Malawi’s vice-president and nine others killed in plane crash on way to funeral

Saulos Chilima had just returned from an official visit to South Korea

Gerald Imray
Tuesday 11 June 2024 15:41
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Malawi vice-president Saulos Chilima, left, greets government officials upon his return from South Korea
Malawi vice-president Saulos Chilima, left, greets government officials upon his return from South Korea (AP)

Malawi’s vice-president, Saulos Chilima, was among 10 people killed when a small military plane crashed in a mountainous region in the north of the country, the president said on Tuesday.

Chilima was 51.

President Lazarus Chakwera announced in a live address on state television that the wreckage of the plane had been located after a search of more than a day in thick forests and hilly terrain near the northern city of Mzuzu. Mr Chakwera said there were no survivors of the crash.

Former first lady Shanil Dzimbiri, the ex-wife of former president Bakili Muluzi, was also on the plane, the president had said. There were seven passengers and three military crew members onboard.

The group was travelling to Mzuzu to attend the funeral of a former government minister. Chilima had just returned from an official visit to South Korea on Sunday.

Hundreds of soldiers, police officers and forest rangers had been searching for the plane after it went missing Monday morning while making the 45-minute flight from the southern African nation’s capital, Lilongwe, to Mzuzu, around 370km (230 miles) to the north.

Air traffic controllers told the plane not to attempt a landing at Mzuzu’s airport because of bad weather and poor visibility and asked it to turn back to Lilongwe, Mr Chakwera said in an address late Monday night. Air traffic control then lost contact with the aircraft and it disappeared from radar, he said.

Malawi vice-president Saulos Chilima, left, and his wife Mary disembark from a plane upon his return from South Korea
Malawi vice-president Saulos Chilima, left, and his wife Mary disembark from a plane upon his return from South Korea (AP)

The president described the aircraft as a small, propeller driven plane operated by the Malawian armed forces. The tail number he provided shows it is a Dornier 228-type twin propeller plane that was delivered to the Malawian army in 1988, according to the ch-aviation website that tracks aircraft information.

Around 600 personnel were involved in the search in a vast forest plantation in the Viphya mountains near Mzuzu, authorities said, including around 300 police officers, 200 soldiers and local forest rangers. Chilima was serving his second term as vice-president. He was also in the role from 2014-2019 under former president Peter Mutharika. He was a candidate in the 2019 Malawian presidential election and finished third, behind the incumbent, Mr Mutharika, and Mr Chakwera. The vote was later annulled by Malawi‘s constitutional court because of irregularities.

Chilima then joined Mr Chakwera’s campaign as his running mate in an historic election rerun in 2020, when Mr Chakwera was elected president. It was the first time in Africa that an election result that was overturned by a court resulted in a defeat for the sitting president.

Chilima had previously been facing corruption charges over allegations that he received money in return for influencing the awarding of government procurement contracts for the Malawi armed forces and the police, but prosecutors dropped the charges last month. He had denied the allegations, but the case led to criticism that Mr Chakwera’s administration was not taking a hard enough stance against graft.

The search for the plane lasted more than 24 hours and provoked an international response. Mr Chakwera had said the US, the UK, Norway and Israel had offered assistance in the search operation and had provided “specialized technologies.” The US embassy in Malawi said it also had assisted and had offered the use of a Department of Defense small C-12 plane.

However, officials with Chilima’s United Transformation Movement political party — a different party to the president – criticized the government response as slow and said there was no transponder on the plane, and that was concerning for an aircraft carrying a high-level delegation.

Malawi is a country of around 21 million people and was ranked as the fourth poorest nation in the world by the World Bank in 2019.

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