Malawi 2014 polls: Status quo or real change?

I was inspired to write this article after reading an opinion by Nadia Rabesehala Horning on the just ended Madagascan elections in the New African Edition of December 2013. Her opinion is a critical analysis on whether elections are important. She argues that, “having elections is probably better than having none; however, she goes on to caution that there is a danger in creating the illusion of democratic participation where the functions of the state have never been properly negotiated among members of society.”

I opine that this is a strong feeling I am also visualizing for Malawi. On May 20th at least 7.5 million registered voters will go to the polls to cast their vote amidst drama and trauma of 50 years.

Precisely in two months time, in our nascent but heavily bruised nation, people will be casting a vote for the same usual suspects who feel that through their given legal mandate they are each in their own right capable of ruling 15 million plus Malawians.

Two presidential candidates Atpele Muluzi and Peter Mutharika
Two presidential candidates Atpele Muluzi and Peter Mutharika

Interestingly, they all agree that the losses outweigh the gains made and that for the past 50 years Malawi is far worse in terms of development in the sub Saharan region if not in the world.

Surprisingly, some of these usual suspects have kindly conceded that they have contributed to the raping of our Constitution and disregarding its sanctity and promoting this pathetic environment where strictly speaking stolen wealth is in the hands of a few and legally acquired wealth is thinly spread across the population .

In fact, these politicians admit that even though they have put Malawians through all of this, they are now more than ready to take Malawi to better heights than before. For the Malawian voter, who will be casting a vote to choose a leader it appears that the choices are limited and sometimes fall short for the expectations so far built.

‘A dose of reality’

The promise of change when most of the leaders have been tried and tested and are seen to be agents of the wreck that Malawi finds herself in, may be the main cause of voter apathy during these elections.

Pragmatically, the thought that these elections will bring the necessary development, healing, hope and resurrection actually seems like a far-fetched dream considering the history of those contesting and the state that the country is in.

It is interesting to note however, that at least all the major parties if not all of them seem to agree that Malawi needs transformational leadership to change the state of this country to one that will have a middle class which will contribute the development of its people.

My question is if they all agree that Malawi needs change now after 50 years – How come they failed to demonstrate that while they had the mandate to do so? What is going to be different now? Is it because they have now amassed wealth for themselves and their cronies, that they are content?

How will they turn these elections into a blessing rather than a curse that has been?

These are some of the questions I have and hope you do too. The term “transformational leadership” is simply being used to hoodwink voters into casting their votes for the same looters.

High ambition needs a dose of reality and it seems most are not even willing to review the past and explain where they have failed Malawians and how they are genuinely going to fix the mess at the same time respect and uphold the laws.

It is irrefutable that Malawi has gone from poor through poorer to among the poorest in the world. As of now, Malawi is a home to at least 15 million plus people, and still is one of the least developed countries in the world, ranked 170 out of 187 countries on the 2013 Human Development Index. Despite steady improvements on the Key Human Development indicators since the 1980’s, Malawi struggles with chronic poverty.

According to the World Bank, 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, with a per capita Gross National Income of $320. For this reason alone, these tripartite elections represents hope for most Malawians who desperately want to believe that things will get better in this country. But will they? Considering that it is the same leaders contesting now that have contributed to this under-development.

The statistics on how the country is lagging behind in the region are everywhere and are appalling to say the least.

Adding on to the list of these problems is the fact that it seems that most Malawians are also to blame. One issue if the lack patriotism among the citizens. One veteran media personality, Edward Chitsulo, has analysed this well by arguing that this lack of patriotism is being demonstrated during this campaign trail.

Chitsulo observes that many are not willing to refuse the sudden benevolence of these leaders or questioning their motives for such unsolicited benevolence or their sources of wealth.

I mean, it is insulting to note that that they have been taxing us highly and are using the same tax to buy us freebies with our very own money. By God, this is unthinkable, unfair and atrocious!

I want to agree also with those that have said that Malawians are to blame for this malaise, and that we are not making any progress because we have let our leaders get away pretty much with anything including “murder”. Just like a prophetess of doom, which I project to be in this article, the hope that the tripartite elections will bring about the desired change understandable as it is not justified.

With the reasons I have elucidated but more also is the fact that even our donors have recently admitted that Malawi is a failed state. For those curious to know what I mean here, a failed state is a state that cannot provide the essential political goods that modern states are expected to secure for their citizens; security of people and property, an institutional environment that does not promote economic growth and general well being, minimal social services such as education and health care that can make life possible for the majority of populations, secure state borders and competent leaders.

Additionally, a failed state forfeits the ability and the right to make its own decisions free from external interference, i.e. sovereignty—case in point is the issue of Lake of Malawi which up until now has been left it hanging.

Anyone with minimal objectivity and integrity would be hard pressed to argue against the fact that by all measures elaborated above, Malawi’s state capacity has eroded precipitously.

Again, despite this, we have the same leaders that have had their fair share of experience with these issues and are convincing us that come May 2014 these issues will just disappear miraculously. In all fairness, anyone that has contributed to the sorry state of the country, should with dignity, pass on the baton to those that have not contributed or implicated to the mess that we are in now.

That is the meaning of transformational change.

‘An Ideological Content’

Even though elections are necessary and good in some respects, I opine that if they do little to alleviate such challenges just mentioned, Malawi will even deteriorate into a state of anarchy.

While it has been argued that elections are a mechanism for changing the leadership and a way for the state to hang on to a morsel of legitimacy, what is clear for me is that it may not necessarily be a means to fix state weakness. Of course, competent leaders can turn bad situations around. May Malawi finally experience one or both of these. Others will argue that having elections now in Malawi is probably better considering how the country has received shocks from the MCP rule, UDF, UDF to PP’s mess over the

Cash-gate scandal and that too much wealth is in too few hands—possibly, their hope is that the elections will bring the desired change with new leadership. Even as I contemplate that idealist situation, I am compelled to ask will the other leaders that are contesting and have never ruled Malawi or associated with any of the major parties have the capacity to do that- to fulfil that dream.

I doubt that most of them are asking themselves this question. More, importantly, what can they do to fix the mentalities of 15 million plus people who have learned, simply by observing politicians and learning to survive in their political system, that public office has all to do with private gain, and nothing to do with public service and that creating jobs and wealth and developing the country is more important rather than dependence on foreign aid.

I have seen and heard many arguments that these have been 50 years of Malawi’s risks and less rewards particularly the past 20 years of multiparty democracy which has plunged Malawi into political dungeon and economic abyss. Indeed, having elections is probably better than having none, but is there not a danger in creating the illusion of democratic participation where politics and the functions of the state have never been properly negotiated among the members of society?

I too ask this inspired by Nadia Rabesehala Horning who had the same question on Madagascan elections. Is this not akin to changing curtains in a house whose foundation dooms it to collapse? These elections are necessary but it is my submission that they will do little to alleviate the fundamental challenges that Malawi faces.

Maybe, as one who has not been convinced by the “strides made” in the last three decades, I am yet to be convinced with any of the manifestos. Well, judging from podium speeches it is obvious that the manifestos will be copy and paste with no fundamentals differences in ideological content. Hence, my question; what difference will May 20 Elections bring? Will it be just a status quo or will it bring about real change?

  • Habiba Osman is a Malawian renowned Human Rights Defender based in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe.

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