The importance of voter education in Malawi can never be overemphasised. It is imperative that people should be aware of the entire voting process. The citizenry should know their candidates and most importantly, people should know exactly what to do when they get into the polling both. This minimises vote wastage, high percentage of null and void votes undermine elections’ credibility.
Thus, Electoral Commission has accredited dozens of civil society groups and NGOs to provide voter education. As noted by most observers, voter education is particularly crucial for the 2014 polls because Malawi will have tripartite elections for the first time; and there is a new generation – the post Kamuzu Banda generation – that will be voting for the first time. What we must question however is the kind of voter education needed. Is it enough to educate people on the voting process only? Or perhaps the electorate also need to be educated on how to identify and vote for people that will help develop this country?
The latter point is crucial and that is what I will concentrate on. It is also an initiative that Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) has adopted; the commission recently announced that they would conduct issue-based voter education in Khata Bay, Dowa and Phalombe. I am not sure why they have selected those districts but their effort is commendable. It is long overdue in fact, and it a shame that CCJP can only do so much, but you have to start somewhere. I hope more organisations will follow CCJP’s lead.
Calls for issue-based politics in Malawi are getting louder by day, I advocate for it but I am also aware that such efforts can only be fruitful if the masses are taught on what to look for in their candidates. This is where voter education is important. In more advanced democracies, there is no such a thing as voter education, at least not on a scale that we have in developing democracies like Malawi. This is because our democracy is still young and many people are yet to grasp its fundamentals. A combined 101 years of colonialism and dictatorship, respectively condition people to see and appreciate issues in a way that is not conducive to democracy. It will take at least a generation and a lot more effort to undo that century old legacy.
During Kamuzu era, there was civic education in primary school – civics. I understand this subject is no longer there. Civics taught basic information about society of that day, learning how to cross the road, learning the structure of chieftaincy, learning how the courts worked etc. This sounds very basic but even today many Malawians would benefit from it. Crucially, civics also helped Kamuzu tighten his grip on power. There was mass indoctrination, which led to passive masses, few critical ones were severely punished, some paid with their lives.
My hunch is that civics was dropped from the syllabus due to political changes in the mid 1990s. Yet, it is my contention that civics should have remained in the syllabus and use it to teach pupils the basics of democracy. Democratic process is more sophisticated because it needs vigilant and well-informed citizenry to demand necessary service delivery from their elected leaders, unlike dictatorships that survive on coercion, indoctrination and violence. The issue-based voter education that CCJP is championing is something that could have been taught in school. Democratic Malawi needs its young citizens to grow up knowing that it is their prerogative to demand checks and balances from their elected leaders. They must grow up knowing that leaders are elected not to be saved but to save. We do not need to panic with this information when elections are around the corner.
One advantage of Malawi’s voting system is that we do not vote for political parties, we vote for individuals. However, due lack of basic knowledge that should have been readily available, the picture you get is that people will vote for MCP, UDF, DPP, PP, Aford etc. Politicians have created this elusion so that they win votes on regional and tribal lines, not their policies. If the status remains, then it is difficult to see issue-based politics gaining ground anytime soon. The emphasis should be that what you are looking for are leaders that will develop your area, candidates with clear vision for the nation, forget party colours, look at polices and deliverables.
Malawians are more than capable of choosing candidates based on their policies and not just on tribal and regional grounds, as a nation we must emphasise this. Civic education on democratic process is the key – it is beneficial to the country as a whole. Enlightened citizens make enlighten decisions at the ballot. Malawi cannot ignore civic education on anything, yet. The masses are enlightened enough. If you ever wondered about levels of (under)development in Malawi then you are not paying attention to media advertisements; NGOs in Malawi are still spending millions of Kwachas teaching people the benefits of washing hands after using a toilet. That is where Malawi is on the social development ladder.
Note: Jimmy Kainja will be writing a weekly column on Nyasa Times, please make sure you check it every Wednesday.