A Little-Known, Very Democratic African Election

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It is just about all Malawians can talk about right now—the upcoming tripartite elections. Electioneering communications are everywhere—fake news and all. The real news is that on May 21, 2019, the small, little-known African country of Malawi goes to the polls to elect a president, members of parliament and local government councilors. This election is particularly exciting because it has a little bit of everything—tribal, political, religious and, believe it or not, family drama. You could just about cut the suspense.

The incumbent president, Peter Mutharika, is running for a second five-year term against a slate of challengers that includes at least two members of his cabinet, and an opposition party that has allied itself with the woman he replaced as president. Yet, the civilized conduct of the campaign so far is perhaps as much a sign of the current president’s democratic bona fides as it is a harbinger of the country’s maturity as a republican democracy. On an African continent replete with leaders who overstay their welcome or stifle the opposition, Malawi’s upcoming election is remarkable for the relative freedom in which the opposition has been allowed to campaign. It is arguably the most democratic election in the country’s post-democracy history and in this part of Africa. At this point you must be wondering where in Africa Malawi is located.  

This is not surprising given the country’s low international profile, and the fact that you would have to be literally looking for it to find it on a map. But believe me when I tell you that it is there in the southeastern part of the African continent. The small country of Malawi is tucked away among Zambia to the West, Tanzania to the North, and Mozambique everywhere else. Its most distinctive feature is the beautiful fresh-water lake that runs along almost the entire length of the eastern part of the country. (The Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, who visited in the late 1850s, called it the Lake of Stars because the lanterns of the fishermen at night resembled stars.)

Livingstone had encouraged his countrymen to settle in the area to bring commerce and Christianity, which he hoped would mitigate against the inhumanity of the Arab slave trade. The territory became a British protectorate in 1891. Nyasaland (literally, Lakeland) was the official name given to Malawi back in 1907, and it was based on the fact that in the tribal language of the lake-dwelling Yao tribe, the term for a lake is nyasa.

The territory was poor, and it was used mainly to supply labor to the wealthier territories under British influence—Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). It is not for nothing that it was, at times, referred to by the rather derisive sobriquet—the Queens Cinderella colony, even though it, like Northern Rhodesia, was a protectorate and not a colony, per se. The need for labor culminated in the bundling of the three territories into the ill-advised and somewhat short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which was established on August 1, 1953, with the aim of, among other things, bringing Malawi’s labor pool more into the fold of white control, so to speak.  Then, as now, it is Malawians who set a political example for other Africans to follow.

They were tired of being used, and they had seen the reality of life in the white-dominated, self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia; they wanted no part of it. They came back home after their time as laborers and began to actively agitate for independence. It was due to their efforts and especially those of their leader, the Western-educated Dr. Hastings Banda, that the federation was eventually abandoned, leading to independence on July 6, 1964. President Hastings Banda proved to be a dictator, one who bucked the trend by establishing diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa, much to the considerable chagrin of other African leaders. A referendum in 1993 and multiparty elections in 1994 would bring an end to his and his Malawi Congress Party’s (MCP) government. His end was hastened by the fact that his Western benefactors had abandoned him now that, with the end of the Cold War, they no longer needed him as a bulwark against the further spread of socialism in Africa.

He was replaced by Bakili Muluzi, the first Muslim president, and his United Democratic Front (UDF). He governed for the mandatory two terms up to 2004, but he wanted an additional—unconstitutional—third term in office. This was when the present electoral drama truly began: pay close attention! Having failed in his bid to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term, President Muluzi settled for a party outsider—a then little-known former international civil servant who had also briefly served in his cabinet, Bingu wa Mutharika—as his successor.

He won the 2004 election, promptly dumped Muluzi and his UDF, and went on to establish the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). His first term was, by all accounts, auspicious, and he won a second term in 2009 with a landslide. His second term was, well, complicated. He expelled the British high commissioner because of some disparaging comments the high commissioner had made about him in a diplomatic cable as uncovered by Wikileaks—of all media. In so doing, he lost the support of Western donors, and the economy was worse for it. 

At the time of his untimely death from a heart attack in 2012, President Bingu wa Mutharika was on his second vice president, having fallen out with his first one—Casssim Chilumpha, who was still aligned with Muluzi’s UDF. Like Muluzi, Chilumpha is a Muslim. President Bingu wa Mutharika was replaced in office by his vice president, who became President Joyce Banda—the first female president in the country’s history. At the time of her assuming office, she, too, was estranged from her boss.

She founded the People’s Party (PP), but her time in office also proved volatile, with allegations of wholesale corruption flying around, spurred by the attempted murder of her government’s budget director. She and the PP would go on to lose the 2014 election to the current president, who happens to be the brother of her former boss. She left the country soon after, never to be seen or heard from again until now, which brings us to the present election.  

In the 2014 election, the current president run on a ticket with one Saulos Chilima, the youthful former chief executive of a mobile phone service company. Predictably, he and his vice president have also had a falling out, and the vice president is running against his boss. His party—the United Transformation Movement (UTM)—has made some inroads among the youth.

Meanwhile, one of the other youthful people President Peter Mutharika appointed to his cabinet, Atupele Muluzi, is also running against him. He is the son of the former president, Bakili Muluzi—remember him? Yeah, him, the one who was dumped by the current president’s brother. Well, his son has picked off where the father left off, and he too is running for president on the UDF ticket.

But we are not done yet: the plot thickens. Having been out of government for 25 years, the MCP of Hastings Banda has mounted perhaps its most vigorous campaign yet. A Christian Pentecostal pastor from the central region of the country, Lazarus Chakwera, has joined forces with Sidik Mia, a Muslim from the southern region of the country. The Muslims are a significant voting bloc in the eastern part of the country, and so the political calculus there should be clear enough. This is Chakwera’s second go-around, having come second in the 2014 election.

Apparently, they are not taking any chances this time. For good measure, the MCP has allied itself with Joyce Banda and her PP. Like Atupele Muluzi, she is also from the eastern region, but unlike him, she is not a Muslim. In case you have forgotten, she lost the 2014 election to the current president. For his part, the current president has opted, again, to choose a running mate from Ntcheu in the central region, the same district his current vice president comes from, the better to curb his political influence in the area.

The smart money, based on the numbers of registered voters and the historically tribal voting patterns, is that either the MCP or the DPP will win this election. Whoever wins, though, Malawians should be proud of their country’s democracy and the way they have generally conducted themselves this political campaign cycle. Such a relatively free and fair political campaign season is possible but in a handful of African countries.

Surely, one, if not more, of the opposition candidates would have been arrested or otherwise barred from running in some other African country. It is not for nothing that Malawi ranks higher than many other neighboring African countries on Freedom House’s freedom indexes. In Malawi, the president can run against his vice president and his minister of health—who are both still serving in his cabinet by the way. Then again, perhaps this should not be surprising. Afterall, it is not for nothing that Malawi’s other, rather endearing, sobriquet is—the Warm Heart of Africa. Do visit some time when you get a chance, and maybe swim in Livingstone’s Lake of Stars. I am sure he would be proud of how Nyasaland turned out politically.     

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