What goes around, comes around: Single-party governance in Malawi’s multiparty state

Part 1: media freedom after 1994

The role played by opposition parties and politicians in the current political crisis has not been sufficiently analysed. This has implications for current human rights and civil society campaigns.

Those people with short memories think Bingu wa Mutharika is solely to blame for recent abuses of human rights and rule of law infractions. Let’s think back a bit though, to the mid-1990s when the UDF and Bakili Muluzi were in power in order to explain why this is not the case.

Muluzi and Freedom of Expression and Assembly

Mr Muluzi takes credit for the transition to democracy, but Malawians may recall a number of rights abuses by his ministers, some of whom are still powerful political actors, in order to ensure the UDF’s supremacy during his two terms. Freedom of expression was an early target.

Early on the first Minister of Information (Brown Mpinganjira) banned the an issue of the Democrat using the Protected Flag, Symbol and Names Act for printing a photo of the President in a prison uniform. The act was used again later to punish a teacher who had removed a photo of the President from his classroom wall, and also against Dr Hetherwick Ntaba (currently Mutharika’s spokesman) for calling Muluzi ‘silly’. Also in these years, the Minister and President both threatened to use Banda’s old sedition laws to keep the media from criticising the President, or reporting what others said that was unfavourable. In 1996 the Weekly News(and later, many other newspapers) was started by the government to counter the independent press and to produce ‘positive’ stories about the administration.

Ntaba: Served in all the three governments of Kamuzu, Muluzi and now Mutharika

By early 1998 the UDF had decided to ban government advertising in newspapers critical of it, and Muluzi’s press secretary, Al Osman, defended the move because the President had warned the media not to print stories about his private life. As for MBC, within a year or so of taking office the UDF had ensured that its journalists were toeing the party line, and soon they reported being frightened of losing their jobs if they didn’t obey. Favoured reporters who didn’t ask awkward questions at presidential news conferences were able to attend while others were banned. Meanwhile the government (and later through the new MACRA) dragged its feet on granting licenses to new radio broadcasters to start independent radio stations, and the first two allowed were owned by senior UDF supporters.

Soon after the transition complaints were being filed (by Ntaba) about MBC not being allowed to air replies by the opposition to counter attacks on the MCP by government. Furthermore, meetings held by opposition politicians (e.g., Chakufwa Chihana and Gwanda Chakuamba) were also not being aired by MBC. When Ntaba was later picked up by government for arson, the MBC instituted a news blackout that kept the nation largely in the dark. By 1997 it was clear the President was getting campaign coverage – especially as he started ‘development meetings’ countrywide – that opposition candidates could not.

By early 1999 as the election campaign heated up, abuses of rights to information and expression had become institutionalised. During the campaign special ruling-party committees ran disinformation campaigns using foreign funds and party-owned and government-managed newspapers, opponents weren’t allowed live broadcasts on public radio, and young party thugs attacked opponents and their supporters at rallies. By the close of the first term, Muluzi’s people had entrenched behaviours limiting free express that should have disappeared in 1994.

Regarding freedom of assembly, in 2002 when Muluzi attempted to change the Constitution in favour of a third term, public rallies opposing and in favour were held. The President tried to ban the former demonstrations and ordered his security services to ‘deal with’ any who defied the ban. In the end the court upheld the right of Malawians to demonstrate, explaining that ‘the citizen need only give the Police notice of the assembly’. Justice Twea also reminded the authorities that while ‘there are laws that regulate assemblies and prevent rioting… the Police Service would be advised to use these powers properly’.

A single-party mentality in a multi-party state

When Dr Banda governed it was logical for MBC and the regime’s newspapers to support everything he did – that was the nature of the single-party system. Unfortunately even in this multiparty era the mentality of single-partyism is strong, especially amongst those at the top of which ever party is in power. It’s become the nature of multipartyism in Malawi for ruling party politicians to use and abuse state resources to win elections. Parastatals, local governments, and other organisations go along with this practice, whether because it seems the right thing to do, or because of a fear of losing jobs.

As Wiseman Chirwa noted in the mid-90s, Malawi experienced ‘a transition without transformation’. As a result in 2012 the outcome for democratic institutions like freedom of expression and media freedom, especially during campaigns, is still in doubt.

Part 2: Obtaining and retaining power in Malawi since 1994

Analysts too often point to Bingu wa Mutharika’s second term as extraordinary, and claim his first was so much different. In fact, there is a progression of anti-democratic behaviours and rights abuses that are rooted in the pre-transition period and have continued unabated since then. They are driven by politicians’ desire to recentralise power in the presidency (lost through the 1994 Constitution and the push for ‘democratic governance’), crush any viable opposition, extend power beyond two terms, and to use state resources to benefit ruling party politicians and their clients.

Besides abuses of media freedom and free expression and assembly, these behaviours take several other forms which Malawians readers will recognise – attacks on opposition leaders, sometimes leading to their deaths; disregard of court rulings that go against the ruling party and regime; manipulation of the Malawi Electoral Commission and electoral processes; use of foreign funds for electioneering; and changing and ignoring laws (and parliamentary rules) that undermine presidentialism.

Attacks on political opponents and civil society

Assaults in the multiparty era date back to the 1990s, when politicians were targeted – such as Ntaba and Chakuamba who had to take refuge in the Kasungu police station to avoid a brutal attack by the UDF’s Young Democrat thugs. Ordinary supporters of opposition parties were harassed and their homes and businesses torched by the YD in the 1990s. To protect secrets some close to power have been murdered, ranging from the head of the Army, Gen. Manken Chigawa (1995) and the economist Dr Kalonga Stambuli (2003), to the Polytechnic student leader Robert Chasowa, who politically got in over his head (2011). Newspaper editors, offices and sellers were frequently the target of youth in the Muluzi era, while civil society activists have had their offices and homes burnt down by ruling party thugs more recently.

Disregard of anti-government court rulings

One of the best remembered cases favouring democracy was when the courts ordered MBC to open up to all contestants and parties during the 1999 elections. Not surprisingly, Muluzi’s Minister of Information (Sam Mpasu) ignored that ruling and continued to use public radio and TV to campaign for the UDF and to bar equal access to opponents.

Similarly, because Section 65 of the Constitution (prohibiting MPs from ‘crossing the floor’ in the National Assembly) has been so central to consolidating power in the hands of the president, it is not surprising that rulings of the court on Sec 65 that have gone against government have repeatedly been ignored. Part of the problem rests with enforcement of court judgements generally: since the police have historically taken their orders from the President they are unlikely to enforce court orders against any president.

Manipulation of the MEC and electoral procedures

While President Muluzi conferred with other parties about who was in the Malawi Electoral Commission, he at the same time stacked it with loyalists, some of whom showed little capacity to do the work. So too did he make sure electoral returning officers (DCs) could be trusted. He tried to gerrymander constituencies to ensure UDF superiority of numbers (from the south), a move rejected by the public and donors. Analysts tell us that the normal sorts of electoral cheating took place in 1999 and 2004, with fiddling registration, stuffing ballot boxes, etc. That this was unnecessary in 2009 had to do with the weakness of the opposition, which was split and erratic, and Mutharika’s having delivered development for four years, which was a vote-winner. Efforts to manipulate state resources as we approach 2014, including using food aid and/or fertilizer-seed packs, would be little different than what was seen in 1994 (during a drought with food aid) and the following two elections (starter packs, etc).

Foreign campaign funding

Malawi’s political parties are caught in a dilemma – they fear asking citizens to buy party cards (as that would appear too much like what Banda did) but they haven’t money to run their activities. Thus they rely on the leader’s wealth, state resources or money earned through big deals in order to fund party workers and win supporters. At election time more is needed, and Muluzi depended on Gadhafi in Libya and other Muslim states, while the new president seems to hope China will step in to help. The price paid is that government is then beholding to these foreigners, but also it is a dangerous practice for these political donors when they back a losing candidate, as was the case in Zambia recently.

Rule of law infractions

When Banda governed, he could change any judges, laws or legal institutions he didn’t like (e.g., creating a whole new Traditional Court system for instance). This is harder in a democracy, though worth a try: Mr Muluzi added a second VP for political reasons, and later tried to organise constitutional changes to get himself a third term. The failure to hold local government elections since 2005 is a clear example of rule-of-law infractions. Also, hate speech, inciting violence, and detaining opponents are unconstitutional and illegal as well.

The consistency of anti-democratic behaviours

The first point being made here is that events we see today that upset opposition politicians and civil society activists are not new. Government attacking media freedom, breaking the law and ignoring court rulings, abusing state power and resources, and physically attacking political opponents and vocal civil society actors have been on-going since the transition – they were evident throughout the Muluzi and early Mutharika years.

More interesting, individual politicians have played both the role of perpetrators and victims, depending on how close to government they were at the time. Harri Englund got it right when he called them ‘chameleons’.

If we were living in Dr Banda’s Malawi such abuses would be less likely because he would not have allowed things to get so far out of his control; he used state and party powers, the courts, and youth to keep a grip on Malawians. Anyone stepping out of line – opposing him verbally for instance – would be dealt with immediately.

These ways of doing things to support the single-party regime remain part of Malawi’s political culture, extended into the present by the UDF after 1994 and by the DPP since 2005. This is because such behaviours are useful for centralising power in the presidency, winning elections, retaining power and amassing wealth.

Malawi’s democracy remains weak and will stay that way until politicians are incentivised to abide by the Constitution. How to ensure that they do is Malawi’s biggest challenge, and one that its economic development and stability depend on.

Meanwhile civil society and human rights activists must not make the mistake of thinking that their agenda to preserve and advance democracy and rights is always the same as that of Malawi’s politicians.

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