Millions of Malawians will go to the polls on May 20 for the third multiparty general elections to choose their president, while outgoing President Bakili Muluzi steps down according to the constitution.
Among the five candidates contesting the presidential election,Malawi's first vice-president Justin Malewezi is an ambitious man.Having been sidelined by the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) as the party's presidential candidate, Malewezi decided to quit the party on Jan. 1 2004.
He later joined forces with the opposition People's ProgressiveMovement where he was elected vice president.
There he hoped to be elected the front runner for the Mgwirizano (Unity) Coalition of seven opposition parties fighting to oust the Muluzi administration during the forthcoming general elections.
Things here did not work according to plan either because the coalition chose veteran politician Gwanda Chakuamba to lead the Mgwirizano Coalition in the presidential race.
With a never-say-die spirit, Malewezi decided to go it alone and run as an independent presidential candidate, saying he is thesmartest of all candidates without a dented background unlike his competitors, and promising to put the runaway economy back on track.
Born Justin Chimera Malewezi some 60 years ago, his lifelong career as a public servant was cut out for him. His father was a school teacher and young Malewezi was determined to get a good education.
He got his Cambridge School Certificate at Robert Blake Secondary School, popularly known as Kongwe in the Central region district of Dowa, before graduating with his first degree at Columbia University in the United States in 1967.
He started his public service life as a science teacher, a profession that saw him rise to become headmaster and chief education officer in 1976.
From then the sky was the limit for the boy from Visanza as Ntchisi is sometimes known (a derogatory name meaning rugs). He rose to become permanent secretary in various ministries, including education and health, before holding the sensitive post of secretary to the treasury, the chief government technical advisor on money matters.
In 1989 he was appointed secretary to the president and cabinet(SPC), virtually becoming former "Life President" Hastings Kamuzu Banda's eyes and ears.
That was where his first descent from grace began.
"Perhaps with hindsight, it was foolhardy of me to advise Dr. Banda that with the Cold War over it was high time Malawi embracedsome sort of political reform," he recalls.
That was indeed almost a fatal mistake. Banda publicly and summarily dismissed his SPC, with the famous editorial writers at the state-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) having a fieldday categorizing how ungrateful Malewezi was to undermine his mighty boss.
But, unlike several other Malawians who dared to step on Banda's seemingly soft toes, Malewezi was lucky to escape arrest or worse.
Out of government he committed his time to private consultancy advising governments of Tanzania, Ghana and Lesotho on education and public sector development.
That kept him going until the wind of change started sweeping across central and southern Africa from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.
Malewezi around 1992 joined a clandestine underground group of mainly former Banda protestors including Elson Bakili Muluzi, Aleke Banda and Edward Bwanali and journalist Brown Mpinganjira.
The underground pressure group later became the United Democratic Front (UDF) under the tutelage of Bakili Muluzi, and dislodged Banda's Malawi Congress Party (MCP) from its 30-year stranglehold on power in Malawi's first multiparty elections in 1994.
And the technocrat-turned-politician Malewezi has been President Muluzi's deputy from his first term until now.
Malewezi, who still remains the state vice-president despite the government's efforts to force him to resign, says he has no regrets of being part of the revolution that toppled one of Africa's most cruel tinpot dictators.
"We started well," he recalls. "We introduced good policies like the free primary education and other programs."
But Malewezi says what the Muluzi administration lacked was implementation. He claims that if only half the policies the government introduced during the past 10 years were implemented Malawi could have been a lot better.
But was he not part of the system?
"A government is a collective responsibility, yes, but if the one at the top has other ideas even if the majority below think things are not moving he tends to hold sway," he says.
Married to renowned social worker Felesta, who refused to quit her job with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) until wayinto Malewezi's second year as vice president, Malewezi has four grown-up children, two sons and two daughters, and three grandchildren. One of his sons is a London-based DeeJay and rapper.
In his leisure time he can competently challenge Andre Agassi or Boris Baker to a tennis game or Madonna in children's book fiction. In fact, he has just finished writing a children's book "Grasshoppers on the Moon" which may be rolling off the presses anytime soon.
He also has compiled a collection of essays under the working title "Confessions of a Principal Secretary" where he chronicles his life as a civil servant under the Banda regime.
Malewezi had a near brush with death a couple of years into hisvice presidency. He had to have an expensive kidney transplant in Germany. President Muluzi, ever the ruthless joker, had a go at his estranged deputy's health woes calling him a "weakling who takes 32 tablets a day to stay alive." The president was soundly rebuked for his callous joke but Malewezi took this cruel jibe in his stride.
"What's wrong with being sick?" he wonders. "I am not going to hit back but what people should know is that I am now much healthier than most people who think they are fit."
Indeed he no longer needs to go under the dialysis machine, which used to be a monthly routine before.
Maybe that is why, after quitting the ruling UDF, he did not gohome to Ntchisi to enjoy his retirement. He followed his former colleague at the UDF Aleke Banda to the emergent opposition People's Progressive Movement (PPM).
He was unanimously elected first vice-president, but he thoughtwith 10 years as state vice-president he was qualified enough to marshal a grueling independent bid for the presidency.
"Malawi needs an independent president because he will not put partisan interests in running government affairs," he says justifying his move. "As an independent president I will be able to work with any qualified person regardless of which party they belong to."
Most observers do not give him a chance in hell that as an independent he will be able to prevail over economist Mutharika, who has President Bakili Muluzi, the self-styled "political engineer" as his chief campaigner. Or Gwanda Chakuamba, the veteran politician who is marshaling the ticket for the MgwirizanoCoalition of seven opposition parties. Or, indeed Brown Mpinganjira, the former senior minister and Muluzi's right-hand man.
The other hurdle is indeed John Tembo, the veteran who had his political teeth cut by no other a force than the father and founder of Malawi Hastings Kamuzu Banda. So how does he rate his chance among such credible labyrinth of political heavyweights?
"The good thing is I am running as president for all supportersof all the 31 parties in Malawi," he says. "Should they elect me Iwill work with all of them as long as they are qualified for a jobI can assign them."
Malewezi says a lot of government resources go to waste becausethe president is at pains to please political partisans by allocating government jobs to unqualified people.
"With an independent at the helm such things won't happen," he says.