Malawi opposition’s arithmetic problem

As a true African I could not resist but start this article with a classic folktale …

Once upon a time a rich family home had a large population of rats or mice. Seeing what nuisance this rat population was, the lady of house decided to buy a cat to clean up the mess. Sure enough, the cat started feasting on the rats.

The king of the rats decided to call for a conference – a gathering of all rats. He wanted to know what the rats could do to stop this cat. One rat proposed that they tie a large bell on the cats’ neck. It is said all the rats were so happy with the idea. One by one they spoke at great length as to the brilliance of the idea; and how they would starve the cat because he will have nobody to devour. After a long time, a wise old rat who had been silent the whole time requested an opportunity to speak. He wanted to know how the rats would tie this bell around the cat’s neck.

Opposition leaders adddressing the press

At this point everybody became silent. What appeared to have been a brilliant idea was not so well thought out after all.

It has been a long time since our late grandmother told us this story. As I think of this story now, I wish I could have asked her a few more questions about this rat indaba. How long did this meeting last? Perhaps it was one of those meetings that take the whole day; perhaps it was a series of meetings covering many days. Maybe the rats did not physically meet; perhaps they just conducted a rat online discussion or maybe they discussed the issue through readers’ comments in the Rats Times.

Of course, this is one of those ridiculous stories told on a cold July evening with all the kids surrounding the fire in grandma’s kitchen. But there is a big lesson here: human beings too, not just rats, have a tendency to waste a lot of time talking about useless issues while postponing crucial decisions.

The 1997 Kenyan general elections will be remembered for the passion politicians put in it. Every opinion poll conducted by the Kenyan newspapers showed that President Daniel Arap Moi had very low support in the country. The opposition were pumped up. They met and discussed a lot of issues, including issuing ultimatums to Mr. Arap Moi to resign. Daniel Arap Moi did not resign but went ahead to win that election!

What went wrong? Why did the opposition lose?

The Kenyan opposition parties – 16 plus of them – made all the right noises but they ignored the most important issue.

As far as elections go, the electorate does not divide itself into political parties. Rather, it divides itself into two groups: ruling party supporters and opposition supporters. Since there is usually only one ruling party and many opposition parties, all the opposing parties have to share the opposition supporters. This is one of the reasons ruling parties tend to get a significant percentage of the vote even when they lose. In Africa, that percentage is above 35%. Kamuzu Banda, Rupiah Banda, Kenneth Kaunda and Robert Mugabe, each got more than 35% in their defeat.

This means that in order to win an election in Africa, opposition parties must make sure that they do not divide the opposition share to an extent that the highest among them gets less than 35%. The Kenyan opposition parties failed to do their arithmetic. Although Mr. Moi had little support, that small percentage became significant when the 16 opposition parties divided up the opposition vote. The opposition lost.

By now you already know where I am leading with this thought ….

Although there has been too much noise and chatter coming out of Malawi opposition at the moment, nobody seems to be ready to face the real issues. Here are the hard truths we should be pondering:

First, if President Bingu wa Mutharika calls for an election today, his brother  (Peter Mutharika) will win easily not because he is popular but because the opposition vote will be divided.

There are a myriad of political parties in the country, and some are still coming out of the woodwork! The UDF is divided into two camps – Atupele Muluzi’s camp having strong support in Machinga, Mangochi and parts of Blantyre; Friday Jumbe’s camp with backing from Zomba, and parts of Thyolo, Mulanje and Phalombe. Joyce Banda’s PP has support in Zomba and parts of Northern Region. John Tembo’s MCP will be competitive in the Center, and Gwanda Chakuamba in the Lower Shire. The opposition with that many aspirants cannot unseat the Mutharikas.

The crucial question at this point is – who will represent the opposition? The crop mentioned above will not do it – they are all recycled and discredited. The country must find a new dynamic and untainted leader to represent the opposition.

Second, the golden opportunity to get it right will be in 2014. Instead of wasting time calling for Mutharika to resign (you already know he will not), efforts must be spent on strategizing for 2014. It is very unlikely that Malawian masses will force out Mutharika before that year. Even the donor community will be wary of the precedence that will be created by removing a duly elected president out of office.

Third, the opposition cannot win with lawlessness. Ruling parties and presidents tend to have the loudest megaphones in the country and therefore easily win propaganda wars with the opposition. Every effort must be made not to hand government such propaganda victories. Reports that members of opposition burned down a police station are very distressing and unhelpful. Such behavior must not be allowed to continue.

So the opposition has a choice: confront these crucial issues and solve them or keep talking like those rats in my grandmother’s tale.

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