President Bingu wa Mutharika on Thursday ordered the police to free four senior ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) officials who had been arrested on treason charges, and dissolved Malawi's National Intelligence Bureau.
Mutharika told reporters at a press conference that he had decided to release the men for the sake of party unity, but believed they had been part of a plot to assassinate him. "I have decided that these people be forgiven for reconciliation purposes, but this does not diminish the gravity of the situation," he said.
The four are deputy transport minister Roy Commsy, former minister of environmental affairs, Harry Thomson, UDF Member of Parliament Alfred Mwechumu, and UDF district governor for Mangochi, Jordan Kanyerere.
They were arrested on Monday when they arrived with guns and knives in their cars for a meeting between Mutharika and former president Bakili Muluzi. The police said the weapons had been concealed. The UDF has welcomed their release; it had warned that their detention would lead to a severing of ties between the party and the president.
Mutharika said the assassination attempt was to have taken place at the meeting with Muluzi, called to heal a rift that has threatened to sink the party. The power struggle between the two men was sparked by the arrest of a small number of senior UDF officials accused of corruption, fraud and human rights abuses perpetrated during the 10 years of Muluzi's rule.
Mutharika was handpicked by Muluzi to stand as his successor in controversial elections in May last year, but does not have a leading role in the party, which Muluzi heads.
"The problems in UDF have been there for a long time," Mutharika told reporters. "First, I invited Muluzi to attend the opening of parliament - he refused. Secondly, I invited him to attend the independence celebration [on July 6] - he refused again. Then I knew he was not happy [with me]. But I know the biggest problem is my fight against corruption."
Mutharika said Muluzi "should leave me alone" to run the affairs of government, and that the divisions within the party would only end with the "disciplining" of senior officials linked to Muluzi: Dumbo Lemani, John Chikakwiya, Humprey Mvula and Friday Jumbe. Chikakwiya, Mvula and Jumbe are currently answering corruption charges.
In a related development, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation reported on Thursday that Mutharika had dissolved the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) and all employees "have been sent on one month's leave, pending the restructuring of the organisation".
The NIB was established by Muluzi during the early years of his administration and won a reputation for ruthlessness, with human rights activists calling for its dissolution.
"The NIB is being accused of being sympathetic to the former head of state," Chancellor College lecturer and political analyst, Boniface Dulani, told IRIN. "[Its dissolution] is an attempt to neutralise the avenues used to undermine the authority of the president."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions