Since the 1999 presidential and parliamentary elections, National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) as a joint project of the European Union (EU) and the Malawi Government, has been instrumental in ensuring free and fair elections as one way of enhancing and entrenching democracy in Malawi.
Many attribute the smooth running of the elections in that year and subsequent polls in 2004, 2009 as well as the only local government polls the country has ever had in 2005 to Niceâ€™s systematic and non-partisan approach to civic education and its rigorous election monitoring mechanism.
Throughout the years, Nice established itself as a credible and non-partisan institution with the task of teaching Malawians on the electoral process and procedures as well as monitoring the elections to ensure credible results.
However, soon after 2009, the project faced a daunting challenge which threatened its own existence as well as the smooth running of the coming elections, especially in 2014 when Malawians, for the first time since the coming of multi-party democracy, would go for a tripartite election to elect a president, members of Parliament and local government councillors.
After the expiry of Niceâ€™s mandate as a project in 2010, the major challenge was the transformation process of the organisation from a project to a public trust as per the EU and governmentâ€™s initial agreement on the onset of the institution 10 years earlier.
The transformation led to Niceâ€™s near collapse due to heavy political weight it carried on its shoulders. In the wrangle that ensued, EU threatened to pull out its financial support.
Based on previous experiences and Niceâ€™s performance in the previous electoral process, it was clear that the demise of the institution would not only be a loss to Nice and its 8 000 plus workers and volunteers spread all over the country. The major loser was to be Malawians and the countryâ€™s young democracy.
At the peak of the wrangle and when it was clear that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government was not ready to give up its hold on the institution, community representatives from several districts across the country petitioned both the EU and the Malawi Government as a means of saving the dying Nice. Their main concern was the credibility of the 2014 elections in the absence of such a body as Nice.
EU Ambassador and Head of Delegation Alexander Baum also added his voice to the concern. Considering the high illiterate levels in the country and the importance of credible elections in a democracy, Baumâ€™s major concern was also a possibility of the country holding tripartite elections for the first time in 2014 without Nice being actively involved.
“Nice is crucial for the 2014 electoral process, especially considering the complexity of the tripartite nature of the elections. Preparations of the elections are always very critical so that we can see peaceful elections and civic education is an important job to do,” he said after receiving one of the petitions in Ntcheu in February this year.
On March 14 this year, the institution registered as a public trust under the Trustees Incorporation Act, still nothing seemed to be moving.
The main bone of contention now shifted to disagreements over appointments of a board of trustees to manage the new trust. The then president late Bingu wa Mutharika was at the centre of accusations.
With his powers, he had picked his sympathisers to run the body.
However, Niceâ€™s fate now seem to have taken a sharp turn with the coming of Joyce Banda as the new President. As soon as she took over the reins of power in April following the death of Mutharika, she dissolved the controversial Nice Board of Trustees and moved to reconstitute the institution.
Although the board of trustees are yet to be nominated, Nice seems to be on its feet again.
From early last month, Nice started a process of reconnecting itself with the masses to re-open its civic education endeavour across the country.
In the Central Region, the institution has so far been in Salima, Ntcheu and Mchinji.
“We have been inactive for almost two years and we are trying to revive our operations,” said Nice Regional civic education officer for the Centre Grey Kalindekafe in an interview.
“Currently, our main mission is to reconnect with our partners and brief them on what we achieved between 2009 and 2010; the transformation process so far; what it means is that Nice is now a public trust,” added Kalindekafe.
As has been Niceâ€™s approach to civic education, during the briefing sessions the main subjects are centred on democracy and good governance.
Said Kalindekafe: “This is just to remind them about democracy and good governance. We are also concentrating on imparting our partners with knowledge of decentralisation because we are aware that there is a connection between good governance and service delivery at local governance level and also that decentralisation is important in the whole process.”
Nice partners in these workshops include traditional leaders, members of both village and area development committees, non-governmental organisations, religious leaders, local assembly employees and government officials from various sectors that provide services at district level.
The workshops are targeting all the districts in the country with the Southern and Northern regions also conducting parallel workshops.
Kalindekafe hinted that the reconnecting process is also critical as Nice gets to work on the preparations for the 2014 elections.
He said whether the country will indeed have tripartite elections or not will depend on the repealing of the Local Government Act. Nice is set to play its role of ensuring a smooth electoral process as has been the case in the past four elections.
Among several other activities in the past, Nice has been involved in civic educating the masses and mobilising them to fully and effectively participate in the elections. The institution normally uses the existing structures at community level such as traditional leaders, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and multi-party liaison committees set in all districts across the country.
Its activities which are through sports bonanzas, drama, music, rallies and public debates involve discussions on election procedures and processes while at the same time creating election fever as a means of minimising voter apathy.
“We have also been involved in election monitoring to ensure free and fair elections,” said Kalindekafe.
In the past elections, Nice has been deploying more than 4 000 elections monitors with every centre having a monitor, making it one of the well spread elections monitoring agency outside the government machinery.
Knowing that a knowledgeable and well informed voter is critical for smooth running of any elections, Nice also runs community libraries throughout all the districts of the country.
During the past two years it was only these libraries which have been running thereby keeping Niceâ€™s legacy at district level.
Apart from various books, the libraries are a source of newspapers including the countryâ€™s major dailies: The Nation and The Daily Timesâ€”enabling people to easily follow national issues every day.
Nice has also been involved in the free distribution of free-play radios across the country thus, spurring the establishment of radio listening clubs in villages.
“Very soon we will have a fully fledged Nice and we believe we will even do more to ensure we reach out to all villages across the country,” added Kalindekafe.
In the districts that Nice has so far been to, it seems it has already created hope in many people with some of them expressing enthusiasm for the coming 2014 elections.
“In the absence of Nice, we foresaw a lot of problems including voter apathy in the 2014 elections. Our only plea is that Nice should start its job in good time in preparation for the elections,” said Mchinji Nice Ditsrict Advisory Forum chairperson Reverend Stanford Jordan.
In Salima, T/A Kalonga also said in the absence of Nice, the fear was that people will not be able to understand the complexity of the tripartite elections as well as define the roles of the MPs and councillors.
“We are now hopeful that Nice, as it has been doing in the past elections, will be able to advise and guide people properly and minimise null and void votes during the tripartite elections which will be a new experience to Malawians since 1994,” said T/A Kalonga.