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5 lessons to learn from Malawi’s fresh presidential election

There are many lessons to learn from the recent historic presidential elections in Malawi and the swearing in of the opposition candidate Dr. Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, the first time an opposition candidate has been sworn in Africa following a court sanctioned poll.

  1. THE PEOPLE: Malawians showed tenacity and unwavering commitment to fighting against the stealing of their votes. Their resilience is unmatched. For close to a year, the people fought on the streets to protestprotested the theft of their vote, without ever giving up. In Africa, we arenot often exposed to that kind of longevity in principled protest, although it is by no means the first or the only example.
  1. THE MILITARY: The Military in Malawi wasconsistentin demonstratingfidelity to the Constitution of the Republic, above their loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief. They stepped in, way back in 2012, when the outgoing President, Prof. Peter Mutharika and his cabal had tried to subvert the Constitution upon the death of his older brother, President Prof. Bingu wa Mutharika (who, by the way, is believed by some to be the first person to write a doctoral thesis on regional integration in Africa). They have also stepped in, over the last year, to protect the peoples’ right to peaceful protest, when it was under threat by the Police. They were there again ago as they stepped out to guard the President-elect, and to demonstrate that power had shifted, due to the actions of the people of Malawi, despite COVID-19.
  1. THE COURTS: Thejustices and other court officialsdisplayed independence and courage that is rare, amongst their peerson the continent. Picking the baton from their Kenyan counterparts (some would argue their Sierra Leonian counterparts too), the justices in Malawiannulled a flawed electionfirst at the High Court level,and which was lateraffirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal. Thejustices issued two Stay Orders, on a Sunday, within minutes of filing, in Lilongwe and Mzuzu, when the out gone President and his minions purported to send the Chief Justice on terminal leave, on the eve of a freshpresidential election, ostensibly to ‘pack’ the Court with pliant and compliant Judges. Some in Malawi have said that theirNigerian counterparts were neither as fast nor as resolute when government officials in Abuja did the same, on the eve of the February 2019 presidentialelections in Africa’s most populous country.

Again, we have to honour the dynamism and alacrity of the Malawian people, especially their human rights lawyers and the Malawi Law Society leadership, in filing the two urgent applications (both drafted in less than 20 hours) that led to the Stay Orders in the first place.

  1. THE ELECTION MANAGEMENT BODY (EMB): After a dishonourable display under the leadership of my friend, Dr. Jane Mayemu Ansah, a change in leadership late in the day brought about a great leap in integrity in managing elections in the country. The short preparation period, the COVID-19 and other logistical challenges did not deter them from delivering an election with the highest integrity that they could muster, in the circumstances. It shows that leadership and integrity is everything, and ‘logistical challenges’ are over-rated fabrications by those who stealon behalf ofthose in power, and those who provide the intellectual ‘cover’ for it.   It helped that the Malawi Constitution constrains the President on who he or she can appoint to head the election management body; it is not a free-for-all, like we see in some other countries. This mattered a great deal.
  1. AFRICAN SOLIDARITY: Overtly and covertly, there was a significant amount of solidarity generated for our Malawian colleagues, within a very short time. I was witness to, and small player in, some of the citizen solidarity efforts. And we all witnessed a lot more. Two that stand out for me is how serving and retired African Chief Justices and Judges rallied to practically and prominently support their Malawi counterparts. Also, how young and old, female and male African law professors openly rebuked their former colleague, the former Professor of Law, Arthur Peter Mutharika. It mattered. It matters. I hope we see more of this, all over Africa, in the near future.

A lot can be said about opposition unity, which reminds me of a halcyon moment in Kenyan politics in 2002, when opposition unity helped to ‘retire’ Mzee Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi, and put paid his plans for his then ‘project.’ I wonder who, between him and the people of Kenya, has had (or will have) the last laugh on that ‘project.’

FINALLY

It is not yet Uhuru in Malawi or the rest of Africa. There are still risks. We all witnessed the swearingwhich passed smoothly and safely despite the fears people had.  Now that he has taken power, will Dr. Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera turn into a theocratic demagogue, spewing forth HIS view of what HIS Lord has told him to do with HIS country? Will the military stay in the barracks and stay out of day-to-day politics?

To manage all these, and to protect their democracy, I choose to trust the Malawian people, with whom I started, and with whom I end these preliminary thoughts. Solidarity forever!

Don Deya

Deya is CEO at Pan African Lawyers Union, Tanzania

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