Historic election: A feat from 8 powerful forces


By Paul Tiyambe Zeleza:

…From Yesterday

State intervention in the organisation of economic, social, cultural and political processes intensified as the contradictions deepened and became more open.


As the crisis of growth and accumulation began escalating globally in the 1970s, the postcolonial state assumed a progressively more precarious and openly repressive character with frequent coups and rearrangements of ruling cliques, endless constitutional revisions and human rights violations, and suppression of democratic freedoms. To be sure, until the mid- 1970s, African countries experienced relatively rapid rates of economic growth and development, notwithstanding significant differences between countries, sectors and social classes, gender, and generation, as well as ideological divergences and disputes among and within countries.

The structural and ideological underpinnings of authoritarian developmentalism were reinforced by the onset of neo-liberalism at the turn of the 1980s, which ushered Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s. The era of structural adjustment programmes (Saps) threatened to undo the developmental promises and achievements of independence, to dismantle the postcolonial social contract and to abort the nationalist project of Africa’s renewal from centuries of the slave trade followed by colonialism. The rise of Saps reflected the global ascendancy of neo-liberalism, which emerged as an ideological response to the world economic crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s that ended the post-war boom.

Neo-liberalism marked the collapse of the “Keynesian consensus” and the political coalitions that had sustained it and the rise to power of conservative, free-market-oriented governments in the leading industrial economies. Saps were pursued with missionary zeal by the international financial institutions and western governments and imposed on developing countries often with the connivance of the African political class or significant fractions thereof. Saps called for currency devaluation, interest and exchange rate deregulation, liberalisation of trade, privatisation of state enterprises, and withdrawal of public subsidies and retrenchment of the public service—in short, for a minimalist state and an extension of the market logic to all spheres of economic activity.


The results were disastrous for African economies. The euphoria of independence gave rise to unrelenting “Afro-pessimism.” The collapse of the independence social contract provoked massive and sustained struggles for the “second independence”, for democratisation which gathered momentum in the 1990s and scored significant victories at the turn of the 2000s. This ushered in the possibilities of the third era of democratic developmentalism. The resumption of economic growth in the 2000s and 2010s, reprising the growth rates of the 1960s and first half of the 1970s, brought hope back as encapsulated in the narrative of Africa Rising/Rising Africa.

However, the match between economic growth and development remained elusive as socioeconomic inequalities deepened and industrialisation proved elusive and the value chain of African economies remained low. Similarly, the marriage between democracy and development was hardly consummated in many of the emerging illiberal democracies. Africa’s wily ruling classes sang the performative and symbolic tunes of minimalist democracy as they subverted the substantive and expansive score of social democracy.

The historiography of Malawi’s postcolonial political economy broadly fits into this trajectory. The Banda presidency straddled the first two eras, while the last quarter century since multi-party democracy was introduced coincides with the last two eras. In other words, Malawi like most African countries has been struggling to establish a democratic developmental state that can produce economic growth and foster integrated, inclusive, innovative and sustainable development. In short, the challenge for the new Chakwera government is to build and sustain a democratic developmental state.

The great Malawian intellectual, Thandika Mkandawire, who passed away on March 27, 2020 at the age of 79, produced some of the most iconic work on the African developmental state that the policy makers and think tanks for the Chakwera government can fruitfully engage. Thandika, as we all lovingly called him, firmly believed in the existence of an ideological-structural nexus for building developmental states in Africa. He argued developmentalism has an ideological imperative in that it requires making development aspirations hegemonic and structural components that encompass state capacities— institutional, technical, administrative and political to implement effective and transformational development policies.

Clearly, it is imperative to strengthen the administrative apparatus of the state while at the same time building strong state-society synergies. Thandika’s work brilliantly debunks many of the conventional diagnoses and prescriptions for development. They tend to be based on ahistorical determinisms of geography, culture and history. At one time race and ethnicity were posited as explanations, but they are no longer entertained in the academy. More compelling are explanations that focus on institutional arrangements, the construction of inclusive economic, political and social institutions.

As I wrote in a recent essay, “Countries with extractive institutions have not fared as well in achieving sustained growth and development. To the quality of institutions, I would add two other critical factors: the quality of human capital and the quality of the social capital of trust.” At this conjuncture, authoritarian developmentalism belongs to the dustbin of history because Malawians and other Africans have and continue to wage protracted struggles for democracy.

A democratic developmental state is one that embodies the principles of electoral democracy, ensures citizens’ participation in the development and governance processes and fosters growth and development. The democratic developmental state is defined by its objectives and its institutional characteristics, including the “autonomy” of state institutions, that enable it to define and promote its strategic developmental goals and its “embeddedness,” that is, its ability to form alliances with key social groups in society that help it to achieve its developmental goals.

In short, a democratic developmental state is characterised by institutional autonomy and coherence and inclusive embeddedness operating in a democratic order marked by competitive and accountable electoral systems and has the capacity to promote development and growth. The construction of democratic developmental states requires Africa to confront and control several sets of challenges and opportunities. At the domestic level there is need to revitalise the nationalist project by reconstructing the state, rebuilding citizenship, renewing the social contract, reconstructing society and rejuvenating integrated and inclusive economies— in short, to manage the nexus of state, market and civil society as effectively as possible.

This is the challenge and opportunity of the Chakwera-Chilima alliance that has been voted into government by Malawi’s expectant masses who are exhausted by underdevelopment, poverty, inequalities, tribalism and regionalism, marginalisation, and social despair now compounded by Covid-19. Thandika, who remained resolutely committed to the five humanistic and historic agendas of progressive African nationalism— decolonisation, nation-building, development, democracy and regional integration—would have been proud of the Chakwera-Chilima electoral victory last week. In fact, the two parties and many others publicly mourned Thandika’s passing. Let the luminescence of his ideas and insights be incorporated into the new government’s policy agenda.

Thandika always believed in the agency of Malawians and Africans everywhere at home and in the Diaspora. His compatriots vindicated him in the June 2020 presidential election rerun, while the Diaspora did so through the Floyd protests. Malawi has a rare chance to construct a developmental democratic state and society. I hope that a new chapter has opened in my beloved country’s history.

I dedicate this essay to Thandika and the thousands of women and men who sacrificed their lives and livelihoods during the struggles for the first, second and third republics for the simple dignity of the human rights of democracy, development and inclusion.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is Vice-Chancellor at United States International University – Africa

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