Post-referendum highs, blues


Monday, June 14 1993: Malawi— a landlocked country with a surface area of 118, 484 square metres, according to the United Nations— became the centre of the world’s attention, like an ant standing on a bare stage with a big spotlight.

The world could, simply, not afford not to watch because Malawians were to tell their leaders about what they (Malawians) wanted, what it meant that they (Malawians) wanted it and what it would mean once they got, or did not get, what they wanted.

There was no need for Malawians to say how they would get what they wanted because, to save them from the trouble, the government had solved that question by setting aside June 14, a Monday, for a national referendum.


This was a high moment, after the country’s leadership had agreed, in October 1992, that Malawi would a year later hold a referendum that would give citizens a chance to decide whether they wanted to remain under the one party state or adopt multiparty democracy.

In the referendum that followed, 63 percent of the voters opted for multi-party democracy.

Leaders of mainly two opposition groups, the Alliance for Democracy and the United Democratic Front, were on Cloud Nine: They had enchanted the people with speeches that were, at best, part theatre and, at worst, part political declarations.


Whatever one looks for in a speech— cadence, rhythm, imagery— they provided.

Fast-forward to Wednesday, June 14 2017. All the joy of change has subsided.

In fact, June 14 passes quietly nowadays, akin to a funeral day. Maybe a funeral is better because people of other faiths jump, dance, drink, eat and make merry during funerals. They celebrate the life of the departed.

The June 14 of this year, like those after 1993, was strange, for a strange hush fell over the nation, a tell tale sign that Malawians are regretting their insolence act on June 14 1993. It is as if reality has caught up with them.

To begin with, Malawians, presently, lack an inspiring leader— for President Peter Mutharika, like Joyce Banda, Bingu and Bakili Muluzi in post-one-party Malawi, is following his own script. According to the script of Malawi’s post-one-party leaders, trust has to be discarded at the earliest opportunity, so that the national interest is replaced with personal aggrandisement and nepotism.

In that script, a traditional leader can rise from village head man to Paramount Chief in three years— so long as they come from the same district with the president and share the same ethnic root with the president.

According to that script, public universities can be closed at anytime, regardless of the implications on the academic calendar, among other things.

And the leaders, steeped in their own sense of self-importance, look almost celebratory during public appearances, untouched by the fire that melts whatever Malawians opted for that Monday, June 14 1993.

What the leaders seem to forget is that there have always been voters; sometimes abused, sometimes appreciated, sometimes grown over and forgotten, but always there somewhere. When their time to speak comes, they may even boot out a motherly figure who has only presided over national affairs for two years.

Indeed, times come when the breezes of history unexpectedly accelerate and blow away the touchstones by which selfish leaders live.

It happened twice or thrice during the past 117 years: In 1914, when the Reverend John Chilembwe staged a surprise uprising against Thangata (bonded labour) system; between 1940 and 1964 when Malawians (Nyasas) got tired of their emotional moorings to colonial authorities and wanted independence; and in 1993, when Malawians voted for multiparty politics, culminating in the 1994 general elections.

The last episode was true of the post-independence African character of the 1990s, when authority got deconstructed from individuals to institutions. Now freed from official restraint, people felt liberated enough to choose everything, including national leaders, for themselves.

Malawians have, since 1994 when they transformed their political landscape to a magnitude that signals a fundamental mutation in the national character, voted for Members of Parliament (MPs) and a Head of State— and in two cases councillors— every five years.

In May 2014, Malawians voted again, signaling the fifth turn of democratic elections. This followed similar elections in 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2009, each process a new national experiment.

It thus becomes imperative, as is always the case with all human experiments, to ask the big questions: Where have we scored highly? What have been the challenges?

Running away from such questions is akin to running away from future responsibility— a future as nearer as 2019 when Malawians go to the polls again.

To begin with, Malawians have been able to choose leaders of their choice, which is a plus, and periods after elections have been marred by peace, observes trade unionist Kenwilliams Mhango.

In addition, people have been able to mobilise themselves through trade unions, which has given workers, often a marginalised group, the right to bargain for better conditions of service, Mhango adds.

Again, observes Indigenous Business Association of Malawi president Mike Mlombwa, the economy has been liberated, which means market forces determine the fluidity or rigidity of the kwacha.

“We have seen indigenous people establishing businesses and this is good for the economy, for local people cannot externalise forex. They have nowhere but Malawi to call home,” Mlombwa says.

What remains, though, is putting in place mechanisms that will safeguard the interests of the indigenous business owner from those of foreign traders who venture into “petty business”, Mlombwa suggests.

On the political front, Malawi has embraced the proliferation of political parties which, according to former Speaker of Parliament Sam Mpasu, is a positive thing, as it gives Malawians freedom to associate with political parties that tickle their fancy.

However, Mpasu observes that the lack of clear ideologies blurs the line between one political grouping and another. So, political parties are work in progress; they need to work on polishing up their ideologies.

The other issue political parties have to look into is funding. One renowned political analyst observes that the absence of a Political Parties Act is fuelling reports of ‘suspicious’ financing in political parties.

Chancellor College-based political scientist Boniface Dulani says, as things stand , Malawi does not have a Political Parties’ Act that would oblige parties to declare their sources of funding, as the “absence of such an Act raises questions on whether political parties are not being compromised”.

It is a point Centre for Multiparty Democracy Executive Director, Kizito Tenthani, agrees with. Since the country’s laws are silent on private financing to political parties, the parties are not duty-bound to disclose their sources of funds.

Unfortunately, democracy is a game of trust, transparency and accountability.

It has also become clear, during Malawi’s democratic journey, that regionalism has taken centre-stage.

Political scientist Dr Nandin Patel, in a previous interview, laid this fact bare.

“Look at the elections in 1994, for instance. People voted along regional lines. This is evident in the fact that the eventual presidential winner, (United Democratic Front’s) Bakili Muluzi, got 42.2 percent (South), Kamuzu Banda 33.5 percent from his Central Region stronghold and Chakufwa Chihana (Alliance for Democracy) with 18.9 percent, mainly from the Northern Region.

“This was almost repeated in 1999 when Muluzi got 51.37 per cent in the South, the Malawi Congress Party/Alliance for Democracy coalition 44.30 per cent in the Central Region and Northern Region, respectively, and Kamlepo Kalua who got 1.43per cent of the national vote,” Patel said.

The scene was repeated in 2004, when UDF presidential candidate Bingu wa Mutharika chalked 35.89 per cent in the South, Malawi Congress Party’s John Tembo 27.13 percent and Gwanda Chakuamba of the Mgwirizano Coalition 25.72 per cent.

It was as if new elections are a reinstatement of the saying that old habits die hard.

The most outstanding challenge, over the past 24 years, has also been that of perceived abuse of state run media by those in power, observers say.

Former Media Institute of Southern Africa- Malawi Chapter chairperson, Thom Khanje, indicated when he addressed delegates to the aborted May 6 2017 Misa-Malawi elections that more needed to be done to convince the powers-that-be to ease their hold on public media.

This is work the June 3 2017-elected Misa-Malawi National Governing Council of Teresa Temweka Ndanga (chairperson), Clifton Kawanga (vice chairperson) and Mandy Pondani (committee member) have to look into. The work is cut out for them.

Whatever the case, the past 24 years have not been as easy as imagined. After all, our presidents continue to exude a false sense of popularity attributed to the public media, which over-blow the president’s ‘false’ charm, evasive assurances on issues of national importance and elastic treatment of facts.

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