At the time most African countries gained independence, their political parties lacked clear ideologies. All of them spoke of eradicating poverty, disease and ignorance. In those days, the world was divided into capitalist and socialist blocs.
The former was led by the United States of America and the latter by the now defunct Soviet Union.
Most countries espoused neutrality between the two blocs. Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana put it smartly, “We face neither East nor West but forward.”
A few of the African political parties did flirt with this ideology. Nkrumah through the Conventional Peoples Party (CPP) spoke of African socialism while Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania spoke of Ujamah—a humanist philosophy which translated as ‘familihood’. Both approaches rejected capitalism and embraced what they described as African socialism.
Both Ghana and Tanzania retreated from these ideologies for the same reasons that people of Russia and Eastern Europe gave up communism. The ideologies when put into practice brought more economic failures than successes. Since then most African countries have followed capitalism tempered by statism or State participation in the economy.
It was lack of political ideologies that bred the one-party system which was very much in vogue during the first 30 years of post-colonial Africa. Political parties that brought about independence started as national movements with attainment of independence as their primary objective.
As the African countries approached independence some people left the national movement party and tried to form their own. The reaction of the existing party members was hostile: Why did you not form the party while we were fighting colonial forces, getting jailed or getting killed?
They saw these multiparty advocates as neo-colonialists and enemies of national unity.
In Ghana, university professor Kofi Busia founded the National Movement to oppose the CPP. When he learned that Nkrumah was about to throw him into jail, Busia fled to Britain from where he returned after Nkrumah had been overthrown by the army.
In Tanzania, Zuberi Ntebvu, a former political assistant to Nyerere, resigned from his job and started his own party which he called African Congress. Nyerere denounced the party as chama cha mkate na siagi—‘a bread and butter party’— meaning it was a brainchild of people who were only out to feed themselves.
In Malawi (then Nyasaland), the businesspeople and a former senior member of the Nyasaland African Congress, Chester Katsonga, formed his Christian Democratic Party (CDP) to oppose Malawi Congress Party which had recently been founded by Orton Chirwa and Aleke Banda. Most people suspected Katsonga to have been influenced by Archbishop Theunissen and 50 Catholics led by MCP’s John Msothi signed a memorandum and disassociated themselves from CDP. They called into question the behaviour of the bishop in interfering in Nyasaland politics.
Before Katsonga wound up his party, he warned the people that under the one-party MCP rule there were going to be no freedom in the country. Unfortunately, he did not live up to the year 1992 or 1993 to say: “You are now saying what I was saying in 1961.”
Why do African political parties operate without clear ideologies? Possibly this is because Africa has not yet produced influential thinkers and philosophers. Those who form political parties only think of getting elected to Parliament, forming a government. As to how they will operate, their answer is: ‘don’t attempt to cross the river before you reach the bridge.’
There are four major political parties on the Malawi scene at the moment—the ruling Peoples Party (PP), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), United Democratic Front and MCP. They are all hoping to form the next government come May 2014. But what is the differentia of each of these parties? By differentia I mean the substance that distinguishes one party from another? It is hard to see. They are all promising the same things.
When people are confronted by similar promises they make their choices on persons, ethnic or regional biases. This has been the seamy side of multiparty elections in Malawi since 1994—except in 2009 when people voted in accordance with the past performance of the DPP and deceased president Bingu wa Mutharika. Mutharika’s first term convinced all the three regions that he was the president of all of them.
In 2014 elections, MCP stands the best chance to resume the position it enjoyed as a ruling party. The Southern Region voters who prefer to cast votes for the home party will be confronted by three prima facie equally attractive parties. In the Central Region, there is no other party to compete with MCP for the regionalists’ votes.
Since the people of Malawi, unlike those of Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and Liberia, do not believe in reruns they must be ready for a president who will go in with no more than 25 percent of the votes cast.