2019 was meant to be the year of Malawi’s tripartite elections. For the most part, voter expectations had previously oscillated between two predictions: Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and ‘new kid on the block’ and then Vice President in Mr. Mutharika’s government, Saulos Chilima, of just-founded United Transformation Movement (UTM). It was clear the DPP was shaken out of its shoes and made many a blunder at trying to sway the public away from the aphorismic youthful candidate. In many ways, there were many who thought 2019 was indubitably the ‘year of Chilima’.
However, with a first-past-the-post electoral system, and in spite of the disputes that subsequently followed, it was the DPP and Mr. Mutharika that were crowned winners. And although the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) would rather have had it any other way, they emerged so many points ahead of a frail-looking UTM that could, at best, brandish four parliamentary seats as its leader was humbled in the cold, dark corner of politics with little howling power. Along with the loss was an overshadowing of the hopes for the ‘year of Chilima’.
As Mr. Chilima’s Party concordantly responded with the devastation he suffered on 21 May, a new phenomenon emerged on the political scene that was to shift the way Malawians would view democracy for many years to come. Before the furniture would be moved to Kamuzu Stadium for Mr. Mutharika’s inauguration, Malawians were already taking to the streets when a revelation indicated the use of white-out, a.k.a. Tippex, on some result sheets from a number of polling centers in order to send some favorable numbers for Mr. Mutharika to the National Tally Center at COMESA Hall. This was one significant grievance protesters carried to our public institutions, among at least a hundred others that were handed to Jane Ansah, the Chair of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC).
The advent of protestation on Malawi’s street was well backed by a vibrancy in the virtual space, where social media was awash with euphemisms and satire surrounding much of the debate on the winning and conceding sides. Madando, a term Mrs. Ansah has forever imprinted on the chronicles of the 2019 elections, easily became a household name for anything ranging from alcohol to vehicle registrations. Besides the brutality of the suspicion of voter fraud, Malawi burned and Malawians on the internet were having their share of fun.
Ever since May, the demonstrations designed to unequivocally call for Mrs. Ansah’s resignation, which were led by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), would not die down on the honorable Justice of the Supreme Court. Neither have they cut any slack from branding Mr. Mutharika’s Presidency itself illegitimate.
Other than some careless statements proclaiming the absence of irregularity significant enough to warrant worry on the electorate, Mrs. Ansah’s happy poses among seemingly elated DPP supporters, and perhaps a rushed BDO Report that seemed to exonerate the outcome of the process, the government has resisted – and failed – to allay the public fears of acute anomalies that the contestations aimed at addressing. In doing so, the DPP government would give birth to a persistent streak for demonstration, carried out by many who, especially after 31 May (inauguration day), have awaken to the need to express their democratic rights, and to fail only after trying. It has also revealed how Malawi’s civil society may have teeth after all.
After at least eight (8) demonstration events that this website reckons have been most expressive, it appears Malawians are not done trying. A statement by Timothy Mtambo of HRDC on 12 September 2019 asserted the demos would continue until Mrs. Ansah is given the boot and allowed to answer questions surrounding the allegedly faulty election in May. But also her role in it. Mr. Mtambo gives us every reason to believe this is exactly what anti-Ansah protesters intent to do.
According to this website, the mystery – and perhaps the one thing Mr. Mutharika must pay attention to – that surrounds the demonstrations is that of whither the fans that are flaming these unrelenting demonstrations are blowing from. While at Capital Hill on the 6 August demos, the HRDC did shed some light on a fundamental fact about how they kept the vigil alive and warm, providing the protesters with food. The underlying question in this generous gesture is: where is the money coming from? If Mr. Mutharika could answer this question, he would probably unlock an important mystery that may transcend Mr. Mtambo, MCP or even the now-very-mum UTM, all whom are likely to lack the financial muscle to feed thousands of energetic, excited youngsters across the country. If there is a strong backer of these protests, it is likely Mr. Mutharika has little clout to curb their reach.
To show Mr. Mutharika’s eyes are closed away from real issues as who may be the benefactor behind the demonstrations, two assassination attempts at Mr. Mtambo (see this and this) have been executed by those unhappy at his uncanny distaste for an electoral system where the seat of the MEC Chair is warmed by Mrs. Ansah.
Instead of dealing with the real issues of the demonstrations, which could potentially have accorded Mr. Mutharika some public sympathy for trying in the least, his cronies – among whom is Inspector General Jose – turned their eyes towards HRDC, MCP and UTM to blame them for looting and rioting. Unfortunately, it is clear to every other Malawian, other than Mr. Jose, that a critical mass of disgruntled youths took advantage of the protestations to earn where they never sowed, nonetheless an expression of discontent in an economic system and inequality Mr. Mutharika’s government has perpetuated with little remorse.
And when Mr. Mutharika’s calls for negotiation went categorically unheeded, he resorted to taking some matters into his own hands. On 21 August, he went ahead to order the military to engage the protesters that were being a pain in his wrong side, his main excuse being that the demonstrations were mainly an excuse to commit crime. This was to degenerate into repetitive clashes between law enforcement and demonstrators, which would, on 8 October 2019, claim the life of Usumani Imedi, a Police Superintendent at Msundwe Trading Center in Lilongwe. The late Mr. Imedi, however, would not be the only regrettable externality of the irresponsible decisions made by both sides of the demonstrations. According to various news sources, between 13 and 18 women were raped at Msundwe. The perpetrators of this gruesome act, unfortunately, were Malawi Police officers. It has not gone unnoticed that three of the women raped were under the age of 18 while another was two-months pregnant.
The question we ask ourselves, then, is whether the demonstrations are working. Mrs. Ansah remains stubbornly stuck to her seat while Mr. Mutharika’s government unapologetically demonizes anyone carrying a placard against its name. To Mr. Mutharika, however, there is a limit to which the noises the protesters make will fall on deaf ears. And Sam Alufandika’s (MEC CEO) profuse perspiration affair in court on 28 November certainly did not help his case. While Malawians continue to face economic and social ills that partly result in order for his cronies and zealots to enjoy a comfort unmatched by the devastation that the regular Malawian experiences every day, those – including in his own side of politics – living on bare minimums will start looking at him through more realistic lens.
Malawi will not be the exception in using the power of exercising the right to openly demonstrate against authority on matters important to livelihood and especially democracy. The changes in power that similar demonstrations have brought in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Sudan, Hong Kong and Lebanon still ring a freshness that is smelt on the streets of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Zomba cities…as well as on the earth roads of Msundwe.
Indeed, Mr. Mutharika’s legitimacy and Mrs. Ansah’s innocence may likely remain in doubt, thanks to the fissures our institutions have demonstrated before. A key illustration of this might very well be how Bakili Muluzi roams free on the streets while an incomplete court battle rots on the shelves of our esteemed judicial system.
The misfortune Mr. Mutharika and Mrs. Ansah may be encountering today is that the streets of Malawi may continue to be their most obstinate judge as we move into 2020.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers!