Africa’s deficient democracies, lessons from Malawi

Last week a section of African commentariat and punditry community concentrated on African Development Bank’s (AfDB) 2012 report, which claimed that Africa’s old leaders and their reluctance to relinquish power is stifling democratic progress on the continent. According to the AfDB report, Africa has had a total of 653 elections between 1960 and 2010. Only 16 per cent of these elections had a sitting president vacating the office. Example of old leaders like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang and many others were mentioned.

Leaders’ clinging on to power is indeed among many problems facing African democracies but it is only a piece in a big jigsaw, it does not paint the whole picture. It is not age that is keeping these old leaders in power; it is political systems in place.  It is the use of public resources that keep African leaders in power. This makes it extremely difficult to dislodge an African leader from power. In the last 10 years only in Zambia, Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast (via military conflict) have incumbent presidents lost elections.

Next May Malawi will hold what is promising to be the tightest electoral contest since its return to multiparty democracy in 1993. Any honest analysis would have to take into account that if Joyce Banda’s People’s Party (PP) has any advantage over all other parties it is because PP is a party in power. In Malawi parties in power have always used public resources for political campaigns.

Malawi 2014 presidential candidates: Joyce Banda, Peter Mutharika, Atupele Muluzi and Lazarus Chakwela
Malawi 2014 presidential candidates: Joyce Banda, Peter Mutharika, Atupele Muluzi and Lazarus Chakwela

Only two weeks ago, on this very space, I discussed how all the ruling parties in Malawi have always used Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) for its campaign, giving them advantage over their rivals. Few days later the retired Vice President, Justin Malewezi (1994 – 2004) was in the media complaining about the abuse of MBC by the incumbency. Malewezi has been there; he knows what he is talking about. Use of public resources by the party in power is a serious deficiency; it does not only hold back democratic progress, it is also detrimental to national development.

An International Monitory Fund (IMF) working paper (June 2013) has established that the use of public resources by ruling parties in Low Income Countries (LICs), where Malawi belongs, is inimical to economic growth. The study is only focusing on LICs for its investigation on the behavior of fiscal variables during and after elections. It finds the following:

“… during election years, government consumption significantly increases and leads to higher fiscal deficits. During the two years following elections, the fiscal adjustment takes the form of increased revenue mobilization in trade taxes and cuts to government investment, with no significant cuts in government consumption… We conclude that elections not only imply a macroeconomic cost when they take place but also trigger a painful fiscal adjustment in which public investment is largely sacrificed.”

This is a damning verdict on democracies in LICs. Yet it does not mean that democracy cannot work in LICs. Democracy is a process, it takes time grow, not even the most advance democracies in the world are perfect. However, the findings of this working paper are a wakeup call for countries like Malawi to strengthen institutions of democracy and demand transparency in electoral process. It is a call to all of us, ordinary folks, to be vigilant in guarding our democracy, it is either we make it work or we lose it altogether. There is a need to draw a clear line between political party and state functions.

If there is one big lesson that the 19 years of democracy in Malawi has taught us then it is that Malawians have always protect its young democracy whenever there has been an attempt to subvert it. In 2003 Malawians stood up and fight against the then President, Bakili Muluzi’s attempt to amend the republication constitution in order to open up a possibility of a third term for himself.

In April of 2012 Malawians did not tolerate an attempt by a group of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) members who tried to stop Joyce Banda from succeeding the departed President, Bingu wa Mutharika who died in office. These are not minor victories for such a young democracy. It can get better though; we all need to active throughout political process. This way we do not let leaders think they can do as they please and get away with it.

It is the knowledge that incumbents can use public resources for party functions that convinced Muluzi that he could bully Malawians into giving him the third term he so much wanted. He ended imposing Mutharika on Malawi, only because he could. And indeed public resources and divided opposition won Mutharika the presidency in 2004. Even with only 35% of the vote, this is something Mutharika failed to get 5 years (1999) when he got less than 1% of the vote – he had no public resources for his campaign in 1999, Muluzi had them.

In the same lines, Mutharika died while trying to impose his younger brother, Peter on Malawians. On both occasions Malawians paid a heavy price; Muluzi and Mutharika, respectively left power with Malawi economically worse that it was when these respective leaders came to power; Malawi is still cleaning up the economic mess that Mutharika left.

Ageing leadership is definitely an issue that need attention but it is democratic process themselves that is holding back democratic progression. Muluzi was 51 years old when he came to power and Mutharika came to power at 71 years old, yet both leaders took advantage of the weak political process to advance their personal agenda.
Note: Jimmy Kainja will be writing a weekly column on Nyasa Times, please make sure you check it every Wednesday.

Feedback: [email protected] web: twitter: @jkainja

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