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In Government We (Hope to) Trust: Voting and Governance in Malawi and Africa

Written in celebration of Tiunike Online's 4th birthday!

From Cape to Cairo, fewer than a handful of African governments are serving their people at their points of need.

In part, this is a result of Africa’s hasty and widespread adoption of forms of government that were initially designed to manage post-industrial revolution western democracies. In another part, the adopted systems of governance in Africa were not given enough panel beating to fit the African context best to solve the continent’s domestic challenges. After 60 years of independence, many of our countries are still reeling with poverty and fragility that simple shock wreak havoc for scores of millions whose livelihoods have been rendered dependent on the chance that the government of the day will perform, especially as political rhetoric is callously wrapped in laundry lists of promises.

To meet even a small portion of these promises, African States have wound up in extreme and growing levels of local and international debt. Unfulfilled promises have been fueled by runaway corruption, which constrain growth and income redistribution. And to stay in power when there’s not much development to show off, elites have repeatedly twisted electoral processes in their favor. Politics are reduced to fanfares of lies peddled on million of uneducated brains that then get easily hoodwinked by promises the message recipients know will never be kept. Yet we go, in the name of “power to the people”, to the ballot to elect into office the very people we should loathe.

This is, however, changing. Mismanagement, malfeasance and abuse of power are having adverse effects on African democracies and their economic systems.

The very instrument designed to prosper African nations, i.e., democratic elections, is resultantly being increasingly shunned by those who hold the right to vote. A policy paper by Wonbin Cho and Matthew Kirwin highlights the impacts of poor governance on voters’ confidence in national institutions, in turn which impacts their participation in elections. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), data from 44 African countries show that only in 11 countries did more than 70% of registered voters participate in the most recent presidential elections (Malawi had 64.8%); 17 participated in the most recent Parliamentary elections (Malawi had 70.1%).

What do we learn from Asian countries?

A number of Asian economies answer this question by showing how a country need not fulfill all the ideals of western democracy to make national development work for the majority of one’s people. Otherwise Viet Nam could have never risen to the world’s third largest exporter of rice (2018-2019) despite not having been a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) until as recently as 2007. Singapore, a measure of success according to Peter Mutharika, Malawi’s ex-President until June 2020, is an efficient trading machine operating under a compromised democracy which even Western politicians prefer not to lambast. But economic benevolence and a strong patriotic pride seem to beam from some of these Asian countries to the extent that the people of China, even as their country is on record as the first to report the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19, can afford to racially segregate Africans living in China for spreading the virus. The Chinese feel they have risen enough to believe they have something to protect – after all, no country has matched its sophisticated response to the spread of Covid-19 – and embrace this entitlement, which is no different from the type of discrimination Africans will face in Europe or North America even when they are legal aliens. Africans, on the other hand, cannot afford to discriminate any other national and get away with it.

But the story of Uganda’s survival though the East African Community, an economic bloc of [six] East African countries, offers a more local example we can learn from too. With a number of economic sanctions against it, Uganda would not have maintained its prosperity if it were unable to access to international markets – the country’s source of raw materials, technology and market for its exports – the EAC provides it.

Yet, on many levels, and in spite of such success stories, African countries continue to fail at vitalizing themselves into formidable national and global players because of mistakes made at the ballot or for procrastinating to go to use the ballot for change. Why should discerning people vote for leaders who will screw them up anyway?

Unfortunately for us, we need to continue to call out the folly we identify in leadership whenever we see it, as a way to consolidate the power we hold. It worked for us in Malawi when a Constitutional Court (ConCourt) upended the outcome of 2019 presidential elections after confirming significant irregularities in the voting process. This, however, was not quite the same result our Kenyan siblings reaped in 2017 when they held a re-run of their Presidential election. And the Malawian constitutional example is not only the model for how African institutions can hold strong to redress a dysfunctional or illegitimate government. At this website, we believe that the ConCourt’s decision worked together with a new mechanism of checks and balances against political mischief and prostitution that had strongly emerged: nationwide street demonstrations.

The Tonse Alliance government may not be the ultimate solution to all of Malawians’ economic and social woes. It is plausible that no government may ever match our every need. However, in the period between 2019 and 2020, we may have just reclaimed our right to the driving seat of the democratic process and to a new faith in our institutions and government.

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