Saulos Chilima
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Saulos Chilima: Malawian businessman who became political kingmaker

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Malawi's Vice President Saulos Klaus Chilima in this picture taken on May 21, 2019.

Photo credit: File | Reuters

Saulos Klaus Chilima was a polished politician, which in itself can be an oxymoron.

A doctorate here, experience in managing multinationals there, and later vice president of Malawi. Then a corruption scandal.

But when he died on Monday, all the bad press about him disappeared.

Even Dr Lazarus Chakwera, Malawi's president, described him as a "good man". He had wanted prosecutors to nail him for corruption. But last month they dropped the charges. They gave no reason.

On Tuesday, he was declared dead from a plane crash the day before.

The country's military had spent more than 20 hours combing the forested areas of Mzuzu, north of the capital Lilongwe, before they found his plane, which had crashed deep into the trees.  

Devoted father and husband

"Dr Saulos Chilima was a good man, a devoted father and husband, a patriotic citizen who served his country with distinction and an outstanding Vice-President," President Chakwera said in a televised statement.

His plane, a German-made Dornier 228 twin-engine turboprop, had left Lilongwe's Kamuzu International Airport at 7.48am local time for Mzuzu airfield, some 370km north of the capital.

He was to attend the funeral of Malawi's former attorney general, Ralph Kasambara. But he would never arrive.

Visibility was poor in the north and air traffic controllers advised the plane to return to Lilongwe instead. "The authorities soon lost contact with the plane," said Chakwera. It was found in the Chikangawa forest near Mzuzu.

Chilima was travelling with nine people, including the military crew. Most of the others were members of his party: United Transformation Movement (UTM).

Those on board included Lucas Kapheni, Gloria Mtukule, the vice president's bodyguard Chisomo Chimaneni, Shanil Dzimbiri, the vice president's doctor Dan Kanyemba, Abdul Lapukeni and the crew, identified only by their names as Colonel Sambalopa, Major Selemani and Major Aidin.

Chilima was 51, but his political career was just beginning. Born in February 1973 from the Ngoni tribe in Ntcheu district in central Malawi, Chilima was a devout Catholic and even held leadership positions within the church. 

Political career

He was a hardworking man, according to his party.

He wore a grey beard and his charisma made him one of Malawi's most sought-after political talents. At political rallies, he spoke in parables, chiding opponents without necessarily naming them. In his political career, he helped two presidents win elections as their running mate.

It began in 2013, when former President Peter Mutharika chose him from the private sector, where he had been a technology executive (he was the managing director of the mobile network provider Airtel Malawi), to be his running mate ahead of the 2014 elections.

In February 2014, Dr Chilima was announced as the running mate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

He would part ways with Prof Mutharika after four years in 2018, becoming the biggest critic of the government he helped form.

He accused Mutharika of running a corrupt government. And ahead of the 2019 elections, Chilima formed the United Transformation Movement (UTM) party, on whose ticket he contested the presidency against Mutharika.

Dr Chilima, with Dr Michael Usi as his running mate, came third with 20.24 per cent of the vote and UTM won 4 seats in the National Assembly.

But fate would make him vice president under Chakwera.

The events of 2019 meant that Malawi became only the second country in Africa, after Kenya, to have a presidential election annulled by the courts on the grounds of irregularities (in fact, in 2010, a Constitutional Council, a quasi-judicial body, had controversially overturned the Ivorian election between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, awarding victory to Gbagbo).

After the Malawian courts rejected Mutharika's victory and ordered a new election, Chilima saw an opportunity.

He formed an alliance with Chakwera's Malawi Congress Party and became his running mate. They won in May 2020. Known as the Tonse Alliance, it actually brought together nine opposition parties in the hope of upsetting Peter Mutharika's government.

They won. It also meant that Malawi became the first country in Africa to have an election result both overturned by a court and then lost by the incumbent president in a re-run. 

Graft scandal

Whether he was planning to run for the presidency in the next election may never be known.

But his party had hinted at such a possibility, initially seeing it as persecution from his boss's decision to hound him ahead of an anti-corruption prosecution.

In June 2022, Dr Chilima suffered a setback when he was stripped of his delegated powers as vice president for his involvement in a $150 million graft scandal.

He was later arrested in November 2022 on allegations of receiving a $280,000 bribe from British businessman Zuneth Sattar for helping his companies Xaviar Ltd and Malachitte FZE secure contracts with the Malawi Defence Force.

Dr Chilima regularly denied any wrongdoing until last month, when the charges were dropped by the National Prosecuting Authority, which filed a notice of discontinuance.

No reasons were given for the decision to drop the charges. But his party had always claimed it was a political witch-hunt.

Chilima holds a doctorate in knowledge management from the University of Bolton, a master's degree in economics and a bachelor's degree in social sciences, computer science and economics from the University of Malawi.

Prior to politics, he worked for Unilever, Coca-Cola and Airtel Malawi, where he rose to the position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for four years, becoming the first Malawian to head the telecommunications company.

He had previously held senior sales and marketing positions in the banking and fast-moving consumer goods sectors - the Leasing and Finance Company, Unilever Malawi, Coca Cola and Carlsberg.

Somehow, despite standing up to the men he helped bring to power, he stayed in his seat.

Under Malawian law, the vice president enjoys security of tenure and cannot be sacked by the president.

Chilima also resisted calls to resign under Mutharika. And his party has denied any ill motives against him in the Chakwera administration.

He is survived by his lovely wife, Mary Chilima, and two children. On Tuesday, Malawi declared 21 days of national mourning.