Land reform, decentralisation and democracy in Malawi


By Geoffrey Wawanya:


Land is crucial for humans to exist, conduct and sustain economic life. Land is the resting place for humans in perpetuity during living and when dead. It is the core of all human life. Therefore, access to land is vital to human life indeed.


In 2017, or a year earlier, Malawi embarked on a land reform process that is the envy of other countries. In fact it is arguably one of the best in the world. This was meant to increase access to land and to bring equity among the different forms of land holding and also to bring transparency in the process of land administration. Malawi put in place the required legal framework and even had it amended.

However, for the land reform to be successfully implemented from the grass roots, there is a need for decisions to be made at the grass root level and carried forward for implementation. That way, the community would participate in decision-making and governance.

Malawi would, therefore, have to have a bottom up way of governance system. That would entail full decentralisation, which means devolution of authority to make decisions to the grass root level or its representatives; in this case, the traditional leadership and the local authorities or Local Government.


Decentralisation is the major pillar of democracy and the country adopted for a democratic system of government. Immediately after ushering in a democratic system of government, a decentralisation process was commenced and, soon after, a land enquiry initiated the land reform process. It can, therefore, be seen that the initiators of our democratic system of government saw that democracy and, therefore, decentralisation were central pillars.

But 22 years after, this beautiful land reform has not been implemented at all. Yes, some donor-funded piloting in some six districts (parts of districts) may have been done.

The Ministry of Lands, as the responsible ministry, will provide all sorts of excuses but the fact is there is no land reform as of now and there exist total chaos in the land sector that would make one to conclude that the ministry is under a state of institutional capture and that two parallel systems operate, one being formal, headed by the honourable minister, and the other informal and more powerful headed by a very corrupt official.

But why is the land reform not happening and where is the problem, really?

I believe, and most professional people would, that, despite having adopted a decentralisation policy, Malawi has not fully implemented that policy. Below is a brief background:


Soon after ushering in a democratic system of government, Malawi adopted the Decentralisation Policy. The major objective of this policy was to enable the citizen ns to participate in decision making and in governance.

For democracy means power to the people and “mphamvu ku anthu”. After formally adopting the Decentralisation Policy, a new Local Government Act was enacted to translate the policy.

Through this law, citizens would be able to participate in decision making and governance. Through the enshrined political structures, citizens would be able to elect representatives to councils in every district of the country, who would then make decisions on their behalf.

Thus, the Decentralisation Policy and its implementation is the key to the development of the country. Its successful implementation is, therefore, of extreme importance to ensure that, indeed, the adage “power to the people” or “mphamvu ku anthu” makes sense in the context of developing the country economically and otherwise.

I would even argue that, without full decentralisation, the commendable efforts of the National Planning Commission are a complete waste as they will not achieve the desired results.

Land reform transfers, through Section 8 of the Land Act, the eminent domain from the presidency to the Republic, thereby enabling ordinary citizens to own land in perpetuity through customary estate.

The Customary Land Act establishes local land committees at group village head level. The land committees would be composed of three women and three men and would be chaired by the group village head.

A council official would be the secretary and would record all decisions made and would actually initiate a land information system at that level. The Traditional Authority would have very little power to go against land committee decisions. The ministry would only provide guidance and issue certificates.

Sadly six years down the line, very little has been achieved because the Decentralisation Policy itself is not being implemented as it has been sat on by those in authority in Central Government and this is slowing down development.

In the land sector, the Decentralisation Policy would require that all land be transferred from Central Government, except what the government needs for its own administrative and security purposes.

It would also require that the Ministry of Lands undergoes massive restructuring to transform it from an implementing ministry to an initiator and overseer of standards. It would ensure that standards are being enforced. At the moment, no standards exist and the old ones are not being enforced at all.

The country needs a much stronger Local Government and the only way is to fully devolve power of decision-making and governance to councils as representatives of the people. I hope both the President of this country and his Minister of Local Government as well as the Minister of Lands will read this article and give serious consideration to the proposal contained herein.

*The author is a land economist and member of the Surveyors Institute of Malawi

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