Ambuje: Ideological polygamy and political effectiveness in Malawi

I wager not a whole lot of us remember the contents of our political party platforms from the last general election? I reckon few party activists, even members of national executive committees, are conversant with details of their respective parties’ constitutions. As for the general public knowing this literature in detail, forget about it!


Malawi’s political parties are best known by the region where they have their highest popularity and by who the leader is. Party identity independent of these parameters is practically non-existent. If an alien landed at Lilongwe today he would be hard pressed to know the ideological differences to base his political choice on among the available options.

All parties say they want development, security, democracy, prosperity and peace. What we can’t quite discern are their specific and unique approaches for achieving these goals. In the western democracies which we try to emulate, they usually have parties of the left, the centre-left, the centre, the centre-right and the right based on their respective approaches on economy, finance, social policy and constitutional interpretation.

If parties don’t each have their own unique approaches to Malawi’s issues, why do they exist separately from one another? A stochastic approach to dealing with serious national issues cannot provide durable solutions.

Opposition parties included

Even the approach and methods of opposition parties ought to be based on broader ideological principles. Once those philosophies are established, parties ought to stand for, uphold and defend them even when they are in opposition.

For example, when the Malawi Congress Party  (MCP) was established around 1960 as a successor organisation to the Nyasaland African Congress, its identity and agenda were clear. It was a nationalist party aimed at both abolishing the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and bringing about politically independence. The MCP directed all its political activity towards the achievement of these goals. Note that in those years it was not a governing party. And yet by 1964 it had achieved both its objectives. Of course what it did with power once the nation got independence is another discussion for another day.

Similarly from1990 to 1993 the United Democratic Front (UDF) was not an opposition party. There were no opposition parties allowed at the time. But the UDF and others worked effectively and achieved their objectives in large part because their aims were clear and coherent. The UDF wanted to abolish dictatorship and bring about both multi-party democracy and economic liberalisation.

Between the time the UDF gained power in 1994 and the time they left office in 2004, both multiparty democracy and a liberalised economy were facts of Malawi life. The icing on the cake was the introduction of free primary education.

The point is not whether a liberalised economy, multi-party democracy and free primary education have been beneficial to Malawi. The point is that these were achieved in large part because of the clear-eyed and coherent vision of the party that brought them about.

Parties are at their most effective when they have a clear philosophical or ideological identity and a clear agenda for promoting their vision.

Opposition parties today are part of the power structure. They are represented in Parliament and therefore in a position to leverage influence. They have access to the media and various podiums from which to influence public opinion. Most importantly, they have access to their own constituents whom they represent in Parliament. Therefore the belief that only when a party is actually heading government can it promote its agenda is grist for cynicism and insouciance.

Galatians 1:6

Campaign platforms have become goods waiting to be jettisoned by governing parties. They always say they anticipated more resources before they entered government and instead inherited coffers depleted by the previous regime. They offer this as the reason they cannot fulfil their campaign promises. For their part, opposition parties always justify their ineffectiveness by saying they are not the governing party and therefore cannot implement anything. Excuses, excuses, excuses. The example of the MCP between 1960 and 1964; and the UDF between 1990 and 1994 belies these excuses.

Campaign promises are not only being ignored by the parties, they are also largely forgotten by those whose job it is to keep the parties honest. The media, pressure groups and ordinary citizens have also forgotten them. The result is that parties both in government and opposition are not adequately held accountable for their respective failures to live up to their campaign commitments.

The way a party governs or opposes is more effective if it is based on well established, coherent, and continually advertised party principles. These are the very ideological identity of the party, its raison d’etre. The challenge for parties today is to each forge a clear identity not based on region of popularity. I am waiting to see which part will be the first to emerge with strongly-held and well advertised moorings in principle that differentiate it from the next and from the rest.

On the other hand, parties shouldn’t stand for everything. That is ideological polygamy and it contributes to the political ineffectiveness we see in Malawi today.

  • The author, Tom Likambale, is from Balaka Township, Malawi.
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10 thoughts on “Ambuje: Ideological polygamy and political effectiveness in Malawi”

  1. APM says:

    I believe, the only solution is federal system as everyone will reap from his or her harvest!

  2. nick says:

    A typically well-written and well-argued piece by Likambale. It has provoked an equally interesting and thoughtful correspondence. Presumably Tom would say that his own consistent attachment to UDF and the Muluzi family, through thick and thin, has been based on their party manifestos and official records? Permit my scepticism —!!

  3. Ze Roberto says:

    Tom, I agree with you. However, the answer to the puzzle is already in your article. After all is said the ultimate cardinal deciding factor is the ballot. Now, what I see in Malawi is that we are all decided voters apriori. We are already decided voters based on our tribal/ regional inclination. Of course tribal inclination are of more severe proportions in some regions than others. I would bet, even if, for example, MCP had a sound political idealogy, it would be almost impossible to win the electorate from say, Phalombe district because the electorates there already tribalistically made a decision to vote for DPP come what may. While the same pattern would happen if DPP tried to sell their idealogy in some parts of the central region of Malawi, one would argue that it is to lesser extent because we have a DPP parliamentarian in Dowa district which may effectively indicate that in Dowa district people can vote for another party other than MCP alone. Further to say, we have to be very clever to interpret the situation here because in some instances it’s not necessarily the political party that people would vote for but the high political affinity the individual person representing the party has.
    Perhaps one can then say people from the north are undecided voters or neutral if I may call it that way. Well, but that needs a lot of effort to defend. In my view northerners seem to be coated as undecided voters because of political orphanhood. It goes back to their political leaders. When late Chakufwa Chihana had all his mind on AFORD, almost all northerners belonged to this party. It was until when Simbi ya kuotcha decided to ‘sell’ the part, a decision which paved way for its demise. After the party succumbed to forces of extinction, followers were left with no option but to be preyed by opportunistic parties from other regions. So, in Malawi the major problem lies in the very fabric of the electorates. Sadly, I don’t see any amount of civic education changing this because even thone regarded as educated would still rally behind an inept party leader so longer as they belong to the same tribe. Malawians are not nationalistic no wonder we will remain a thir world country.

  4. Beston Chagala says:

    The major problem in Malawi is “the best can be done by me and my party only”syndrome.While Governing Parties try their best to prevent any good willing malawian or organisation(party) from assisting malawians for fear of gaining political popularity, opposition parties rejoice at the prolonged problems facing the government as their stepping stone into government in the next elections.Now my question are,”for whose benefit are the political leadership if not for ordinary malawians?Why do you rebel against those helping Malawians especially when they are not affiliated to governing party?And Why do you opposition rejoice at the prolonged suffering of malawians for your political gain?

  5. Thitherward 'wendo says:

    Politics in Malawi is for the 17% who live in towns and cities. The other 83% can go whistle for improvements in our lives. The city-based politicians throw inputs at us the way we thrown chicken shit on our gardens. These inputs help us to survive for another year – but they do not make our lives any happier.

    Nowadays, nearly everything that is interesting or entertaining requires electricity. When will the politicians reveal their plans to provide the rural areas with subsidized solar power?

    It’s about time we looked at the numbers and the demographics. Farmers produce nearly all of what we sell internationally. Farmers are the majority in nearly every district. A real farmers’ party would not be based in one region. Potentially, farmers have the numbers and the economic power to take control of this country by peaceful, political means.

    What few benefits the urban areas produce are distributed within the urban areas. Very little gets out to the rural areas. The relationship between the city and the village is that of parasite to host.

    Many commentators have acknowledged that a change of mind-set is required if Malawi is to develop. I suggest that the first change that we need is a change of priorities.

    Put the 83% first.

  6. Kaka says:

    central region and southern region are the only regions in this country who vote to protect their base, koma ATUMBUKA IFE TILIBE NZERU. TIPAPHA CHIPAN CHATU. tINADANA NDI CHIHANA CHIKWA NDIFE OZIKONDA.

  7. MPINDO says:

    It’s very true, political parties are corrupting us! See, some of us have no idea which political party stands for what? What is its uniqueness and its essential difference? No wonder our political leaders remain political prostitutes, who knows? To day I am blue, tomorrow I am Tambala, then yellow is seducing me, I will end up being orange because all of them as political parties have no specific identity.
    The worst is that when I am to vote I am left with no criterion to make an informed choice. Regionalism becomes the only plausible alternative…
    With our poor
    system of electections ( I mean he who gets the simple majority wins)
    I will always go to the Capital hill with my 36% regardless of the sum total of 64% from the regions who has little population.

  8. Achiwechetaga says:

    Tom, mbuzi zimabala mbuzi. The parties merely reflect the situation of general Malawian thinking. Malawians cherish lies. A parliamentary who, for example, promises to provide checks and balances will never be elected in Malawi. We are ready to vote for somebody who promises lies. In that environment, parties can never be objective. I would give the example of the “20 point plan” offer by PPM. It is fair to say that Malawi gave the party fewer votes than the value of their manifesto in 2014. The blame is on biased electorate.
    Another problem is lack of funds belonging to the party as a collection. Parties are funded by families and so belong to and represent them.
    I should just agree with you that there is a long way to go. Otherwise, the MCP borrowed ideas of the NAC, and the UDF shared its goal with AFOD.

  9. Dzambo says:

    This analysis, while credible at identifying the lack of clear_cut vision in Malawi politics, fails to articulate the major reason for this state of affair; an illiterate electorate that lives on its stomach and is therefore only concerned with basic survival. A polished western policy discourse wouldn’t make sense to such an audience. You are right that mcp and udf did appeal to the same masses, but such appeal was again in the context of survival; against white cruelty and sheer nationalism on the one hand, and banda’ cruelty on the other: the result of the later revealed the inherent tribalism in the nation, again partly a fruit illiteracy fueled by the “wakwathu atithandiza syndrome.” Therefore it might be imprudent to measure our politics based on “book” democracy when the same cannot work on the ground!
    The needs of our society dictate the type of politics we have! We need more people in school to change the social fabric and transform our politics.

  10. Mswachi says:

    I do agree. We as a people have lost a broader vision of what we want to achieve by the end of the day. Both at the personal level or the highest level. Political parties do not have a clear vision of what they want to do for Mother Malawi. Unless we as a nation have clear goals, visions and objectives; and design ways and means of achieving these then we can start dreaming of progress and development.

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