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Funeral service held for Malawi’s vice-president

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Tens of thousands of Malawians are taking part in a funeral service at the national stadium to pay tribute to the vice-president who was killed in a plane crash last week.

Saulos Chilima, 51, was considered a breath of fresh air in Malawian politics.

He was an eloquent public speaker and energetic campaigner who held huge sway among the youth who account for more than half of Malawians.

He was a devout Catholic and the service includes a full mass.

He will be buried in his home district of Ntcheu, 180km (112 miles) south of Lilongwe on Monday, which has been declared a public holiday.

The service at the Bingu National Stadium began with moving tributes from his family. The 41,000-capacity stadium is full, with more people outside.

His coffin, draped in Malawi’s red, green and black flag, was brought into the stadium by a guard of honour.

His son, Sean, recalled what a loving father he was, how he always had time for children and played games with them. He added that his father had been extremely competitive and always wanted to win.

“Dad was a hard worker who always made sure he got things done,” he said.

His brother, Ben, said the family was grateful to have been given the personal belongings he had on him at the time of the accident, including his watch and rosary.

Some of those in the stadium booed government officials, including President Lazarus Chakwera, when they spoke.

Calm was only restored after the intervention of Catholic priests.

Mr Chilima died last Monday as he travelled in a military aircraft to the northern town of Nkhata Bay where he was to attend the funeral of a former cabinet minister.

The entire crew and other passengers on board, including former First Lady Shanil Dzimbiri, also perished.

President Chakwera said the plane had crashed due to poor visibility caused by bad weather but Mr Chilima’s UTM party has called for a thorough and independent investigation.

At the service, this call was backed up by Archbishop Desmond Tambala of Lilongwe, speaking on behalf of Catholic Church in Malawi.

President Chakwera said foreign governments and international agencies would be asked for assistance in investigating the accident because “the Malawi Army cannot investigate itself”.

Mr Chilima had a successful career working in the private sector where he held various senior, well-paid positions in business before taking what many thought was a risky decision, venturing into politics aged just 40.

He had been vice-president since 2014, initially under former President Peter Mutharika.

After falling out with Mr Mutharika, Mr Chilima formed his own party, the UTM.

He ran for president in the 2019 elections, coming third behind Mr Mutharika and Mr Chakwera, but the election results were nullified by the Malawi high court following complaints of fraud.

In the 2020 presidential election, Mr Chilima agreed to be Mr Chakwera’s running-mate, in an alliance of nine opposition parties.

In June 2022, he said that as part of that agreement, President Chakwera was to serve for only one term and he would then back Mr Chilima in the next elections in September 2025.

President Chakwera has not publicly disputed Mr Chilima’s claim, but in recent public pronouncements he started to hint that he might seek re-election next year.

In public appearances, Mr Chilima and Mr Chakwera looked to be on good terms but many thought a fall-out was inevitable particularly after senior leaders of their respective parties had started to openly endorse the candidatures of the two in next year’s elections.

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