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Malawi at 50: There is more to celebrate than you think

Malawi turned 50 years old recently, and as with any birthday celebration it was time to look at achievements in the past, if any, and also look forward to see what lies ahead. Some said there wasn’t much to celebrate while others took a more reflective tone. One such person was Malawian writer and academic Jimmy Kainja.

Vera Chirwa, a Malawian former political prisoner and human rights activist, observed in her autobiography, Fearless Fighter, that it took Malawi 30 years to achieve a Malawian democracy and expressed her hope it should not take another 30 years to make Malawian democrats. This is an observation rooted in her experience of a repressive past and inspired by her hope of a better future, informed by the promising present.

Vera Chirwa (Image via Africa Files - Student Voices)
Vera Chirwa was Malawi’s first female lawyer – she and her husband Orton Chirwa (who was the country’s first Minister of Justice and Attorney General) were imprisoned by Kamuzu Banda. He died in jail in 1992, after  11 years on death row, shortly after her release  (Image via Africa Files – Student Voices)

In these few words, a full story of Malawi is told. Chirwa was writing when Malawi had just emerged from 30 years of Kamuzu Banda’s ruthless dictatorship, which had been preceded by 71 years of colonialism under the British. Under these regimes, leaders were seen as demi-god to be feared, revered and worshiped.

Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the first president of Malawi
Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the first president of Malawi, as described in a local newspaper, the Malawi Voice

Generations of Malawians have grown to believe this is the natural relationship between leaders and people they lead. It would take at least a generation or two to undo this mentality. Chirwa may have undermined this perspective; it may yet take longer than 30 years to make Malawian democrats. Yet, there is enough evidence to show that Malawi democracy is headed in the right direction.

On 6 July 2014 the country celebrated its 50th  anniversary. It is a moment of celebration but more attention is also given to analysis of the country’s achievements in this period of self-rule. First because 50 years is a landmark, second because of the dire state of the country’s economy.

Commentators and analysts are raising questions like is there “anything to celebrate?” These questions are not without justification, especially considering that up to 40 per cent of Malawi’s national budget come from donors. It is easy to get fixated on negatives and not positives because poverty is more pronounced than success, especially in a country that has poor service delivery still leaves a lot to be desired. Yet, you cannot shape a better future by concentrating on negatives. You build on positive and Malawi is not short of it. The fact that Malawi has achieved an admirable democratic climate within these 50 years cannot be underestimated. This is something to build on.

In June 1993, Malawians voted in a referendum to decide whether to continue with one-party rule or adopt multiparty democracy. 64 per cent of Malawians voted against a one party system – ending Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorship. This paved the way for a 1994 general elections where Banda lost to Bakili Muluzi. Banda conceded defeat before the counting was finished.

Bakili Muluzi
Bakili Muluzi

The significance of Banda’s concession is often overlooked but connecting the dots today you realise that it laid a foundation of future presidential successions based on respect for the rule of law.

After doing his two terms in office, via re-election, Muluzi tried to amend the republican constitution so he could compete beyond the constitutional two terms. His attempt was rejected by the Malawi parliament. Though reluctantly, Muluzi respected the outcome and stepped aside.

Bingu wa Mutharika
Bingu wa Mutharika

Bingu wa Mutharika, Muluzi’s successor, died in office of heart attack. His succession was yet another test for Malawi. The late Mutharika’s inner-circle tried to stop Joyce Banda (no relation with Kamuzu) fulfilling constitutional mandate and succeed Mutharika with whom she was a running mate, when he came to power. Joyce Banda peacefully succeed Mutharika two days after his death.

Joyce Banda
Joyce Banda

Joyce Banda complained of malpractices and alleged vote rigging in the 20 May 2014 tripartite elections after losing to Peter Mutharika, Bingu’s younger brother. In the end however, she accepted defeat and congratulated the winner.

These cases show how tolerant Malawians are and it is something to celebrate and build on.

The biggest problem in Malawi at the moment is lack of service delivery. Access to clean water is still a problem; less than 10 per cent of the country’s estimated 15 million people have access to electricity; education standards are remain poor; food security remains a perennial problem; health care needs sorting out and unemployment is rife. Yet, the country’s voting pattern indicates that the direction of a democratic Malawi is a promising one.

Underperforming politicians, especially at parliamentary level, continue to lose elections. Of the 193 parliamentarians, no more than four of them were MPs in 1994 when Malawians first voted. Similarly, people have shown a disdain for lack of intra-party democracy. Political parties tend to impose candidates on the electorate instead of conducting open and fair primary elections to allow people to choose their own candidate.

In 1994 there was no single independent MP; 10 years later there were 40 independent MPs; 20 years on 53 independent MPs have been elected, beating all the political parties. Historically, most independent MPs end up joining ruling parties but this does not take away the fact that the Malawi electorate have shown more democratic maturity than their leaders.

Looking ahead, Malawi will do just fine. The only gulf is between the maturing democracy and poor service delivery, which has undermined socioeconomic progress in the last 50 years. Overtime time this gulf will narrow down, especially since the electorate are increasingly showing that they are not prepared to reward under-performing representatives.

Peter Mutharika - Malawi's 5th president.
Peter Mutharika – Malawi’s 5th president.

Until the international celebrity circus arrived with Madonna’s adoption of two children in Malawi, perhaps not many people had heard of this country we proudly call The Warm Heart of Africa. This is due to its peaceful coexistence and tranquillity. For many countries on the continent and indeed elsewhere, elections and a push towards democracy have meant perennial political violence and chaos, but not so in Malawi. 

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