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Malawi at 56: Is there a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

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By Mwiza Jo Nkhata:

HAS BROUGHT NEW HOPE—Chakwera

Malawi celebrated 56 years of independence on 6 July 2020. This year’s celebrations were particularly poignant coming on the heels of thirteen tumultuous and eventful months.

To start with, in May 2019, Malawians “voted” into office Arthur Peter Mutharika. In February 2020, however, the High Court annulled the presidential election and ordered that a fresh poll be held within 150 days. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the judgment of the High Court was upheld.

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A fresh poll was duly held in June 2020 and the opposition Tonse Alliance, led by Malawi Congress Party leader now State President Lazarus Chakwera, unseated Mutharika. Malawi thus became just the second African country to annul a presidential election and the only country so far where an annulled election has been won by an opposition candidate.

Given the manner in which he ascended to the presidency, Chakwera is justified to feel like his biblical namesake. He and his team, however, have no time to rest on their laurels. Chakwera has inherited a broken country. The economy is in bad shape and urgently needs resuscitation. Many Malawians still cannot afford the basic necessities for a dignified life. National coalescence needs a serious boost amidst deep-seated ethnic conflagration and polarisation as demonstrated by the results of the fresh presidential election. It will not have escaped many a discerning observer that although Chakwera and the Tonse Alliance amassed a credible 58.57 percent of the total votes, his vote share from the Southern districts was very poor.

At 56, therefore, Malawi faces yet another critical juncture. Although unanimity may not be easily secured, Malawi has had several critical junctures which have not delivered on many fronts. Democratic governance, which is often the precursor to holistic development, comes out as a compelling outcome that has not been satisfactorily realised.

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The promises of independence in 1964 were quickly dashed by the fall out, in the same year, between the country’s first president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, and his cabinet ministers. Often referred to as the Cabinet Crisis of 1964, this was the harbinger of the One-Party State and the entrenchment of Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorship. It would be almost 30 years later before Malawi was presented with an opportunity to rectify the errors of the immediate post-independence.

The transition to a multiparty democracy between 1993-1994 ignited immense hope and enthusiasm in the hearts of many Malawians but, cruelly, the promises of the transition remain unfulfilled. Even after the transition, several critical junctures have also left negligible permanent benefits to the country. Politicians have squandered opportunities to spur economic growth and address the socio-economic ills that have beholden the country for decades succumbing instead to short-termism aimed at accumulating political power. Bakili Muluzi’s ten years in office between 1994 and 2004 are symptomatic of this trend.

By way of further illustration, Muluzi’s attempt, around 2002, to amend the Constitution to allow him to run for a third term was courageously defeated in the National Assembly. However, the period leading up to the vote on Muluzi’s proposed constitutional amendment was full of tension and divisive public debate. The defeat of Muluzi’s schemes, as monumental as it was, did not immediately translate to fundamental governance changes in the country. As a matter of fact, Muluzi subsequently attempted to circumvent the legal barricades to his candidature by nominating a preferred successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, who duly won the 2004 election with a tonne of help from Muluzi.

When Bingu wa Mutharika died in office in 2012, attempts were made to bar his constitutionally mandated vice president, Joyce Banda, from assuming office. These attempts came to naught, but any goodwill generated in the process of defeating the attempted usurpation of the Constitution was quickly squandered. It is not surprising, therefore, that Banda’s presidency will, for some, forever be remembered in the same breath with the Cashgate Scandal, the massive looting of government resources by civil servants and their acolytes.

The promises made by Chakwera and the Tonse Alliance have surely resonated with the populace. Fulfilling these promises will not be easy but neither is it impossible. For starters, the country needs to reinstate the fundamentals of good governance in all government operations.

If both Chakwera’s acceptance and inauguration speeches are anything to go by, the new President has begun by striking the correct notes. His call for reconciliation and national unity is particularly welcome considering Malawi’s persistent challenges with ethnic and tribal divisions. Equally important is his promise to tackle corruption, a blight that continues to severely afflict the country. His inauguration speech especially, clearly connected with many Malawians not simply for its tantalising delivery but for inspiring hope.

The new President must, of course, be given time to implement the programmes promised by the Tonse Alliance. He will discover, soon enough though, that patience will be at premium given the harsh economic and social realities that many Malawians are facing. Words by themselves, however sweet and cadential, will not suffice and Chakwera needs to move quickly.

The surest way by which the Tonse Alliance can guarantee being returned to office during the next General Election will be to make good of their campaign promises. In this connection, former president Bingu wa Mutharika’s re-election in 2009 is very instructive. Bingu secured an unprecedented 66.17% of the national vote on the back of a solid economic performance during his first term. This suggests that it may be far easier to win the presidency based on ideology and performance than rigging, especially with the new 50+1 requirement.

Malawi’s 56th birthday also fell in the year of maturation of the Vision 2020, the country’s long-term development plan that was launched in 1998. The fact that many of the lofty promises in the Vision 2020 remain unfulfilled to date, hopefully, will not have escaped the new President. The travails of the Vision 2020 are an apt reminder of the challenges that the country continues to face.

The author is Extraordinary Professor, University of the Free State and formerly Dean of Law, University of Malawi.

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