches to put an end to the overuse of the
judiciary to solve political disagreements. Notably, the
bishops admonished the opposition, saying if it exists only
to oppose the government in an attempt to appease its leaders
then Malawi will suffer. On the other hand, the letter also
called on the government to respect the rule of law and seek
compromises. Regarding the 2009 elections, the bishops
expressed the need for an independent electoral commission,
impartial observers, and peaceful campaigning. The letter's

LILONGWE 00000389 004 OF 004


boldest admonishments regarded the practice of buying votes
through handouts, the media's use of inflammatory language to
breed hatred, and political leaders who are unwilling to work
together.



15. (C) In conversations with Bishop Ste-Marie of the
Lilongwe diocese and Bishop Zuza of the Mzuzu diocese, both
commented to emboff that the Catholic Church tries to stay
non-partisan and that the church's criticisms in the pastoral
letter applied to all political leaders. Zuza admitted it
was difficult for the Catholic Church to get away from the
public perception that the Church supported Bingu, however.
Zuza also said that although Archbishop Ziyaye was leading
the clergy's current mediation efforts, he did not believe
political leaders were really listening (ref B).


16. (C) Chris Chisoni of CCJP became a target of the UDF
recently after a draft document from the organization with
his name was leaked to the press. The document stated the
case for why CCJP, which plays an advisory role to the
bishops, should oppose Muluzi bid to run for a third term.
Although the document focused only on the constitutional
nature of Muluzi's bid, Chisoni said the UDF quickly tried to
politicize the religious source of the document and make it
the position of the entire Catholic Church. Chisoni said
although the Church strives to maintain neutrality, it was
impossible to regulate the political beliefs of all priests
and individuals in the church. Chisoni further echoed the
sentiments of Malawi Council of Churches Chair Rev. Phiri and
PAC Publicity Secretary Rev. Munthali on the difficulties
that religious organizations in Malawi are facing, being
asked to serve the dual role of advocates for democracy and
mediators of political disputes which has left no party
appearing to be impartial.


The Politics of the Christian-Muslim Divide


--------------------------





17. (C) Comment: Religion, more than tribalism, reinforces
regionalism in Malawi. Whether Protestant, Catholic, or
Muslim, in the North, Central, or Southern region, all
religious leaders expressed fears that politicians seeking to
mobilize support or take retribution for perceived slights
would continue to politicize religion. This politicization
will be most alarming in the Southern region, where both
Muluzi and Mutharika have their power bases. Many church
leaders said there was at least a "medium risk" for violence
in the South based on religion. Bishop Ste-Remi recounted
how the Bishop of Mangochi had previously had his home
surrounded by Muslims for a perceived bias against the UDF;
Bishop Zuza told stories of mosques being burned near tobacco
farms in the North during the 1999 elections when religion
was less of a factor in the political dynamic than today.
All religious leaders stressed that their organizations would
be reaching out to their congregations through civic and
voter education programs that advocate for peaceful
elections, yet in past elections, observers said even MAM,
CCAP, and CCJP civic education programs have been tinged with
bias. With religion an obvious differentiating factor
between Muluzi and Mutharika, it remains the spark most
likely to ignite violence in Malawi during elections next May.



18. (C) Despite the comments of Munthali, Chisoni, and Phiri
regarding the difficulty of being advocates for democracy and
mediators of disputes, it should be noted that during the
current political impasse, church leaders have now been
turned to on two occasions to find a way forward. In the
current mediation sessions, a five-person team uniting the
Catholic Archbishop of Malawi, a leader of the CCAP, Sheikh
Kanyamula from MAM, as well as leaders from the Malawi
Council of Churches and the Evangelical Association of
Malawi, have met with all political leaders. Both the
government and opposition sides still view this broad-based
interfaith team as the most trustworthy and neutral mediators
in Malawi. While the mediation team may not succeed in
reaching a compromise solution, it will not be because of a
lack of legitimacy as the mediators prove that religious
leaders from different faiths can still work together toward
a more democratic Malawi.
EASTHAM