French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, noticed that as much as democratic leadership is determined by people, ideally majority, ‘majority rule cannot be the only expression of supreme power in a democracy’. He added: “If so, … the majority would too easily tyrannise the minority. Thus, while it is clear that democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it is equally clear that it must guarantee that the majority will not abuse its power to violate the basic inalienable right of the minority.”
Attainment of people’s basic rights is what has defined Malawi political history, from our struggle against colonialism, our struggle from one party dictatorship to the current struggles for fulfillment of people’s rights and freedoms as stipulated in Malawi’s bill of rights. Not that one right is better than another, but it is safe to say that democracy cannot function if people are denied freedoms of expression and association.
The now famous 1992 Pastoral Letter, which helped dislodge Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s one party dictatorship made this point clear: “Moreover, human persons are honoured–and this honour is due to them–whenever they are allowed to search freely for the truth, to voice their opinions and be heard, to engage in creative service of the community in all liberty within the associations of their own choice. Nobody should ever have to suffer reprisals for honestly expressing and living up to their convictions: intellectual, religious or political. We can only regret that this is not always the case in our country’.
As it was then, it remains that ‘not the case in our country’. I was recently reminded of this when President Peter Mutharika reportedly told the Talk to the President programme on MBCtv that he would put the question of legalising homosexuality in Malawi to a referendum. Never mind the name and the nature of the programme on which the President made the remarks, State House subsequently issued a statement that the President was speaking as a citizen of Malawi and not as a State President.
A section of the local civil society groups has since asked the President, via media briefings, to make his position on the issue known, and as a President, to be mindful that he cannot pity minority groups to a mob rule. I agree with the civil society, and similar to de Tocqueville’s observation calling referendum on sexual minority rights constitutes mob justice, not democracy, Malawians through a referendum voted for on June 14 1993.
That referendum signalled one fundamental point: Malawians were different people ideologically. Our common denominator is the republican constitution – the supreme law of the land, which the President promised to uphold and protect. The constitution outlaws any form of discrimination, including people’s sexual orientation. Relegating protection of existing statues to a referendum signals a failure of leadership. Unprincipled and populist leadership that only panders to the supposed popular opinion and not necessary what is right.
If majority decisions were so sacred, why is that we currently have a president that was voted for by only 36 percent of Malawians? Is it not because we have to abide by our electoral laws? Why has the president only suddenly found majority decision so popular?
The answer is simple and it is something the country’s politically aware citizens have discussed and pushed for over the years: issue-based politics. Malawi politics is not ideologically based. This means that our leaders do not really know what they stand for, apart from the fact that they know they want to be in power. To be in power you need people’s votes and so populism is the way to go. This is tantamount to people leading themselves.
It is okay for believers to cite verses on homosexuality from their prayer books but one thing we must all remember is that this is a constitutional issue because Malawi is a democracy, not a theocracy. The laws of the land are guided by the Republic Constitution, not prayer books.
Mutharika is a learned man–a lawyer by profession and decades of experience in the academia so I should believe he is aware of the issues raised here. The problem is that he is being guided by politics and a quest for more years in power. He has always stated that he will win 2019 elections. So it is about maintaining power, governance issues have to be in line with that objective or the latter suffers.
It is argued that a civilization is measured by how it treats its minorities. Our learned president has an opportunity to stay on the right side of history and lead Malawi into the right direction. n