Malawi at 45: More than Madonna’s Hunting Ground

Image: Flickr, Office Holidays
Image: Flickr, Office Holidays

Malawi has been in the headlines, following pop-star Madonna's battles to adopt a second child from this tiny, landlocked southern African state.

But as Malawi gears up to celebrate its 45th independence day on 6 July, it’s a good time to reflect on the lessons of its recent political trajectory. There were very high hopes for Malawi following its democratisation in 1994, after decades as a one-party state. But where does the country stand now? First, a bit of historical context. Following its independence from Britain in 1964, Malawi set out on a path similar to many post-independence African states – seeking development and prosperity, but unfortunately suffering from bad governance, human rights abuses and usurpation of political power. The 1966 constitution made Malawi a one-party state and five years later Hastings Kamuzu Banda was voted president for life. Authoritarian one-party rule followed until 1993, when the “third wave” of democracy reached Malawi. Voters rescinded the life rule of the octogenarian, ailing President Banda in a landmark referendum that ushered in multi-party politics, and the two terms of rule by President Bakilili Muluzi. The new President freed political prisoners and re-established freedom of speech, but also presided over many corruption scandals. He handpicked his former finance minister, Bingu wa Mutharika, as the ruling United Democratic Front’s (UDF) candidate for the 2004 polls.

Mutharika’s first term was likewise characterised by turmoil. Three UDF officials brought guns to a meeting with him and were subsequently charged with treason (although he later pardoned them); he resigned from his own party and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); and the speaker of parliament collapsed and died during a heated debate surrounding a motion to impeach Mutharika. However, the troubles did not stop there. 2006 saw the arrests of Vice-President Cassim Chilumpha on treason charges, and Muluzi for corruption. High-profile arrests continued in the run up to the May 2009 polls, this time of prominent opposition politicians, mostly breakaways from the ruling party, charged with plotting against Mutharika in cahoots with Muluzi. Muluzi was arrested again in 2009 on corruption charges as he made another bid for the presidency – claiming that the constitution only barred him from a third consecutive term – only denied by the courts days before the elections.

Initially, there was much enthusiasm about Muluzi’s rule, in both Africa and the international community. In his first term, Malawi’s political and civil liberties increased to the point where they were amongst the highest in Africa, according to the Freedom House Index – improving “Not Free” to “Free” between 1995 and 1999. However, the new millennium saw Malawi slipping to “Partially Free”. Its governance practices also failed to progress as originally envisioned – although Malawi’s constitution is supported by the necessary constitutional bodies (including the Anti-Corruption Bureau, Human Rights Commission, and the Law Commission), all of these have been politically manipulated in the past. The recent (May 2009) election, although relatively peaceful, was also not surrounded by an aura of freedom and openness. Joy Radio (owned by Muluzi) was closed down after broadcasting a satire directed at Mutharika and its presenters arrested; opposition groups claimed that the government had committed electoral fraud by denying access to vote-counting centres to opposition poll agents; and the European Union (EU) observation team also noted that state television was clearly biased towards the president.

This is a pattern sadly familiar in too many African states. After the initial euphoria about the “third wave” of democratisation after the Cold War ended, it became apparent that many of the newly democratised states were not that different from their post-colonial counterparts. Bad governance practices – such as corruption, electoral fraud, clientilism, weak political institutions and lack of accountability have remained deeply ingrained in political systems. The initial rise to freedoms and liberties soon gave way to abuse of office and undemocratic practices. However, Malawi does not appear in danger of returning to its authoritarian past – multi-partyism seems entrenched, as demonstrated by the May 2009 elections. The DPP took 114 seats (out of 193) – a remarkable feat for a party that has existed for only four years. Most importantly, analysts noted that the 2009 election marked a departure from traditional voting patters rooted in regional and tribal allegiance. Yet, much work needs to be done in order for democracy to become consolidated and strengthened and its socio-economic issues resolved.

45 years after independence, Malawi remains among the world’s least developed countries. It ranks 162nd out of 179 states on the 2008 Human Development Index (HDI), beset by high HIV rates and extreme poverty. More than one-third of the population does not have access to safe drinking water. Apart from that, the country is also affected by poor incentives for investment, low levels of education and a high population growth rate. Its infant mortality rate is 104 per 1,000 births – among the highest in Africa, and current life expectancy is under 40 years (heavily influenced by Aids). Political problems are also apparent, as Malawi was listed at number 103 (out of 167 and sandwiched between Russia and Georgia) in the 2007 Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy, scoring particularly low (3.89 out of 10) for political participation. The 2008 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index gives Malawi a score of 2.8 (1 being most corrupt, 10 being least). Observers also worry the large DPP majority will diminish its accountability to voters, while critics claim that intolerance and intimidation continue to exist in Malawi’s politics, along with widespread corruption.

Malawi’s main priority should be focusing on resolving its various socio-economic issues – a tough ask in the current global climate. It is also a signatory to the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) – a unique process which brings governments and civil society together to assess governance across four thematic areas: political, economic, social and corporate, although its political turmoil means that little has happened on the ground since accession in mid-2004. However, little has been done to get the review going. The APRM review could potentially identify strategies to remedy these. Political participation and deepening democracy tend to be inextricably linked and Malawi’s economic status needs to rise before there are further improvements in governance and democratic processes.