Despite enjoying democracy for over 20 years, a recent survey by the Afrobarometer has shown that Malawians are still not free to publicly condemn the President and security forces.
The survey states that when it comes to politics, few Malawians also consider themselves free to express their views.
The survey, under Afrobarometer dispatch number 176 dated November 29 2017, reveals that 72 percent of Malawians cannot criticise the President while 76 and 65 percent cannot do the same to the army and police, respectively.
On the other hand, 46 percent and 39 percent of Malawians feel they cannot criticise local government councillors and traditional leaders, respectively.
However, it says that while 77 percent of Malawians feel “somewhat free” to say what they think, the proportion of those who feel “completely free” has dropped by 29 percentage since 2014 to 48 percent.
“Yet a majority say that in the years preceding the survey, Malawians were gaining greater freedom to function in political and civil society organisations,” reads part of the survey’s report.
Titled Malawians Increasingly Cautious about Exercising right to Free Political Speech, the survey was conducted between December 2016 and January 2017 by Joseph Chunga and Thomas Isbell, doctorate students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
Chunga is also a lecturer at University of Malawi’s (Unima) Chancellor College and a researcher for the university’s Centre for Social Research (CSR).
Political scientist Mustafa Hussein said the results were not surprising because of the single party “hangover” of hero worshipping and fearing State machinery.
“The implication is that the maturing of our democracy will take time and chances of having State institutions that abuse powers and public resources will continue.
“Again, things like corruption, nepotism will also continue because those in higher positions will perpetuate that… as a result that will also result in deterioration of public service delivery,” he explained.
Hussein’s observation also corroborates Livingstonia University’s political scientist George Phiri who said the problem emanates from the previous experience under the one-party rule where State machinery was used to intimidate and punish people.
He said: “The problem is psychological because of what Malawians experienced under the one-party rule which made them fear State machinery.”
Under the one-party reign of President Kamuzu Banda, Malawi was described as a country where “silence ruled” because of the regime’s effective machinery for quashing dissent.
However, the era ended after the 1993 referendum endorsing a multiparty democracy and constitution enshrining freedom of expression and of association.
But government spokesperson Nicholas Dausi said the survey did not reflect the reality on the ground.
He said if there was a President who had experienced criticism, ridicule and name calling, it was President Peter Mutharika.
“If Malawians are free to say anything then it’s to this President because they are not only free to criticise but also say anything against him. So, I don’t think the survey reflects the actual situation,” he said.
The Afrobarometer team in Malawi, led by the Centre for Social Research, interviewed 1200 adult Malawians between December 2016 and January 2017.
According to Chunga and Isbell, a sample of this size yields country-level results with a margin of error of +/-3 percent at a 95 percent confidence level. Previous Afrobarometer surveys were conducted in Malawi in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2012, and 2014.