Long after the May 21 2019 presidential election stand-off is over, Malawi Electoral Commision (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah will probably look back with little fondness to a poll that questioned the electoral body’s credibility under her leadership.
But for the voters who have had to wait months to understand what happened to the elections: whether it was really rigged or it felt victim to propaganda of some bad losers who attacked its credibility in a vicious campaign, the name Tippex will live long in the minds of those who voted, protested, testified in court or listened on the radio.
Whether the elections were rigged or not, whether they were marred by irregularities, to quote, the court petition of SaulosChilima, the first petitioner in the presidential election case, or indeed whether they were credible, free and fair, to quote a number of Western and African election observers, will be known by the second week of February when the Constitutional Court that was hearing the presidential election petition case is set to deliver its ruling.
But the story of the elections that were marred by Tippex travelled far, carried by global newspapers in different languages.
“They’re calling Malawi’s Peter Mutharika the Tippex President, reported United Kingdom’s Financial Times.
However, it appears, even before the Tippex started trekking in, the elections were cursed and bound for suspicion the moment a little known MEC data entry clerk decided to play a game of chickens with Malawians’ emotions.
Chilima, who as UTM Party presidential candidate had during the elections campaign declared that nobody would rig the elections, had a rude awakening as he arrived at St Thomas Polling Centre in Lilongwe to cast his vote only to find that his name was missing from the voters’ roll.
Upon further check, it was discovered that Chilima’s name had been transferred to the remote Island of Chizumulu, on Lake Malawi, hundreds of kilometres away.
The question of ‘who’ was responsible for this move was soon answered. It was SailesKampango. But was he a lone wolf or acting as part of a conspiracy? What other damage did he do to the system? All that may never be answered as Kampango later died in a road accident just hours after appearing in court where he had been granted bail.
Other than that and a few other hiccups, the 5.1 million voters, out of the 6.8 million registered ones, cast their votes that day without much incident in 5 200 polling centres nationwide.
But soon Lazarus Chakwera, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) presidential candidate in the election and the second petitioner in the case, held a press briefing in Blantyre, stating that the elections were marred by irregularities and that MEC was not addressing the party’s complaints.
Soon after, he obtained a court injunction against announcing the results of the elections. The electoral body confirmed that prior to the announcement of the results, it had received 147 reports of irregularities.
Days later, within minutes of lifting the MCP injunction, Ansah declared President Peter Mutharika of the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), winner of the elections with 38.5 percent of the vote, trailed closely by Chakwera, who polled 35 percent of the vote while Chilima came third.
The next day, Mutharika was sworn in for what would be a turbulent second term. In the capital city, considered part of the Central Region MCP stronghold, every billboard with Mutharika’s face would soon be defaced. Police fired tear gas indiscriminately for days at gatherings of MCP supporters protesting the results. At one point, they tear gassed the imposing MCP headquarters in Lilongwe as Chakwera was meeting then United States of America Ambassador Virginia Palmer.
Soon, big crowds, led by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), went to the streets to protest against the presidential election results.
Meanwhile, a legal fight took off in the High Court in Lilongwe which was sitting as a Constitutional Court. The court, while certifying the Chilima and Chakwera petitions as a constitutional case, conjoined their case.
Both Mutharika and MEC immediately asked the court to strike out the petitions, arguing they were filed incorrectly. The court rebuffed them. In August, the respondents went to the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal with the same plea, only to be rebuffed again.
But if the courts were initially moving at snail’s pace, on the streets, the civil society movement pushed without relenting to remove Ansah, who is also a judge in the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal, from her MEC office.
The protests became more violent by the day, but Ansah stood her ground and refused to leave office, arguing she had done no wrong. Mutharika too, rejected calls to fire Ansah.
So the standoff continued.
With Mutharika planning to hold his first victory rally in the capital city, on Tuesday October 9, an alleged group of MCP supporters vowed to stop the President but it was at Msundwe—a trading centre on the outskirts of the city on the Lilongwe along Mchinji Road— where they reacted most violently. In the process, Superintendent UsumaniImedi from the Malawi Police Service’s mobile division was stoned to death.
The police retaliated with arbitrary arrests. They also allegedly raped women and girls, a development that was condemned by the State-funded constitutional body, Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC). Some 17 women are suspected to have been raped, according to a final report by an MHRC investigation—four of whom were below the age of 18.
To date, no police officer has been arrested for the assault.
At the court, Attorney General KalekeniKaphale, representing MEC and lawyers for Mutharika, who was named the first respondent in the matter, went about discrediting the opposition’s case. Yes, there were irregularities—like the use of Tippex—went the defense by MEC and Mutharika lawyers, but this did not affect the final valid vote.
The opposition told the judges that altered results sheets and other irregularities affected over 1.4 million of the total 5.1 million votes. This, said opposition lawyers, was due to negligence and fraud by MEC.
And now, after some 60 days of hearing the elections case, 15 witnesses taking to the witness box, over seven months since the May 21 vote, the nation is now awaiting the panel of five judges to pronounce its verdict. Mutharika and Ansah did not appear in court as witnesses but Chilima and Chakwera did. They also appeared daily at every hearing.
Did Mutharika win a legitimate victory, or was aided by Tippex and some sinister plot? Shall we vote again or we shall move on and bury the hatchet? All that, will be known a few weeks from now.