Malawi is Southern Africa’s next big election

NEWS ANALYSIS

On a superficial reading, Malawi’s story seems to epitomise many preconceived narratives about sub-Saharan Africa.

It is one of the world’s least developed countries. It labours under astronomical unemployment numbers. It has low life expectancy, high infant mortality and a high prevalence of HIV and Aids. Its population is predominantly rural and it has to rely disproportionately on foreign aid. It has been ranked the fourth poorest country in the world — more than half of its 18-million people live below the poverty line.

READ MORE: Fifty years after independence, Malawians struggle under grinding poverty

But there is a more complex story behind these numbers.

The May 21 elections will mark 25 years of multiparty democracy in Malawi — a trend that began only after the one-party regime, mediated by Hastings Kamuzu Banda, came to a halt in 1994. Before then, Malawi had, in effect, been a democratic dictatorship for 30 years.

READ MORE: Of power, presidents and medicine men

This wasn’t a terrible state of affairs, according to some accounts. Even Africa historian Martin Meredith, known for his pessimism, insists that under the eccentric Banda, Malawi’s economy was “often cited as an example of how a poor, landlocked, heavily populated, mineral-poor country could achieve progress in both agriculture and industrial development”.


Yes, Banda deployed his country’s wealth to build his own business empire, but his actualised vision was for that empire to benefit the country, eventually producing a third of the nation’s GDP and employing more than 10% of its workforce. The top boarding school he built, Kamuzu Academy, was ultimately gifted to the nation.

Dr Hastings Banda ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years until 1994. (George Stroud/ Daily Express/ Getty Images)

The Economist commended his avoidance of “grand socialist plans, which lured other African countries to destruction”, praising him by saying that “instead, he gathered the most valuable parts of the economy into a company”.

But dictators maintain their stranglehold at great cost, and Banda was no exception — banning women from exposing their knees, prohibiting kissing in public, unleashing spies on his compatriots, banning books, putting more than 250 000 people in jail, supervising the murder of political opponents and locking others up. In 1971, the legislature named him president for life.

At the end of his 30-year rule, Malawians remained poor. In 1994, they had had enough, electing him out of office and putting him on trial for the murder of four politicians in 1983.

For more than a decade afterwards, the country continued to suffer the consequences of his dictatorship, plunging on crucial indices until sustained competitive democracy pulled them back up. It is also possible to blame this on the fact that the ruling party, the United Democratic Front, did not win a majority in Parliament.

By 2005, under President Bingu wa Mutharika (who died in office), Malawi had turned a corner. With the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in charge of both the presidency and Parliament, reliance on aid began to decrease and its economic outlook began to improve, showing progress in the economy, education and health from 2007.

READ MORE: Mutharika wins Malawi’s disputed presidential poll

The country was praised for its economic reform and for its food security policies. In 2009, its ministry of finance reported that the number of citizens living in poverty had fallen, over a period of four years, from 52% to 40%. Mutharika was praised as a champion of the poor.

Then power appeared to get to Mutharika’s head. After being re-elected in 2009, he moved his attention from policy to politics — expelling ambassadors, cutting off ties with donors, attacking political opponents and battling (unsuccessfully) his own vice-president, Joyce Banda.

Growth began to slow and the country began to suffer. The first big symptom of it was the huge “Cashgate”’ scandal, in which some $32-million was stolen over the course of just six months in 2013 from government funds. The scandal was revealed by an audit commissioned by Joyce Banda when she took office after Mutharika’s death. The funds went from government to vendors for goods and services that were never supplied.

READ MORE: Malawi in middle of $100m ‘cashgate’ scandal

The current president Peter Mutharika, Bingu’s brother, came into office in 2014 promising to wipe away the corruption, but his party can’t seem to get rid of this virus. In 2017, there was “Maizegate”, in which the minister of agriculture, George Chaponda, was found to be breaking the law, and was fired after a court injunction. Last year, the president himself was linked in a leaked anti-corruption report with misappropriating funds in a police contract. This, alongside a controversial 2016 land reform law that took power away from community leaders and centralised authority in government, has led to widespread dissatisfaction.

Mutharika and his ruling party face stiff competition this year from his vice-president, Saulos Chilima, who is running under the banner of the United Transformation Movement; and from the Malawi Congress Party, which has entered into an alliance with Joyce Banda’s People’s Party.

There may well be a new face in Lilongwe’s State House next month. But even if Mutharika does survive, it will be in the knowledge that there is credible opposition to his rule —and that fortunes can change very quickly.

Chude Jideonwo is founder of Joy, Inc and sits on the board of StateCraft, Inc, which has worked in elections and for governments in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Senegal

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Chude Jideonwo
Chude Jideonwo

Chude Jideonwo is co-founder of StateCraft Inc, which has consulted for presidential candidates in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. He is author of the upcoming book How To Win Elections in Africa.

Related stories

‘Where the governments see statistics, I see the faces of my friends’

Yvette Raphael describes herself as a ‘professional protester, sjambok feminist and hater of trash’. Government officials would likely refer to her as ‘a rebel’. She’s fought for equality her entire life, she says. And she’s scared of no one

Malawi elections provide a global lesson in democracy

COMMENT: Opposition candidates and party can increase their chances of success at the polls by putting aside minor differences and presenting a united front

The president, the preacher and the great escape

Malawi’s new president was furious after Shepherd Bushiri’s dramatic disappearance from South Africa

Motsoaledi blames ‘porous’ and ‘rotten’ borders for Bushiris’ escape

Home affairs minister admits South Africa has weak borders, and that the Bushiris had 10 passports between them

Six injections a year could stop new HIV infections

New research from seven countries in Africa signals the future of HIV prevention — but what can it learn from its past?

The Trump era is over. But the fight for democracy is just getting started

A respected and robust United States — with all of our flaws, mistakes and missteps — can be good for the defence of democracy, not least in Africa
Advertising

Subscribers only

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

More top stories

Eusebius McKaiser: Mpofu, Gordhan caught in the crosshairs

The lawyer failed to make his Indian racist argument and the politician refused to admit he had no direct evidence

Corruption forces health shake-up in Gauteng

Dr Thembi Mokgethi appointed as new health MEC as premier seeks to stop Covid-19 malfeasance

Public-private partnerships are key for Africa’s cocoa farmers

Value chain efficiency and partnerships can sustain the livelihoods of farmers of this historically underpriced crop

Battery acid, cassava sticks and clothes hangers: We must end...

COMMENT: The US’s global gag rule blocks funding to any foreign NGOS that perform abortions, except in very limited cases. The Biden-Harris administration must rescind it
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…