Despite all the anticipation and hype about the electoral dispute court ruling yesterday, the underlying governance and development problems that Malawi is facing will not simply disappear and cannot be wished away.
The unprecedented demonstrations that the country has witnessed since the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections and increasing frustrations and lawlessness around the country have laid bare that the post-1994 democratic dispensation has failed the majority of Malawians and mainly benefitted the political elite.
It is obvious that Malawians are not only seeking the electoral justice that the court delivered, but even more critically they are looking for far-reaching legal, governance and socio-economic reforms that will bind the leadership to govern the country and its economy in the interest of all Malawians.
This is the time to call a spade by its real name, and act. We need to find real solutions to the core problems that are ailing our country and making us a laughingstock among our neighbouring countries that are steadily making progress to improve the wellbeing of their people.
As correctly noted by various governance experts, the foundation of Malawi’s mediocre performance during the multi-party era is that we achieved phenomenal political transition that was not accompanied by the requisite governance and accountability reforms that the country needed to achieve the elusive socio-economic transformation that Vision 2020 promised, but has miserably failed to deliver.
This is a turning point for Malawi. We need to seize this opportunity and agree on concrete steps to rebuild our broken democracy and put in place systems and structures that will ensure that the country provides an enabling environment for effective delivery of social services and functioning of the private sector so that the majority Malawians thrive and not barely survive while enduring abject poverty, ill health, and a bleak economic future.
Surely, Malawi should be able to progressively develop capacity for self-reliance and become less dependent on development aid, and we should optimise our agricultural potential to ensure that we feed ourselves, become the breadbasket for the region that we were before, and enable Malawian farmers make a decent living from farming. We should not accept that it is fine for half (50 percent) of all Malawians to live below the poverty line and for a quarter (25 percent) to be living in extreme poverty where they cannot feed themselves and take care of their families.
Furthermore, we should reject the situation that it is okay for half of our daughters to marry before age 18 and for 82 percent of our secondary school age children not to be enrolled in school while we tolerate the ever-growing grand corruption and lack of accountability in service delivery in the country.
We cannot take any pride in calling ourselves the “Warm Heart of Africa” when our way of governance and running the economy serves to sink the hearts, hopes and aspirations of so many of our people.
The fact that these and many other problems have been worsening over time underscores why we must pause and have a new start. Malawians across the political and tribal divides must join hands to fix the broad socio-cultural and governance challenges we are facing and chart a new future for the country.
The political disputes and development challenges that Malawi is facing are not unique and there is a lot of scope to learn from how other countries have gone about addressing them. For example, when Kenya almost fell apart following the disputed 2007 elections, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was called in to help the warring factions sit together, look at the big picture, and agree to a political cease-fire through the formation of a legally binding grand-coalition government of national unity and a precise roadmap for instituting far-reaching governance and legal reforms.
These reforms led to the 2010 Constitution, which included electoral reforms that streamlined the conduct of elections and barred declared winners of presidential elections from being sworn in before conclusion of any petitions challenging declarations of the electoral body. The efficient manner in which the 2013 Kenya presidential petition case was conducted as a result of these reforms is a stark contrast to the just concluded long Malawian trial that kept the country in limbo for so long unnecessarily.
The 2010 Kenyan Constitution also created a devolved system of governance with 47 county governments to bring decision-making power closer to the people and reduce the dominance of the presidency and the central government in controlling national resources and determining the development trajectory of the county. Another critical reform was the birth of a stronger autonomous parliament that controls its own calendar and has a protected budget. These reforms have allowed the Kenyan Parliament to have the requite mandate and resources to function effectively in discharging its core functions of legislation, representation and oversight of the executive on resource allocation and policy implementation. Clearly, the key challenges that the 2007 Kenyan political ceasefire and reform process helped address also apply to Malawi.
Of course, Kenya is not a totally clean model for addressing the challenges that Malawi is facing and it is evident that the country continues to experience various challenges, including rampant corruption, to consolidate these gains and make their democracy work in favour of all Kenyans. Therefore, while Malawi can learn from general approaches used in other countries, we would need to be careful and only adopt lessons that are sensible and apply to Malawi to avoid importation of unworkable solutions.
The good starting point for Malawi to go on a positive democratic and develop path is for the leadership to form an all-inclusive bi-partisan framework to unite the country and mobilise our collective expertise to chart a new future that will decisively move the country from our mediocre business-as-usual way of life.
It is time to agree on a legally binding roadmap for reviewing our 25-year-old Constitution and refine how our laws guide the way we govern ourselves, set and act on our development priorities, manage resources, and relate with one another to guarantee proper democratic governance and socioeconomic transformation for all Malawians.
Hopefully, we can find and trust eminent Malawians who can lead this overdue national renewal process that should go beyond looking at simple political power-sharing as the desired goal and guarantee the comprehensive governance and accountability reforms that the country needs to move forward.
Anything falling short of that will most probably result in endless demonstrations and further decay of the country. If we cannot resolve this ourselves, we must urgently identify a Kofi Annan like leader to come and help us forget about our narrowly defined partisan interests, look at the bigger picture, and join hands in building a new Malawi.
* Dr. Eliya Msiyaphazi Zulu is executive director of the African Institute for Development Policy (Afidep). Views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the official position of the Institute.