To say Bakili Muluzi divides opinions is to state a fact, albeit a very nondescript statement of fact because as a politician, the 77-year-old is just like any other former president across the world who tends to have critics and supporters.
Muluzi was very much responsible for what Malawi became in the aftermath of the reign of independence leader Hastings Banda who had been head of state since 1966. Muluzi was the first-ever person elected president in Malawi in 1994, and the partisanship that characterized the nation in the wake of multiparty democracy as well as stepping into the shoes of a Malawian giant made for a difficult presidency.
About shoes, Muluzi has a small but intriguing connection. His presidency is remembered for failing to deliver on a promise of shoes for Malawians even though it had been a campaign promise.
The essence of the story, i.e. the promise of shoes, according to many sources, is true. However, it is not quite clear if Muluzi’s promise was targeted at the village where he had made it or he intended his pledge to everyone in the country. Whatever it is, in the 1994 Malawian election Muluzi and his United Democratic Front (UDF) were widely known as the ones who had made the shoe promise. If there was a misperception about the promise, the UDF certainly were not interested in correcting it.
Muluzi won the presidency quite easily, beating national hero Hastings Banda by over 400,000 votes in an election where some 3 million people had chosen from four presidential candidates. Banda, then still a popular man, was in his 90s. Muluzi had been 50 and selling a vision of beautiful possibilities beyond nostalgia, energetic leadership above words of wisdom from a weakly old man.
For those who voted for Muluzi, the shoes were one of the beautiful possibilities. Banda harvested from his personality cult and ruled with iron-fist conservatism. His three-decades-long reign did not expectedly translate into revolutionary macro and micro economic good for Malawians. Malawi was one of the poorest countries on the continent at the tail end of Banda’s reign and the shoes must have literally been necessary.
Muluzi did not deliver the shoes. But it was his defense of failure that both incenses and excites Malawians. He argued that he could not know everyone’s shoe sizes and would therefore find it hard to give them what was promised. To assuage their pain, he was going to work hard to make other promises possible. And that was the end of the shoe saga.
But he was known as a generally competent democrat than Banda. The appreciation for Muluzi’s democratic tendencies may have been invariably connected with the positive light his presidency was seen in comparison to Banda’s. Malawians forgave him for deceiving them about the shoes because he was at least, a man willing to let Malawians breath free. In 1999, he was reelected to another five-year term.