/ 4 July 2024

The Malawi we hoped for wasn’t delivered in 2020

A Young Boy Is Seen Preparing Chips For Sale On The Roadside In Malingunde Malawi
Flailing economy: A boy sells chips on the roadside in Malawi. (Photo by: Angela Jimu/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“The commission has thoroughly reviewed all the complaints for the presidential election and we declare the elections to be free and fair and these results are the true results of the will of the people of Malawi.” So said the Malawi Election Commission on 31 May 2019.

A man listened attentively as he sold second-hand clothing on the roadside in Lilongwe. He, like many other Malawians, had hoped that his vote would contribute to regime change, but this dream was shattered. 

The election result was contested on the streets by the people and in court by Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party and Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement, according to the Chr Michelsen development research institute.

Social media went into a turmoil with calls for immediate action by activists and those weary from battling the vicious economic hardships. 

There were endless demonstrations from May 2019 to February 2020. Were we really going to be governed by Peter Mutharika and his Democratic People’s Party again? A nightmare most of us were not looking forward to. 

Typical of any demonstrations, some people started looting shops, damaging private property and causing costly damage to public infrastructure. The police used tear gas to quell the rowdy demonstrators. Chaos reigned in the streets.

Malawi’s constitutional court ruled on 3 February 2020 that the voting process had been marred by widespread fraud — including the use of Tippex to alter ballot papers — infuriating the majority of Malawians who had braved the wintry weather to cast their votes early and had apprehensively waited for the declaration of the final vote count results. 

The elections were re-run on 23  June 2020. Chakwera and Chilima headed a coalition of nine opposition parties, giving birth to the Tonse Alliance, to fulfil the constitutional 50+1 rule for the election winner. This time, there was serious scrutiny of the vote count process with no Tippex on ballot papers. 

All eyes and ears were on social media, television and the radio in the hope that the new alliance would take us to the promised land of less suffering. 

I remember my excitement on 27 June when Chakwera was declared the sixth president of the Republic of Malawi. People went to the streets chanting in excitement till dawn. We forgot about the first wave of Covid, with its rising number of cases. The new dawn for Malawi had come. 

During the campaigns, the Tonse Alliance had merged their manifestos and one of the promises was to create one million jobs for the youth. This captured much of the unemployed youths’ attention, many of whom were graduates. 

But today the one million jobs are nowhere to be found. Instead, cases of nepotism appear to be on the rise. Could the failure to create the jobs be a cause from poor execution or were the manifestos to lure the desperate electorate without any concrete plan in place? Was it the economic stress that brought so much naivety to the electorate to fail to read to beyond the manifestos? I am still wondering. The employment situation was worsened by the pandemic that saw many businesses altering their employment strategies, which resulted in job losses. 

Malawians had also been promised a significant change in passport application fees of MK14  000 ($8) from MK90  000 ($51.92). The renewal is not yet in effect. There are long and winding queues of people at the immigration office applying for this travel document. The livelihoods of cross-border traders in neighbouring countries have been shattered because they cannot renew their passports once they expire. Furthermore, the contract of the passport supplier was terminated without any immediate alternative in place. 

This has brought much pain for the Malawian who wants to seek greener pastures in the diaspora. Imagine the sick in need of urgent medical attention and students wanting to advance their education outside Malawi, but who cannot get a passport on time. The list of the affected is endless. 

Inflation is biting hard with no immediate relief. Agricultural exports to boost foreign currency reserves was touted as the way to go but the export base has been very low. Good sales of tobacco, which is the main exported agricultural produce, is still failing to meet the annual import demands. The importer has to patiently wait for the banks to avail the much-needed forex. 

The dishonest retailers are capitalising on the situation by ever-increasing their prices. Retooling is being affected with manufacturers frequently missing their production schedules and starving the market in the process. 

Natural disasters such as Tropical Cyclone Freddy, which caused unimaginable damage, and the current El Niño drought also fastened their economic grip on the Malawian populace. The cost of living keeps going up, with employers having to face the task of frequently explaining to their employees why they cannot increase their wages.

It does not end there. Recently Malawi witnessed an acute fuel supply shortage that threatened to bring the economy to its knees. The situation appears to have stabilised for now but the wary will always wonder if a permanent solution was prescribed. 

2023 Concordia Annual Summit September 19
President Lazarus Chakwera (above) was elected in a rerun of the 2019 elections alongside Saulos Chilima, who died in a plane crash. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

Current reports of less than a month’s stock of fuel in the country by the national fuel importer are worrying to both the commuting and the motoring public with the latter still healing from the trauma of spending nights in fuel queues or surfing through media sites looking for fuel delivery updates.

The first devaluation of the Malawian kwacha after Tonse Alliance took over power was in 2022 — 23% — with hope that there would be an inverse trend to the exchange rate but the following year there was another devaluation, this time of 40%. This happened without any corresponding social protection measures to protect the vulnerable populations and control inflation, which led to an increase in the cost of living and greater economic hardship for Malawians. 

During the campaign season we were promised “Kudya katatu pa tsiku”, meaning three meals a day. But the effect of Tropical Cyclone Freddy in 2023 and El Niño in 2023-24 has made food insecurity worse than it was. Malawians rely on maize as a staple food and are involved in smallholder farming to sell agricultural produce either locally or for export. 

Fertiliser, which was promised would cost MK5  000 ($2.46) a bag so that everyone could afford it, now costs MK95  000 ($54). There are inadequate safety nets to support the poor, which has made the majority of Malawians ultra-poor and continue to struggle with hunger and malnutrition.

We are a few months away from the next elections in 2025 and there is a need to reflect on these socio-economic problems. The gap between the promises made by the ruling government in 2020 and the reality four years later is of serious concern. 

The question most Malawians fear is, what other calamities should we expect if the Tonse Alliance does not take accountability for these failed promises and always puts the blame on the former government? 

Never did we think that we would lose what we believe to be our last hope for a better Malawi in 2025 to a plane crash on 10 June 2024. This has left us with more questions and speculations about the death of the state vice-president of Malawi, Chilima, and a gloomy imagination of the future of Malawi. 

Malawians must hold our leaders accountable and be given a platform to be heard and not threatened to keep quiet. There is a need for the government to take concrete steps to address these problems we have. 

Despite the myriad economic and social hardships, there is the economic blueprint that we do hope will reverse the economic losses. This is in the Malawi Vision 2063 masterplan, which requires a holistic mindset change for a better Malawi. 

For once, let us forget about nepotism and synergise by having the Malawi we desire, one with experts who have the experience and skills to improve administrative efficiency, secure stable fuel supplies, implement effective agricultural policies, create more jobs for the youth and manage the economy to avoid harmful devaluations. 

The time for pointing fingers must stop; the time for rectifying these problems is now. Give me hope to vote again in 2025.

Tsogololathu Itaye is a Canon Collins PhD candidate in social work at the University of Cape Town and a lecturer in the department of sociology and population studies at the University of Malawi. This article was first submitted as part of the Canon Collins Troubling Power essay competition.