Photo: Siri Gloppen

On 21 May 2019, Malawian voters elected their President, Members of Parliament and local government councillors in a tripartite election. The incumbent President was pronounced the winner. The result has since been highly contested both in the streets and in court. After weeks of protests, the citizens have lost trust in the police. These mass demonstrations reflect the resurfacing of widespread dissatisfaction with the way in which Malawi has been governed. The demonstrations are not only about democratic demands. They concern long-standing social, political and economic problems that the government has failed to address.

Unrealistic ambitions and lack of development

The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) was tasked to administer and oversee the exercise. Ahead of polling day, the three main contending parties – the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP); and the recently formed United Transformation Movement (UTM) – had conducted intense campaigns and adopted manifestos laying out their respective agendas for the next five years. The DPP had been in power since 2004, with a two-year interlude under Joyce Banda after the demise in 2012 of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika, the elder brother of the incumbent President, Arthur Peter Mutharika (APM). In effect, by 2019 the DPP regime had lasted 13 years. Malawi has not made significant strides in development since 2004, or since the democratic opening in 1994, for that matter. The two election periods from 1994 to 2004 with the United Democratic Front (UDF) at the helm was characterised by some observers as a lost decade. Similarly, one observer asked whether APM’s lacklustre first term was ‘A lost half decade?’ In late 2019, an external consultant commissioned by the recently established Malawi Planning Commission in his report characterised as a flop the long-term Vision 2020 adopted in 1998. Its unrealistic ambitions had not been achieved by a long shot.

The 2018 census revealed that the population of Malawi had reached 17.6 million at an annual growth rate of 2.9 per cent since the last counting ten years previously. It also showed that half the country’s population is below the age of 17. A large proportion of these youths are unemployed and a potential source of instability. No doubt, they had great expectation for an electoral change of government and fresh initiatives to alleviate their plight, even though they had not yet acquired the right to vote.


Disputed election results

Within the stipulated announcement of the election results seven days after polling, MEC proclaimed that the incumbent DPP President had emerged the winner with 1,940,709 votes against 1,781,740 for the MCP candidate and 1,018,369 for the UTM. Thus, the DPP had garnered 38.57 per cent of the vote, the MCP 35.41 per cent and the UTM 20.24 per cent. In the first-past-the-post electoral system used in Malawi, the candidate who garners the largest number of votes carries the day, i.e. a mere plurality though not necessarily the majority with 50 per cent plus one vote. With the exception of the 2009 elections, support for the victorious presidential candidate had hovered around one-third of the total votes cast. However, such an electoral system calls into question the legitimacy of the winner when about two-thirds of the voters had cast their vote for another candidate. It should be recalled that Malawi’s presidential system of governance confers extensive powers on the presidency and, therefore, contestation over this top office is particularly fierce.

On the recommendations of a Special Law Commission, a bill was tabled in parliament in 2017 to amend the electoral system with a view to instituting a minimum requirement of 50 per cent plus one vote. If none of the candidates in the first round succeed in mustering a majority, a run-off election would be held between the two candidates who garnered the most votes. The bill was rejected, however, and the electoral system remained the same in 2019 as before.

The outcome of the presidential election as announced by MEC was contested by the two main contenders: Lazarus Chakwera of the MCP and Saulos Chilima of the UTM. They alleged that the administration of the elections, particularly during the counting phase, was marred by numerous irregularities. A particularly contentious issue was the use of a correction fluid – Tipp-Ex – allegedly to alter the recorded number of votes on signed (or unsigned) forms relayed to the national tally centre in Blantyre. MEC categorically denied having distributed Tipp-Ex as part of the election materials. The use of Tipp-Ex caused critics to dub the election as the ‘Tipp-Ex election’ on placards and in cartoons. Owing to the multiple unresolved irregularities, the MCP and the UTM filed a petition seeking the nullification of the presidential election results and a fresh rerun. Their petition with President Mutharika as the first defendant and MEC as the second, is currently before the Constitutional Court presided over by a panel of five judges on the bench: Healey Potani (chair), Mike Tembo, Ivy Kamanga, Dingiswayo Madise, and Redson Kapindu. The court hearings, involving the examination of many witnesses from both petitioners and defendants, commenced on 8 August and was concluded on 6 December 2019. The verdict will be delivered within 45 days from the conclusion of the proceedings.


Mass protest demonstrations marred by violence

Apart from the court case, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) – a network of civil society organisations – organised mass demonstrations in the main cities of the country. The HRDC demanded the resignation of the chair of MEC, Jane Ansah, who was considered responsible for the alleged mismanagement of the elections. Allegations were levelled against her that she was unduly sympathetic to the incumbent party. Allegedly, she had been observed donning clothing of the light blue party colours of the DPP at a party function, and expressing congratulations to the winning party in a manner not appropriate for the ostensibly impartial chair of MEC.

The demonstrations organised by the HRDC attracted huge numbers, albeit somewhat less in the southern region; the organisers were themselves astonished by the overwhelming response to their call for participation. Regrettably, the demonstrations were marred by violence, looting and destruction of property. DPP and government officials, including the President, used these incidents of violence to undermine the legitimacy of the demonstrators’ demand and misconstrued the violence to brand them as criminals. However, the HRDC stood firm and retorted that peaceful demonstrations are a constitutional right and that it is the responsibility of the police to ensure law and order and to prevent violence. Criticism was levelled against the police to the effect that they contributed to fuelling violence through the unrestrained use of tear gas and harsh, provocative methods of crowd control. Indeed, allegations were made that the police allowed so-called DPP cadets – party thugs – to impersonate police officers and unleash violence on the demonstrators. The acting Inspector-General of Police, whose confirmation as I-G was recently rejected by parliament, was himself branded as a DPP cadet by the leadership of the HRDC. Overall, the behaviour of the police was widely considered reprehensible and failing to protect the demonstrators, citizens and property. As a result, public trust in the police plummeted; even the spokesperson of the police admitted as much.

The provocative behaviour of the police spurred violence by the demonstrators as well. Police officers were beaten and kicked while lying down. A particularly egregious action involved the Superintendent in charge of the Police Mobile Unit, Usumani Imedi. In the fracas that occurred on 8 October 2019 when demonstrators tried to block the advance of the police at Nsundwe near Lilongwe, he was stoned and killed by enraged demonstrators. The killing of a senior police officer no doubt infuriated the entire police corps. The response of revenge escalated the spiral of violence. Harrowing accounts by innocent women in Nsundwe about police officers beating them, defiling and raping them circulated in the social media as well as in the newspapers, radio and TV. The women even said that some of the police officers were wearing masks (sic!).     

In an astounding development, the Malawi Defence Force, whose primary task is to protect the territorial integrity of Malawi against external threats rather than acting as the guardian of internal security, stepped in to restrain the police and to protect the demonstrators’ constitutional right to peaceful assembly and demonstration when the Malawi Police Service had apparently failed to do so.

Week after week of massive demonstrations against the government were unprecedented in Malawi since the democratic opening in 1994. The only comparable events were those that occurred on 20 July 2011 when nationwide protests resulted in violence, some 20 deaths and material destruction. However, while those events were short-lived and could be seen as an episode, they foreshadowed the 2019 post-election developments. The dissatisfaction that erupted in 2011 was quelled only temporarily but the underlying social problems that spurred the protests were left unaddressed. Dissatisfaction continued to simmer under the surface. It is not unreasonable to see the 2019 mass demonstrations as the resurfacing of widespread dissatisfaction – indeed anger – with the way in which Malawi had been governed in the interim.

However, a caveat is warranted. In 2019 (probably also in 2011), the HRDC mobilisation efforts primarily targeted the politically conscious who understood the purpose of the demonstrations and took part on that basis. However, the great mass of unemployed and poor youth (predominantly frustrated men) also appeared attracted to the demonstrations and were tempted to join in ‘for the fun of it’, albeit devoid of political consciousness. They had little to lose and took advantage of the situation of lawlessness that arose by looting shops and otherwise vandalising and causing material damage. Many of them might have had previous encounters and grievances with the police and now seized upon the opportunity to take out their frustration on police officers under the guise of legitimate protest. It would be difficult for the HRDC as the organisers to control the actions of rowdy crowds of frustrated youths. Rather, one would expect the police to be trained and experienced in crowd control, although short of firing canisters of tear gas and using other harsh methods. Evidently, the anger of segments of the protesters was so strong that lenient methods seemed ineffective. The observed violence must be seen as the culmination and reflection of long-standing social, political and economic problems that the government had failed to redress. The demonstrations were the spark that ignited violent behaviour by those participants who lacked political consciousness and direction.


Waiting for the verdict

Whatever the causes of the demonstrations and the associated violence and destruction, the longer their duration the more concerned became the government and civil society, including faith-based organisations. Clearly, the reputation of Malawi as ‘the warm heart of Africa’ was tarnished and economic growth prospects jeopardised. Consequently, as the demonstrations unfolded many quarters in society increasingly called for moderation, dialogue and conciliation in the interest of all Malawians. Even the President himself, who at the beginning of the wave of demonstrations had made defiant statements to the effect that taking to the streets would achieve nothing, assumed a more conciliatory tone when returning to Malawi from the Africa-Russia meeting in Sochi, Russia. Sadly, throughout the months that have elapsed since polling in late May, the President has not acted in a statesman-like manner by taking leadership in efforts to mediate and resolve the conflict. Rather, he initially aggravated the situation and subsequently remained aloof. For example, he did not publicly denounce the defilement and rape of the innocent Nsundwe women.

The verdict in the case currently before the Constitutional Court will no doubt be very significant and determine subsequent developments. In Malawi, the judiciary has a reputation of impartiality, not easily swayed by political pressure one way or the other. Both the petitioners, the respondents and their teams of lawyers have made statements to the effect that they will respect the court’s verdict. However, their statements are sometimes oblique which make them somewhat guarded and hard to interpret.