Malawi commemorates 55 years of independent rule and 25 of them as a democracy. In these years there have been serious ups and downs that have threatened the republic. While the 31 years prior to democratic rule, there were seldom uprisings because they were burned down even before they sprung up from the heart. The picture started to change in the few years ahead of the move to multi-party rule in the country.
It is important that when such revolts occur, the leader responds in a manner that answers the concerns of the protesters as well as keep the country united. Because the leaders hold national and not party position, the responds must be done without regard to one’s political party, especially when these are of national concern. Highlighted in this article are five cases that show the ways in which Malawi Presidents responded to people’s concerns.
In the runup years to the 1993 Referendum there were two revolts, namely the industrial dispute and the Catholic Bishops 1992. Both these revolts prompted to then President for Life Dr. Kamuzu Banda, to respond. In the industrial revolt, that was brought about by disgruntled wage-earning Malawians reaction to mbumba (Malawi Congress Party dancing women) said they did not want Multiparty to come to Malawi. The songs sung by the women as if the Multiparty was a person.
The workers spilled into the streets and indiscriminately harassed any woman on the streets because it was because of their songs, their wages are low. They were holding all women as responsible for the low wages. In response to this outburst and open harassing and intimidating of women, Kamuzu summoned the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation to Sanjika Palace and addressed the strikers, asked them to get back to work, requested the employers to amicably negotiate with their employees, and reminded that while they may have a good point to make, there were others that were joining in to loot and were not sympathizers.
The next day, workers got off the streets, returned to work, and the women could comfortably get out of their homes and go about their businesses in town without being escorted by their male relations.
With the Pastoral Letter, President Banda who had met with the Bishops a few days earlier, several months later threw the gauntlet down and accepted the call by Malawians to consider multiparty through the referendum vote, to be held on June 14, 1993.
Kamuzu continued to speak to Malawians: in 1993, he announced that the side of the multiparty won; and in 1994 Kamuzu spoke to the nation conceding to Bakili Muluzi as the winner of the elections.
In the middle of his second term, former President Bakili Muluzi flirted with the idea of changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.
The people of Malawi vehemently opposed this, through demonstrations and Parliamentary defeat. Muluzi spoke to Malawians accepting the defeat, and straight hand-picked his successor, the soft-spoken Bingu wa Mutharika.
Wa Mutharika, however, soon spoke out when in the early months of the 2000, he detached himself from the United Democratic Party (UDF), the party that brought him to the Presidency, and formed his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Bingu Wa Mutharika cited the UDF’s widespread corruption as the reason for his jumping ship.
In 2013 the director of budget at the Ministry of Finance Paul Mphwiyo was severely shot, an incident that opened the lid to democratic Malawi’s biggest public fraud and has become to be popularly known as Cashgate (and also as the Integrated Financial Management Information System -IFMIS- saga).
One news report after another led to Malawians learning of how civil servants had been bleeding the government coffers of obscenely large sums of money.
Then President Joyce Banda spoke out on the incident and called for an audit investigation. The investigations led to some of the perpetrators to face the law and some have served prison sentences.
Ten [former] civil servants and nine contractors appear on the charge sheet, among them were Paul Mphwiyo, Roosevelt Ndovi, Auzius Kazombo Mwale and Clemence Madzi. In total, these and others were charged with defrauding government of K2.4 billion through theft and money laundering.
Even though Malawi was entering the campaign season in the next year, President Banda called for the investigation, set about methods to stop the bleeding of government recourses.
Fast forward to May 21, 2019, and Malawians, through the ballot, spoke. However, amid evidence of white altering fluid on many tally sheets, it is widely held that the independent constitutional election regulator, the Malawi Electoral Commission, was pressured by the DPP to declare President Mutharika the winner in the elections.
From the day of the announcement (May 28, 2019) to July 5, 2019, Malawians have poured onto the streets in protest of the election result. Malawians have been speaking and loudly chanting, with creativity writ large emerging as ballades, poems, slogans, and cartoons.
Within hours of the announcements, the president was sworn in, Parliamentarians sworn in. The President for unexplained reason, has for the past week resided at the Chikoko Bay Residence.
His recorded message to protesting Malawians on Wednesday was (sic) “You can protest until you get tired.” This is as if President Mutharika is “I’m going to sit here phwiii,whether you like it or not; you’ll get tired, I don’t care.”
To this line of thinking, we must say “No Mr. President, this is not what tax-paying Malawians (many of whom have been pouring out on the streets since may 29, 2019) pay you millions of Kwacha; you cannot say “voetsek” to your paymasters.
In this regard of the plight of a considerable number of tax-paying Malawians, this is what they expect a president.
1. Tax paying Malawians are your employers (their taxes, you, your ministers, the parliamentarians, the Police, the Army and other civil servants);
2. Tax paying Malawians deserve (being your paymasters and mistresses) your respect;
3. Tax paying Malawians are looking for justice, and they expect to get justice (this is a constitutional right);
4. Tax paying Malawians are not your fools, so don’t treat them like wild or rabid animals by sending the police to indiscriminately throw tear gas at them or burn their properties;
5. Tax paying Malawians, irrespective of political party affiliation, expect you to listen to them, understand their grievances, and address them without fear or favor, but most importantly without favoritism.
It would be great to know what Malawians are celebrating at 55 years of independent rule. Twenty-five years ago, at the dawn of democratic rule in Malawi, MEC Chairperson Justice Anastasia Msosa, although she had been out scooped by former President Dr. Banda, ignored the President’s broadcast conceding to Bakili Muluzi; she later serenely and with much aplomb that Bakili Muluzi was the winner and Malawi’s first democratic President.
Following this, Banda came on the radio to declare Malawi’s first multiparty elections as successful, thanked Malawians for maintaining peace, calm, law, and order; and he congratulated the incoming President Muluzi, paving the way for Malawi’s first democratic administration.
In contrast, the May 21 elections, with all the colors of anomalies, fraud, and unprofessional behavior of election officials, President Mutharika has seldom spoken to the people he is supposed to be leader of; there is severe silence from his cabinet, but the loud disgruntled voices of Malawians daily resounds in all the platforms – radio, television, newspapers, online media, and social media.
On the eve of July 6th (Malawi’s independence commemoration), MDF soldiers were captured beating police personnel during the protest marches.
While commending the MDF for helping that the marches are peaceful, my heart went out to the police officers: how do they wear their uniforms with pride, dignity, and confidence in the morrow when they are given undemocratic orders to harass peaceful demonstrators? How does the police service execute justice by bringing to book the looting thieves that are taking advantage of the demonstrations?
The anomaly that it is the gun totting MDF soldiers who are guaranteeing Malawians their freedom to march in peace, is not what democracy looks like.
It is highly appreciated that the MDF are filling the void created by the highly politicized police service; that the courts are giving credence to the grievances of the political parties’ madandos (concerns). However, truth be told, Mr. President, in democracy, the MDF exists (and its mandate is clearly spelled out in the Constitution) to safeguard our boarders from foreign intrusion; there is no mandate in the Constitution that says the MDF shall protect Malawians from their own police service.
This is not what democracy looks like.
Mr. President Arthur Peter Mutharika, please speak to the Malawi people, but please speak to them wisely. You should not taunt Malawians “the DPP won the elections” rhetoric.
Long live genuine democracy.