Seven realities why democracy fails in Malawi


In the 1990s, the world experienced a prevalent wave of multiparty elections in world history, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. It was during this epoch, that after persistent pressure from within and from donors and the World Bank, President for Life; Dr Banda announced on October 18 1992, that Malawi would soon hold a referendum to decide on multiparty democracy. The following year on June 14, 1993 Malawi voted for multiparty, and elected the first democratic government in 1994.

But while democracy has been on the spotlight in Malawi for two decades, it has continuously failed to deliver in our society. The system is immorally abused to our own peril by both politicians entrusted with representative authority and ordinary citizens who passively hold the ultimate power. While there are several contributing factors to this disturbing predicament, I suppose the following seven factors are the major causative realities.

Misconception of democracy       

We were caged for nearly thirty years in Dr Banda’ dictatorship, without freedoms and social justice before we voted for multiparty democracy in 1993. Many were exiled, detained in prisons, threatened and murdered. We were a nation badly abused and in poor socio-political shape. As a matter of historical fact, we had not known freedom and justice, since 1907 when the first constitutional government of Nyasaland was established by colonial Britain, and even after 1964, when we got independence and Dr Banda become somewhat worse than colonialists especially in dealing with his critics whom he fed to his personal crocodiles.Democracy - 1

When democracy came our way, all we saw was our exit from oppressive rule, en route to freedoms and justice. We thought democracy was just a platform through which we can fearlessly reproach government and secure security of our freedom and justice. We didn’t understand that democracy has challenges too. We did not understand that while democracy offers an environment of personal freedoms, social justice and economic opportunities, it challenges citizens with responsibility to govern themselves. Having misunderstood everything, we hurriedly pounced on freedom and disregarded responsibility intertwined with it – in the words of scholar Diane Ravitch, “Freedom means responsibility, not freedom from responsibility”

Lack of independent and objective media

The new democratic constitution enacted in 1994, provided for the protection, freedom and independence of the press in Chapter 4, Human Rights. This created an enabling environment for growth of private and public media, and led to notable change in reporting especially about government. Democracy understands the danger of having the media which is not independent, free and protected. The media, both privately and publicly owned, are the heart of democracy. The media fosters circulation of information and ideas which is the foundation of knowledge acquired, decisions made and beliefs espoused in the public domain. Therefore, the information must be accurate, timely and unbiased.

Sometimes we count upon media for advocacy which the media must deliver with the highest degree of objectivity.  The media also serve as a watchdog over our government, to ensure transparency, accountability and commitment to the safeguard of democracy.  Above all, we expect the media to enhance fair competition among political parties considering that democracy is an institutionalization of multiparty system.

Unfortunately, most media institutions in Malawi, both private and public are infiltrated by politics which dilutes their freedom and independence. They report and write without objectivity, and are used as hammers in the hands of unethical politicians to crush opponents. A very pathetic example is the public media house, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, which despite running on taxpayers’ hard earned money, is used by ruling party for campaign and victimization of opposition parties, which eventually perpetuates unfair competition which is unhealthy for the democratization process.


In a democracy, we must govern ourselves in a manner that serves the aspirations of our society as a whole. Among the many aspirations that we have in our society are; economic empowerment through equal employment opportunities and small business enterprises, and fair distribution of wealth through equal accessibility to public facilities to all citizens in all regions. But this demands that we cultivate the spirit of solidarity and tolerance with each other, which unfortunately cannot prevail in our society where tribalism runs in our veins.

Tribalism has inevitably ruinous consequences which lead to socio-political and macroeconomic failures.  First, lets me share socio-political failure: tribalism sows seeds of disunity and distrust in parties through formation of tribal camps which promotes bickering.  The tribal camps usually report each other to party leaderships, in their struggle for power and recognition within the party. Usually, the party leadership favours and trust those that come from his or her tribe, thereby facilitating disunity in the party and murdering it from within. This also happens in ruling parties, and quickly infects the whole government machinery, since in Malawian politics the ruling party is the government.

Tribalism also influences opinions and debates in the public domain, and the electorate devote their political loyalty to parties and presidential aspirants that share their tribal tongue or regional identity. This can be substantiated by our political parties’ strongholds and how votes are split among our regions. The ultimate danger here is the implication that even with the best of policy and manifesto, personality and qualifications, a party or presidential aspirant from a less populated tribe or region cannot win an election. And such tribes or regions that do not have the numbers form part of the victimized minorities in the democratization process.

As a matter of fact, tentacles of tribalism reach even to the very heart of government and private sector too, leading to serious failure in the aggregate economy (macroeconomic failure).

Tribalism develops nepotistic tendencies, as people belonging to the tribe of the ruling party, or that pledge their loyalty to the party, gets favours in securing jobs in government and private sector.  This leads to rampant misplacement of talents and skills which fill government departments and private sector with incompetent workers who get jobs through favour not merit. This also flood workplaces with highly unmotivated, yet well-educated workers who are discouraged to be led by the incompetent and under qualified people.  Consequently, there is general underperformance in government and private sector which leads to aggregate economic failure.

High levels of ignorance and democratic illiteracy

Someone defined democracy as “basically, government in which the supreme power is vested in the people.”  The people choose government through periodic elections. During the elections the majority vote is carried.  An American essayist, EB White said, “Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.” The majority rule is a core principle of democracy.

The principle of majority rule, defines who really has the supreme power in a democracy. The supreme power is vested in the majority. Every society has the predetermined majority which shrewd political strategists always weave their strategies around. The majority in our nation is composed of the rural areas (80%) women (more than 50 %) and the poor (75-90 %) of entire population. Unfortunately, these have high degrees of ignorance and democratic illiteracy. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never shall be.”

Ignorant people are easy to manipulate since they lack the intellectual skills to think independently, question, and make rational decisions. Most of these people would vote for someone simply because he or she gave them a T/shirt, chitenje, money, a cow, or a bag of maize. Democracy needs a society where the majority is educated enough and highly conversant with precepts and practices of democracy.  People, that can think independently, understand public policy, and analyze government’ overall performance and cast responsible and intelligent votes.


If democracy must prevail and benefit our society, then we must revisit our concept of democracy and understand that while democracy offers us freedom, and promise of a successful nation, it challenges us to be responsible citizens.  It is the responsibility of every citizen to ensure that the media , both public and private maintains independent and objective reporting, free from political influence, to ensure healthy and competitive democracy  for multiparty. Tribalism must be weeded out to promote tolerance and national unity as we work together towards ideal democracy. Education, both formal and civic must be promoted on rights, responsibilities and civil obligations, especially among the rural masses and women that compose our majority vote.

To be continued:

  •  In the next article here on Nyasa Times  I will discuss remaining factors which are: lack of ideological politics, obsession with aid and free things, and inferiority complex with respect to stagnation of the democratization process. 

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