The annulling of Malawi’s 2019 elections is a significant development and has shown up the woeful performance of observer missions, particularly those from SADC and the AU. As long as African solidarity with former liberation movements trumps transparency, democracy will be the loser.
Democracy in Africa is regressing! We seem to be stuck on repeat, where the same parties keep showing up on the ballots and the winner is predictably the liberation party. Liberation movements all share a common narrative, firstly that it was their historic mission to liberate the people either from colonial oppression or in our case, apartheid rule. Secondly, that as a moral imperative it is their duty to govern “until Jesus comes back” to quote former president Jacob Zuma.
Worryingly, there is a sense of an exclusive entitlement to the mandate to govern, a sense that “only the ANC can free the people” – you can actually find this messaging across the region – “only Zanu-PF can lead Zimbabwe”, “only KANU can lead Kenya”. Liberation parties peddle this notion that a loss in elections for the liberation movement is a setback for democracy, when it is merely an outcome of the very struggle that they fought for, for civilians to be capable to choose their leadership based freely and without undue influence. When you give people the right to vote, sometimes they won’t vote for you.
Liberation movements act and speak like this because they have a sense that because they fought for the universal suffrage, now that we have the right to vote, we must always use that vote to keep them in power. There is a massive choice to be made by citizens in Africa moving forward into the next electoral races. Will we continue to uphold this unwritten contract with these liberation movements or are we ready to chart a new path?
The phenomena of one party winning the majority of all elections held creates what are called “dominant party systems”. Effectively these parties have a monopoly on control of the state. Countries with dominant party systems, especially in Africa, suffer from a variety of economic, democratic and constitutional challenges as a direct result of the existence of this dominance. Africa has 22 countries which are still being run by their liberation movement parties. There is a close correlation to the existence of a dominant party system, high levels of corruption and underdevelopment. This is primarily because the checks and balances provided by the ballot box are negated. Dominant parties are emboldened by the thought that the people will always vote for them no matter what they do. It is a moral hazard which creates adverse outcomes for service delivery and fiduciary management.
Dominant parties, knowing or believing that they will not be removed by a vote, set out to capture institutions and to enrich the party elites – we have seen this movie many times across many African states. The impact is immense. In instances of complete dominance, the state is in full control of the media, the judiciary, parliament and other institutions of government. As such the citizens have no other spaces of finding recourse outside of the ballot box.
While the dominant parties do often win outright based on popularity and positive historical sentiment, what we have observed in Africa is that they also often tamper with the electoral process to make sure it favours them. The electoral commissions are seldom independent, they are often staffed by party loyalists, the media is often controlled by the state and civilians are often intimidated and harassed for their political views. Opposition leaders often raise alarm about the political climate but are treated as sore losers merely complaining.
Malawi is no different in having the incumbency of a dominant party, one that has not been of much value to the public but has been very profitable to the elite and connected. The challenge to the 21 May 2019 elections was crucial as it sought to remove one factor from the conduct of dominant parties – the manipulation of results. The ruling by the court in favour of the opposition is such that the success of this case is a historic one.
The difference in view by the court and the AU and SADC observer missions is indicative of a failure of observer missions as a whole to do their jobs effectively. It sets a worrying trend in Africa where vote rigging is now part of the process. I commend the courts in Kenya, and Malawi. They stood strong and this case is historic. Lazarus Chakwera (president of the opposition Malawi Congress Party) is an honourable man. I have spent time with him and celebrate what he is trying to achieve in the nation. Change is needed.
For democracy to thrive in Africa it needs democrats, leaders who will uphold democracy. We must strongly condemn those leaders who seek to capture electoral institutions. South Africa’s silence on this matter is deafening and demonstrates that we have strayed from the path of standing strong for human rights and diplomacy.
In general, we have abdicated our regional responsibility and rubber-stamped many elections that we should have been critical of. Last year we were silent on the flawed Mozambican process, on the flawed Malawi process, in 2018 we ignored the multiple electoral abuses that occurred in Zimbabwe. Dirco hides behind the argument that every nation has sovereignty and thus we must not meddle – there are remnants of the quiet diplomacy model championed by Thabo Mbeki.
I recognise the sovereignty of nations but we cannot be silent where elections are rigged, where people are silenced and where institutions are obviously captured. The rigging of elections is a reflection of an illegitimately acquired mandate. You cannot really tell others to “stay out of it” when you steal an election.
We must change our approach to regional engagement. There is currently violence in Tanzania, Lesotho is an unstable democracy, Zambia’s Edgar Lungu is at war with the opposition. Zimbabwe is creating a dictator state. These are clouds of darkness regressing progress in this continent. South Africa must stand up, even if we do it for merely selfish reasons – instability in the region necessarily leads to displacement of people, some of those people inevitably find themselves at the South African border. Rather than wait to deal with a refugee crisis, let us prevent one by helping remove its catalysts. As President Cyril Ramaphosa takes up the AU Presidency, this is an opportunity for South Africa to play a leading role in protecting the institution of democracy.
There are two forms of holding officials accountable from a civilian level – in between elections civilians can hold peaceful protests and petition for reforms. This is seldom a very effective method of holding people to account but we have seen several powerful protest movements: the Hong Kong protests, the Sudan protests and the Yellow Vest protest movement.
The golden standard is still the ballot box, or rather it is supposed to be the ballot box. The ballot has proven a weak tool for accountability in Africa, because liberation parties have maintained control of the electoral system, in some countries for over 50 years. Elections in Africa have always had a dubious reputation, they have never quite seemed to be run in the interests of the people. Most have been given the green light by African observer missions for pragmatic reasons and not necessarily because they were actually free and fair.
Often this approach is never fully exposed but there have been instances where SADC and the AU were blatantly caught offside. For instance, in the 2002 Zimbabwe elections the missions declined to denounce the results and opted to ratify the rigged results. In South Africa, the Kamphephe Report demonstrated the dubious nature of this decision. It was deemed so scathing that the administration buried it.
The 2017 Kenyan election was a more dramatic example: the electoral bodies gave the green light, but the constitutional court of Kenya called for a fresh election. As has now happened in Malawi, where the courts have deemed the 21 May elections of 2019 to have been so problematic, they have called for a fresh election.
The latest court judgement from the Malawi Constitutional Court gives an idea of why that is the case. Consider the strength of the African Union (AU) observer mission to the Malawi elections: they appointed a prestigious head of mission in John Dramani Mahama, the former president of the Republic of Ghana, it was a well-staffed and funded observer mission. While there were multiple complaints reported by the media, and raised during the elections by leaders of the opposition parties, these concerns were not given much credence in the preliminary report issued by the AU.
The preliminary report proclaimed that the elections “provided Malawians with the opportunity to choose their leaders at various layers of government in accordance with the legal framework for elections in Malawi, and in accordance with the principles espoused in the various instruments of the AU. The elections took place in a peaceful environment and at the time of this statement, the mission had not noted any serious concerns with the process, either witnessed or observed”.
The final report proclaimed that: “The Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, wishes to reaffirm the position of the Commission, following the interim statement of African Union Election Observers made on 23 May 2019, led by HE John Dramani Mahama, former President of the Republic of Ghana.”
The recent judgment of the Malawian Constitutional Court reflected that there were a plethora of irregularities:
“The election had been marred by “massive” poll irregularities, including white correction fluid being used to alter results…
“In every election there will be irregularities but in the present matter, it has been our finding that the irregularities were so widespread, systematic and grave that the results of the elections have been compromised and cannot be trusted as a reflection of the votes…
“The results cannot be trusted as a true reflection of the will of the voters…”
In light of the court proclamations, the independent reporting and the official opposition complaints, it seems inconceivable that an observer mission which was as well-resourced and equipped as the AU mission would fail to pick up on any of those irregularities. It seems plausible to conclude that they noted the same irregularities, but chose to ignore them.
It seems that the observer missions are in cahoots with the incumbent leadership and are often willing participants of a rubber-stamping exercise. Out of a fear of civil war, electoral violence and democratic instability, our observers often look the other way and allow incumbent parties to escape real accountability through the ballot box. Reading the reports, there was more emphasis on the peaceful nature of the election than the other factors which impact the free nature of an election and equally the fairness of an election.
African-led observer missions are happy to trade off incumbency for peace. However, the peace they hope for is often not inevitable and in other instances comes with drought, poverty and mismanagement.
As I reflect on this, I can’t help but reflect on how ignoring the legitimate issues raised in Zimbabwe by Nelson Chamisa during the 2018 election contributed to the crisis that currently exists in that country, how the AU and SADC failed the people of Zimbabwe by ignoring the multiple issues raised by Morgan Tsvangirai. The idea was that choosing incumbency would keep the peace and allow for incremental progress. However, Zimbabwe did not progress from 2002 to 2008, it has not progressed to this day.
As Malawi goes back to the drawing board and leaders of the opposition movements go back to the people with this victory for democracy, it is my sincere hope that South Africa plays the role of a fair observer; an observer which does not look away for the purposes of expediency, out of loyalty to old liberation alliances. I hope that South Africa can put the interests of the civilians in Malawi above those of the political elites.
- Mmusi Maimane is an activist for the Movement for Change in South Africa. He is the former leader of the Democratic Alliance.