Joyce Banda says ‘Malawi would have exploded had I not let go’

According to former president Joyce Banda who lost the election at the 30 May poll, in the year the country celebrates 50 years of independence, political violence would have been raised to an unprecedented level in the normally peaceful Malawi if she had not conceded.

Supporters of former president Joyce Banda’s People’s Party, and others, had been angered by the lengthy delay in the counting and announcement of results from the southern African nation’s May 20 election. They armed themselves with petrol bombs and machetes, seemingly ready to take to the streets and die in protest.

“When I heard what was being planned, I made the decision to concede to help stop an escalation of violence because my supporters and others were arming themselves and preparing for a bloodbath … I didn’t want that to happen on my watch, I had to stop it although I knew that the vote was stolen,” said Banda in an exclusive interview with New African magazine.

Formerp resident Banda with former  US  President Clinton and daughter Chelsea when they visited Malawi

Formerp resident Banda with former US President Clinton and daughter Chelsea when they visited Malawi

The 64-year-old Banda, southern Africa’s first woman president, conceded defeat even when two powerful opposition parties – the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Malawi Congress Party (MCP) backed her not to do so. They wanted a voting recount of the over six million votes cast across the country because of “fraudulent and rampant irregularities”.

Reports included hackers allegedly breaking in to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) computers, and ballot tallies exceeding the number of registered voters in some constituencies. The MEC admitted that it had problems and abandoned its digital results platform, fuelling suspicions of skullduggery after a catalogue of mishaps surrounding the poll.

Both MCP, the rejuvenated party of late dictator Kamuzu Banda, who ruled the southern African nation for 30 years after independence from Britain and the UDF, a party headed by Atupele Muluzi, son to former President Bakili Muluzi, had earlier backed Joyce Banda’s decision to scrap the election.

She went ahead and called for a fresh election within 90 days. But the courts stopped that after the MEC and Mutharika got a court order and dismissed Banda’s declaration as unconstitutional.

“President Banda had no legal basis for stopping the election and that is why the High Court stopped her … no election is ever perfect and this one was no exception, but we never stole the election and therefore a recount was not warranted,” Mutharika told a news conference hours before he was declared winner.

Mutharika said police and soldiers had been sent to his residence in the capital, Lilongwe, to search for a “hacking machine” but were refused entry because they had no warrant. Before Banda made the proclamation, the MEC had released the first results, four days after the vote, showing Mutharika leading with 42%, with 30% of the vote counted from over 4,000 polling centres across the country. This was very close to the pre-election Afrobarometer poll which predicted a Mutharika win.

“We knew that Joyce Banda was losing and she was trying to intimidate me by sending the army and making claims of rigging, demanding a vote recount,” Mutharika told New African. But after a few days, the MEC made a U-turn and announced that it wanted to perform a recount because of numerous voting irregularities notified by all political parties except for the DPP. The election body sought a court order to extend the constitutionally-mandated eight-day counting period to 30 days.

This vindicated Banda’s claims that the election was fraudulent and spurred other opposition parties into action, challenging the MEC in court and pushing for a manual recount of the vote. As the country waited for the court ruling, a coalition march of pro-recount parties in the lakeside town of Mangochi on the morning of 30 May clashed with police, leaving one protester dead.

“I knew that the violence was going to escalate and spread to other towns and I had to do something even if it meant me losing the presidency … I was ready to obey the court ruling.”

Banda said Malawi’s tripartite elections had been plagued by problems right from the start, with voting materials turning up hours late and ballot papers being sent to the wrong end of the country, infuriating voters who went on the rampage, burning ballot papers in the commercial city of Blantyre.

The elections commission had to extend voting in some urban areas into a second or third day, and initial counting was held up by a lack of lighting and generators at polling stations.

The security detail for the chairman of the elections commission, Judge Maxon Mbendera, was increased. His Commissioners also had to be protected round the clock because of the numerous threats they were receiving.

Thirty minutes before midnight on 30 May, the eighth day following the closure of voting, tension in the country’s major cities was high. The government deployed armed police and the military patrolled the most volatile townships ready to move in and quell any violent protests.

High Court Judge Kenyatta Nyirenda was expected to make a ruling in a few hours on whether to allow the elections commission to recount individual ballots across the country or order the authorities to announce the winner.

At 10:30pm the next day, his ruling finally came. He initially announced that the MEC was entitled to perform a recount, giving hope to those who opposed a Mutharika victory.

But Nyirenda added that any such recount would have to be performed within the commission’s eight-day counting period. In other words, if the MEC wanted to manually recount around six million votes, it had an hour and a half to do so.

The MEC had no time to do a recount and behold Mutharika, a law professor, was announced the winner just before midnight and quickly sworn in the following day. While Banda clearly would have wanted to win the elections, it seems she was more anxious to ensure Mutharika did not. After all, it was her government that arrested him and charged him with treason for trying to stop her from ascending to power after Bingu wa Muntharika died in office.

A prominent woman rights activist and philanthropist, Joyce Banda came to power with a groundswell of support. But by the time the country went to the polls, she had lost most of it, especially the urban vote, mainly because of the infamous Cashgate – the alleged looting of over $15m from public coffers, which many believe may have contributed to her losing the election.

Banda perhaps fears that Mutharika will return the favour, although he has stated publicly that he will not seek revenge for his ill-treatment under Banda.

But Mutharika’s new government will rule a divided country because he only won with 36% of the vote – meaning that over 60% of the voters did not vote for him.

Banda was hailed by the international community for repealing repressive laws, restoring relations with the diplomatic community, and she will also be remembered for empowering women among her other achievements.

Under her presidency, the economy’s rate of growth accelerated from 1.8% to over 6%, and the foreign reserves position improved markedly for the country, which was in dire straits before she took over, experiencing shortages of fuel and other commodities.

But Onandi Banda, a rights activist, sums up Banda’s legacy when he says that she will be remembered more for her last act in the last eight days of her presidency. “Many of us will never forget Joyce Banda and [her] quickly conceding defeat when all of us knew that there was overwhelming evidence of rigging … her decision swiftly stopped anyone who was planning violence in protest against the MEC and the High Court and facilitated a peaceful transition,” he said.

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