Malawi’s newly-elected President Lazarus Chakwera speaks, rather bemusingly, with the accent and cadence of an American civil rights leader, presumably because of his theological studies there in the 1990s. He is also a pastor by profession. And in his inauguration speech on Sunday (28 June 2020) he sounded even more like a Martin Luther King.
“We have a dream!” he said. It was a dream for shared prosperity, not just freedom, and now the time had come “to go beyond dreaming. The time has come for us to arise from the slumber of our dream and make the dream true.”
Realising his dream of shared prosperity will be no easy task for Chakwera. He inherits a country deeply divided, politically, regionally and ethnically. With an economy not much better than it was at independence in 1964, with poverty deeply entrenched, with a government steeped in corruption. And with a Covid-19 pandemic spreading.
Chakwera had just beaten incumbent President Peter Mutharika by around 59% to 40% in the 23 June election which was a rerun ordered by the courts of the elections held in May 2019. Mutharika won that election but then Malawi’s Constitutional Court annulled it in February 2020 because of extensive vote rigging.
It was only the second known time in Africa’s history that a court had annulled an election and certainly one which the incumbent leader had won. The first was in Kenya in 2017.
“It’s a huge victory for democracy and for free and fair elections because it didn’t come cheaply,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an SADC specialist at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
“It wasn’t as if the courts by themselves just decided to overturn the results of the election. The decision followed many months of constant protests by Malawian civil society, by political parties and by the judiciary. Chakwera and his running mate Saulos Chilema had also done their homework in mounting a credible legal challenge to Mutharika’s victory in May 2019.
“And the judiciary also paid a big price for its independence as judges had had to be escorted to court by the army wearing bullet-proof vests, because of threats to their lives.”
Louw-Vaudran also praised Chakwera and Chilema – who had been rivals in the elections in 2019 – for joining forces in the Tonse Coalition, along with seven other parties, to fight the 23 June 2020 election together. That probably ensured their victory in the first round.
This sort of union of opposition forces was rare in Africa, she said. Indeed, one could add that it has often allowed firmly-entrenched presidents to remain in power year after year.
In some ways, Chakwera has an easy act to follow. But in other ways, he faces a massive challenge of salvaging a country in a mess. On being sworn in last Sunday, Chakwera promised “a government that serves, not a government that rules; a government that inspires, not a government that infuriates; a government that listens, not a government that shouts; a government that fights for you, not against you”.
And, perhaps most important, Chakwera vowed to be a president for all Malawians. He assured the many Malawians who had not voted for him that “this new Malawi is a home for you too, and so long as I am its President, it will be a home in which you too will prosper”.
It sounded like the usual political rhetoric of an inaugural address. But within just three days of being sworn into office, Chakwera moved to tackle Malawi’s pressing problems of corruption and patronage, by dissolving the boards of 60 of the country’s 100 parastatals to tackle corruption and suspending government contracts, pending audits.
Parastatal jobs have traditionally been reserved for ruling party loyalists and cronies and so Chakwera’s move backed his promise of a government for all. And his office said the suspension of contracts was “aimed at ensuring corruption-free and fair contract management and prudence in public financial management”, according to AFP.
Another campaign promise was kept this week when Malawi’s parliament passed a 722 billion kwacha ($1-billion) provisional budget aimed mainly at subsidising fertiliser for 3.5 million smallholders, mostly tobacco farmers.
This was a first step towards Chakwera’s campaign promise of a universal subsidy.
This week, also, the minimum monthly wage was increased to K50,000 ($70), from K35,000 ($46), while the tax-free threshold was raised to K100,000 ($140).
These early steps have raised confidence that Chakwera will meet other campaign promises, perhaps even the very difficult one of unifying the country. Greg Mills, director of the Brenthurst Foundation, noted just before the elections, at a webinar held by his foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, that Malawi was a sharply divided country, regionally and politically. He said Chakwera’s MCP had in the past generally won around 70% of the vote in central Malawi but only 20% in the south, with the north more evenly split.
Did this polarity not present a big challenge to Chakwera in building national unity, he asked.
Boniface Dulani, an election analyst from Malawi’s Institute for Public Opinion and Research (IPOR), agreed that this was a challenge, although the split was more regional than ethnic. About 44% of Malawians live in the south, 43% in the centre and 13% in the north.
Chakwera said it had been a “cardinal point” of his campaign to unite all Malawians and his Tonse Alliance was a good example, as it brought together nine political parties from right across the country.
“It’s a priority for me to ensure that opportunities are not regional but national. I am deliberately cultivating an environment for all to feel Malawian first.”
Another major problem which the new government has to address far better than its predecessor did is the Covid-19 pandemic. As Dulani said, the lack of legitimacy of the previous government had undermined the fight against the disease. Some opposition politicians even suggested that Covid-19 was no problem at all and that the government was exaggerating it to attract financial support from donors.
“This election might give Malawi the sense of purpose it needs to really fight Covid-19,” he said.
For most ordinary Malawians, corruption, though it has been rife in the country for years, is not one of their main concerns. In the IPOR survey, it ranked only ninth out of 10, with just 3% ranking it as the country’s main problem.
Their main concern was hunger, followed by the mismanagement of the economy, poverty, unemployment, health, Covid-19, agricultural marketing, then corruption and finally wages and income. These are the priorities of this largely rural, poor country.
Nonetheless, even if they can’t feel it directly in their stomachs, corruption is robbing them indirectly of food and income. And so, with his measures this week, Chakwera has started to deliver on his promise from the campaign trail “to deal with this decisively by showing that I will not turn a blind eye to corruption”. This would include properly funding the Anti-Corruption Bureau and ensuring its officials did their work without hindrance.
Foreign aid has been another controversial and related issue in Malawi, with foreign donors withholding it at times because of corruption. Asked how he would allocate foreign aid, Chakwera stressed local ownership instead.
“It’s not going to take the West or the East to build Malawi. It will take us,” he said with an encouraging nod to “Dead Aid”, the 2010 book by Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo which argued that despite more than $1-trillion in development-related aid poured into Africa over the last 50 years, Africans were worse off – largely because so many had become aid-dependent and because so much of the money had been diverted by corruption.
Farming is a major concern for 13% of Malawians, And Chakwera had vowed to address it, including by subsidising fertilisers – which he has now begun to do with the budget allocation this week.
He had also insisted that he would deliver on the rest of his election manifesto, ensuring that farmers ate three meals a day, young people had jobs created for them; and women had money so they could run their businesses.
“The creation of factories and value-addition factories will help Malawians come together in cooperatives and we have lots of fruit in this country, we have lots of tomatoes; lots of things we can do.
“That alone will create more jobs. And then the emphasis on small to medium enterprises. If we do that – that has almost shrunk to zero – then it’s not going to be a very small minority rich and then the majority in poverty. We are going to be bridging that.”
So, Malawians, presumably encouraged by Chakwera’s initial decisions, are now waiting to see if he can deliver the rest of this ambitious manifesto.
So far he seems to be showing the political will to do so. And as Mills said at the webinar, the essential problem with development is politics, and tackling chronic problems like poverty, starts with the political will and the right policy decisions. Malawi under Mutharika was certainty sorely lacking in political integrity, commitment and skill. Peter Mutharika had shown his colours in 2012 when he tried to take power unconstitutionally after his elder brother Bingu wa Mutharika died suddenly in office. The military chief essentially persuaded him against this course and so his estranged vice president Joyce Banda became president, according to the constitution. He defeated her in elections in 2014 but his administration remained mired in corruption and incompetence.
Towards the end of his tenure, the country seemed to be moving towards ungovernability. As Danwood Chirwa, Dean of Law, University of Cape Town, observed at a recent seminar by the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law (SAIFAC) and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, there was widespread disaffection with Mutharika’s administration and protests against it.
Mutharikia had lost legitimacy and had become virtually confined to his residence, only moving out “with a garrison of soldiers”, Chirwa said. And because of the overreaction of the police to growing political protests, the army had had to take over the job of internal security.
And those judges who eventually saved Malawi by removing Mutharika from power did so in peril, wearing bullet-proof vests and travelling to court under army escort.
Do these circumstances, seemingly rather unique, hold any lessons for the rest of the region where some other governments also seem eminently ripe for replacement?
As Louw-Vaudran points out, the successful legal challenge to the 2019 Malawi election results was unprecedented in southern Africa. She contrasted it particularly with Zimbabwe where the courts threw out an MDC opposition challenge to the 2018 election victories of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his Zanu-PF party.
Legal experts compared the Malawi decision to others in the region at that recent seminar by SAIFAC and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
Justice Mavedzenge, Legal Adviser to the International Commission of Jurists, Africa Regional Programme, told that seminar that the difference between Malawi and Zimbabwe, for example, was that the justice culture was completely different in Zimbabwe where it was “overly deferential to the executive, especially on elections”.
But he also noted that the opposition in Malawi had been better organised in its challenge to the elections than the MDC had been in Zimbabwe. It had been more vigilant in monitoring the election and therefore better able to bring hard evidence of manipulation to the courts.
Legally, Mavedzenge said, the difference between the Malawi decisions and those not only in Zimababwe but also in other regional legal challenges to elections results was that the Malawi courts defined the standard of proof needed to show the election had been manipulated.
In other regional countries, the courts had ruled that it was up to the petitioners to prove that the minimum standard for an acceptable election had not been met – but had not stated what those standards were.
The essential difference, ultimately, as Mavedzenge hinted, and as Louw-Vaudran explains, is the sharp differences in political culture across southern Africa.
Whereas Malawi had already seen changes in ruling parties quite often, running against the ruling party was a completely different proposition in those countries in the region which were being governed by former liberation movements. These six parties – the ANC in South Africa, Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. MPLA in Angola, Frelimo in Mozambique, Swapo in Namibia and CCM in Tanzania, had all remained entrenched in power since independence and had become well-oiled political machines, extremely hard to dislodge.
“So what happened in Malawi was certainly a victory for democracy but the victory is qualified because the contexts across the region are not all the same.”
The Malawi elections have also, incidentally, cast further doubt on the benefits of foreign election observer missions.
By annulling the elections, Malawi’s courts embarrassed such foreign observer missions in particular – as the Kenyan courts had done by annulling the August 2017 elections there. In both cases, several outside election observer missions had pronounced the elections acceptable if not perfect.
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo – himself a frequent leader of election observer missions – wrote in Daily Maverick on 18 June 2020, “We failed the people of Malawi when Africa, through its observers, gave the election of 21 May 2019 its blessing.
“The African Union election observer mission reported that ‘the elections took place in a peaceful, transparent and orderly manner, and thus met national, regional, continental and international standards for democratic elections…’. What a pity!” Obasanjo wrote. The AU mission was led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
“We were not alone in our failure to properly observe that election,” Obasanjo continued. “The missions of the European Union and of the Commonwealth also gave the faulty outcome their approval with minor misgivings.
“Fortunately, the people of Malawi were saved by their courageous Constitutional Court ….” he added. However, Obasanjo expressed concern that there would be no international observers at the 23 June 2020 elections because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But, at the same webinar, Chakwera said that it was not international observers who determine if elections are free and fair. In Malawi it had been the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal which had shown the May 2019 election had been rigged.
“It’s not impossible to hold elections without international observers. I’ve never heard of Africans going to the UK or US to observe elections. We have shown that we can conduct elections ourselves,” he said.
Louw-Vaudran said “people are starting to question the value of outside observers, particularly those from SADC which hardly ever makes any real findings. It sometimes releases preliminary reports but rarely publishes any substantial data to show how it arrived at its results. And these election observer missions are expensive. Why do we do them?”
She noted that several other elections were due to be held in Africa in 2020 and outside election observers would probably not attend those either because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Foreign election observers may have faltered in both Kenya and Malawi but they nonetheless provide another layer of protection against the undermining of democracy.
They should review their methods and procedures and in particular acquire more expertise in discerning election rigging. But they should not be discarded altogether, not yet. African ownership of their own elections, as we saw in Malawi, is a worthy goal. But not all countries are quite there yet. DM
"Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth" ~ Aristotle