The election of Lazarus Chakwera as President of Malawi is a cause for celebration, for multiple reasons. One reason is that the nullification of the May 2019 disputed election demonstrated a rare feat of judicial independence under duress from an incumbent government. This was only the second time that a Sub-Saharan court annulled an election and called for a rerun. The other time was in Kenya after the Supreme Court annulled the 2017 presidential vote. What makes Malawi’s re-election interesting is that the opposition alliance managed to comprehensively defeat and hence unseat an incumbent government that had ‘won” the discredited initial election. This is a fillip to opposition parties in other democracies. Another cause for celebration is that the citizens of Malawi managed to generate and sustain pressure on the courts and government to invalidate an election that was flagrantly and substantially flawed.
The Malawian military has also earned a lot of plaudits for protecting the protesting citizens. This, again, is unheard of in a region where security and armed forces have done the bidding of incumbent governments, with a fiendish disregard for the rights to protest and the safety of the citizens they attack. A further interesting thing about Chakwera’s election is that he is a member of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), a party of independence whose political fortunes were sullied by its close association with Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s omnipotent leader for country’s first 28 years of independence. The return of the MCP shows that citizens are actively following the performance of governments of the day and that, in the face of blatant failure by such governments, citizens are willing to bring back parties that once forfeited power. The MCP should also not forget that if it does not perform, it cannot count on continued support. The new lease on life should give the party impetus and purpose in improving Malawi’s impoverished conditions. It can safely be argued that those who love democracy and credible elections of leaders commend Chakwera’s triumph and are willing to give him a chance. The challenges before him are many and formidable.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 37.1 per cent of the population is affected by natural disasters, making Malawians one of the most vulnerable Africans to natural hazards. This is further compounded by the fact that 80% of Malawian workers are employed in the agricultural sector, a sector that is intrinsically dependent on climatic factors. With per capita GDP of $389, Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries. In terms of Research and Development (R & D), Malawi, a country of more than 18 million people, has less than 100 specialists per million. The effects of the coronavirus will also challenge Chakwera’s early days in the presidency. The campaign for the electoral rerun and the subsequent elections increased the exposure of citizens to the coronavirus and the incoming government should brace itself for the possibility of a spike in infections. The people of Malawi will also no doubt keep a close on how Chakwera and vice president Saulos Chilima will cooperate in running the country. Chilima was the vice president of the outgoing Peter Mutharika. Though he distanced himself from Mutharika during the twilight years of the previous government, he was its high-ranking member for almost half a decade. It is difficult to establish how much influence he wielded in Mutharika’s government, but it is reasonable to surmise that he endorsed a considerable part of Mutharika’s leadership. The Tonse Alliance that Chakwera and Chilima mounted to dislodge Mutharika from power was a marriage of convenience, which proved successful during the recent elections, but does not automatically amount to effective conjunction as the new president and his deputy form government. Above all else, discord between the two leaders is likely to deal the biggest blow to what many hope is a new and promising era in Malawi’s history. Chakwera and Chilima should find more that is in common between them and for the benefit of their country rather than an intersecting antipathy for the previous government
As said earlier, the heroes of the 2020 elections were ordinary citizens and institutions such as the courts and the military. Chakwera should respect the institutions that created a conducive environment for his accession to power. Doing so will be a boon for Malawi’s democracy and is likely to attract much needed foreign investment. Beyond the country’s borders, it would be a great thing for the rest of Africa if what happened in Malawi would be repeated elsewhere. The independence of the organs of states and the use of security and armed forces for the suppression of citizens has been noticeable in countries such as South Africa, Eswatini, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Malawi’s example proves just how inspiration occasionally comes from least expected corners. The sustenance of democracy, just like the defeat of coronavirus, should and will ultimately depend on governments working in concert with citizens. Recent African history has shown that left to their own devices, African governments rapidly become a menace to the people they should be leading. Malawi’s example has shown exactly where real power in a democracy should reside; and it’s not in the cosseted ivory towers of governments.
Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s’ Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS)