/ 7 February 2020

Covering Malawi’s political crisis

Power to the people: Protesters at a rally in Lilongwe in January gathered to denounce alleged attempts to bribe judges overseeing a legal challenge to the re-election last year of Malawian President Peter Mutharika
Protesters at a rally in Lilongwe in January gathered to denounce alleged attempts to bribe judges overseeing a legal challenge to the re-election last year of Malawian President Peter Mutharika. Photo: Amos Gumulira/AFP

I have reported on almost every moment of Malawi’s bitter, sometimes violent election dispute — the dispute that was settled, for now at least, by this week’s unprecedented Constitutional Court decision to annul the result and order a new poll.

Over the past eight months, I have been harassed and robbed, feared for my life — and even ended up in jail. But I have also seen young people rise up to defend their aspirations in a way that has been both uplifting and illuminating.

My first brush with trouble came even before the results were in. In May 2019, I was in Malambo village, where I was watching opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera cast his ballot. I was at the Kabudula Trading Centre, charging my laptop, when I was suddenly encircled by a group of angry men. Their mood was threatening: they wanted to know exactly what I was doing there, and for me to prove my bona fides.

In the context of the history of the area, their suspicion made perfect sense. It has been an opposition stronghold for decades, but the opposition has lost every election since Malawi’s return to democracy in 1994. Opposition leaders such as Chakwera keep telling people their votes are being stolen, so why wouldn’t they be suspicious of a stranger?

I eventually persuaded them that I was a real journalist, and voting continued without incident. The same could not be said at the St Thomas polling station in Lilongwe, where another opposition candidate, Saulos Chilima, was supposed to be voting.

Chilima’s entry into the presidential race was a shock: the young telecoms executive had been vice-president to the incumbent President Peter Mutharika, until the pair fell out. Malawi’s Constitution means that the president does not have the power to dismiss his vice-president. Cabinet meetings in the last months of Mutharika’s first term were tense.

So here was Chilima on voting day. Smartly dressed in a traditional African shirt, about to cast his vote at a school polling centre — dreaming his vote would be one of millions that would make him president. Except his name was not on the St Thomas voters’ roll.

After much consternation, it was discovered that Chilima’s name had been transferred to a polling centre thousands of kilometres away, on an island in Lake Malawi accessible only by an old ship that docks there once a week.

Chilima was allowed to vote by order of the electoral commission chairperson, Dr Jane Ansah, a Supreme Court of Appeal justice on secondment to the electoral body. Chilima’s name, it was later confirmed, was transferred to the island by a data clerk who would later die in a road accident. He had been charged in connection with the incident and he died on the day of his first court appearance, shortly after being granted bail.

The election results gave Mutharika a narrow victory over both his main rivals, but it was not long before the opposition began to cry foul. The most obvious sign that something was wrong was the use of Tippex — the correction fluid — to alter numbers on results sheets.

Mutharika hurriedly inaugurated himself, seemingly oblivious to the growing street protests. A court challenge launched by the opposition was expected to fizzle out and be forgotten, as others had been in the past.

Contrary to all expectations, the protests continued over the next weeks and months, making some areas of the country inaccessible to the police and effectively ungovernable. So too did the court case, despite political pressure to throw it out. But judges had to reckon with popular pressure too: a failure to observe due process may have incited a revolution.

On the streets, the crowds kept coming, in their hundreds and thousands. While covering one of these protests in Lilongwe, a group of young protesters attacked me as I was taking photographs. They took my phone and my wallet. One of them grabbed me by the neck, as others swarmed around me and threatened to beat me senseless. I was rescued by another brave journalist, who wrestled with my attackers; and by a contingent from the Malawi Defence Force, which had been mobilised to oversee the protest action.

I was not the only journalist or observer attacked that day. A female colleague was almost stripped naked, her jeans torn apart. Nick Chakwera, son of opposition leader Lazarus, almost suffered the same fate after attempting to film the protests on his phone. The anger I witnessed made me realise the protesters’ main grievance was not necessarily political; that they would probably be here, and be just as angry, regardless of who had won. They are victims of an economy that has not grown meaningfully in years; of a country in which jobs are scarce and low-quality; and of a government that has for too long been concerned more with power than with governance.

And, it must be noted, the looting and violence was committed by a tiny fraction of the many, many Malawians who braved sun and rain, who sacrificed their time to demand that their vote was respected.

Village after village, town after town, month after month, young and old, whether through organised or spontaneous protests; almost as one, Malawi raised its voice to demand justice.

My troubles were not yet over. A European Union team arrived in Lilongwe to release its report into the election. The report was controversial, and the government was nervous. Waiting at the airport to interview the European delegation were three journalists, myself included. But before we could ask our questions, we were arrested by police and thrown into a tiny, smelly cell in the basement. They removed our belts and shoes, and deleted footage from my colleagues’ cameras.

The police charged the three of us with “behaving in a disorderly manner contrary to the Aviation Act”. Later, when word of our arrest got out, we were released and the charges were withdrawn.

For a journalist, most weeks during this election fiasco have been memorable, but none more so than this one. On Monday I woke up fearing the worst — that the verdict the Constitutional Court was about to deliver would spark nationwide violence. I made my way to the Lilongwe courtroom through a ghost city, with shops closed and residents too scared to go outdoors, and military helicopters circling above the city. We had to navigate through military and police checkpoints.

It took 10 hours for the panel of five judges to read out the judgment. Their final verdict was unprecedented: the election was marred by grave irregularities and a new vote must be held. The results don’t count. As Judge President Healey Potani uttered the magic word, “nullification”, the courtroom erupted in cheers. Chakwera and Chilima hugged.

The verdict is a victory for Malawi’s legal processes, but even more so it is a victory for the youths, opposition supporters and activists who braved tear gas and police intimidation to demand their democratic rights.

The battle is not over yet, however. As incumbent, Mutharika stays as president (with Chilima as his vice-president, and has said he will appeal the court’s verdict). And a new election does not guarantee Mutharika’s ouster.

This is tomorrow’s problem, however. For now, Malawians can celebrate the fact that they once again have hope for their country’s future — and they know they created that hope for themselves.