The year 2020 was generally eventful. Malawi made itself famous globally, for bad reasons at the beginning and good reasons at the end.
For sure, it was not good news for the country to be famous for an election marred with massive irregularities as evidence proved when the May 21 2019 presidential election case unfolded in the High Court’s Constitutional Court (ConCourt).
But a consolation followed in later months and it was for good reasons that Malawi was famed for Judiciary’s independence when the ConCourt, on February 3 2020, annulled the questionable electoral results and ordered a fresh election.
This was a rare feat that doesn’t happen often, but the five ConCourt judges did it and placed Malawi on the enviable global spot.
As if this was not enough, the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the ConCourt judgement that annulled the 2019 presidential election result amid unwarranted threats and accusations that the Judiciary was plotting to oust the then governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that was led by former president Peter Mutharika.
Even when it was upheld in the top court of the land that a fresh presidential election be held within 150 days, there were still doubts among some Malawians that the DPP would facilitate and fund all processes—including the tabling of some Electoral Reforms Bills to enable the fresh poll take place—as it was clear the administration was against the court verdict.
When President Lazarus Chakwera, who at the time was presidential candidate for the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) in the annulled election and Vice-President Saulos Chilima, who contested for the presidency on a UTM Party ticket, petitioned the court to challenge the result, it appeared like a tall order that they would attain their desired outcome.
But it was a journey that started with a step, and with one step at a time, they pulled it off in a manner that even great nations with strong democracies admired the tiny and little known Malawi.
The upholding of the ConCourt judgement by the seven-judge-panel of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda on May 8 2020 was remarkable. Besides disposing of the matter before it diligently, the conduct of the highest court of the land showed the world how independent the Malawi Judiciary is.
No wonder in October, the five judges of Malawi’s High Court — Justice Healey Potani, Justice Ivy Kamanga, Justice Redson Kapindu, Justice Dingiswayo Madise and Justice Michael Tembo —were announced winners of the prestigious Chatham House award.
The London-based think-tank said the constitutional court judges won the 2020 Chatham House Prize in recognition of the “courage and independence in the defence of democracy” they demonstrated in their historic February 2020 ruling that annulled the May 2019 presidential poll.
Malawi became the second country in Africa — after Kenya — and only the third in the world to nullify a presidential election. Unlike in Kenya, where incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta in September 2017 won the rerun against opposition candidate Raila Odinga anyway after an opposition boycott, Malawi’s opposition, led by Chakwera, swept to power on second asking—defeating Mutharika, who had been declared winner and sworn in for a second term after the first disputed election.
Stated Chatham House: “At a time when standards of democratic governance are under threat not only in Africa, but in many democracies, Malawi’s constitutional court judges set an example for their peers across the world by upholding the centrality of the rule of law and separation of powers.
“Despite high-level bribery attempts and threats, the five judges—who arrived in court under armed escort and wearing bulletproof vests—delivered their 500-page ruling, which upheld the Constitution and defended citizens’ democratic rights in the most difficult circumstances.”
The initial re-election of Mutharika in 2019 had triggered widespread street protests. Yet, the country’s democratic safeguards stood firm. Apart from the Judiciary, the country’s military and civil society were also praised for safeguarding the country’s democracy.
“This is a historic moment for democratic governance. The ruling by Malawi’s constitutional court judges is not only crucial for rebuilding the confidence of Malawi’s citizens in their institutions, but also for upholding standards of democracy more widely across the African continent.
“There could be no more special way to mark Chatham House’s centenary than by recognising the commitment of these brave individuals to the cause of accountable governance and the justice that this affords to all,” said Dr Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House.
Local journalists, realising these were important moments in Malawi’s history, pulled out their best and tried to keep Malawians in the loop of the issues.
The front page of The Nation of February 4 2020, after the landmark ruling by the ConCourt a day earlier, carried a banner headline; ‘Null and Void’, with two sub headlines; ‘APM victory nullified, fresh vote in 150 days’, and; ‘MEC blasted, Chilima back as VP’, decorated by a landscape news picture of a group of jubilant MCP supporters, with a man carrying a radio on his shoulder and a whistle on his mouth, his fist punching the air—a display of complete party victory.
The story outlined the 500-paged abridged version of the landmark judgement by the five justices that was read from 9am to about 7.50pm, accusing the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) of failing to carry out its constitutional duties, negligence and abdication of the same.
Chairperson of the panel of five judges Potani, reading out the judgement, said the court was satisfied by the petitioners’ complaint alleging that undue return had been made out both qualitatively and quantitatively.
He said: “Consequently, we hold that the first respondent [Peter Mutharika] was not duly elected president of Malawi. As a result, we hereby order nullification of the election.
“We further order that a fresh election be held in accordance with the law and pursuant to directions we will make soon [based on Section 100(4) of the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act.”
But even after this resounding judgement—the DPP accompanied by then MEC chairperson Jane Ansah went on to appeal at the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal.
Ansah defiantly refused to resign amid calls for her to do so owing to the mismanagement of the elections. She had earlier promised to resign if MEC was to lose the case at the ConCourt.
Two months on—and from the seven-member-judge-panel of the Supreme Court on May 8 2020—the news was not too good for the appellants as the court upheld the lower court’s judgement. It was a dead end for DPP.
The following day, Weekend Nation captured is simple and straight forward headline; ‘Final Blow’, with a landscape news picture of jubilant opposition supporters.
All other things aside such as struggle to pass electoral bills which were passed with the then governing party accusing opposition members of ambushing them in Parliament—and campaign that triggered violence in some areas—this was the journey that saw Chakwera and Chilima form an alliance with other political parties to reclaim the high office in the land after they ousted Mutharika and his DPP in the June 23 Fresh Presidential Election.