They are in the hills fasting and praying that, on May 20, God should grant Malawi a good leader. This reflects Malawians’ deep search for a leader, a search rooted in cyclic historical interaction with bad political leaders.
But does God vote? He does not; Malawians, do.
This means the answer to the search for a good leader begins with a registered voter. And this is a tough responsibility. But does a registered Malawian voter understand the weight of this responsibility?
Voting is akin to a company’s process of choosing a new chief executive officer. It is a defining moment because the company wants to recruit the right person to usher it into greater heights. That is why, the process of interviews—both written and oral—is thorough.
Again, they do not just include anybody on the interviewers’ panel. They only involve those in the know—those proven with great sense of judgement on critical issues.
In Malawi, voting—that defining moment of recruiting a country’s CEO—is only censored by an individual’s age, not his/her proven sense of judgement.
Yet when it was dirty and poor in 16th and 17th century, Britain, the first nation to experience modern development, did not have a universal suffrage. It limited the right to few.
Still poor and dirty
But here, though still poor and dirty, you just have to be 18 and above, or even as old as 106 years old, then you can participate in electing a president in Malawi.
The tragedy of universal suffrage, in poor nations like Malawi, roots, mostly, from the levels of people’s enlightenment—their capacity to analyse issues of national importance and choose a leader who, reasonably, resonate with that.
In an article Where is ‘Holy Anger on the Cashgate? published in Malawi News last week, blogger Steve Sharra gives an interesting insight of Malawi’s society—an analysis which reveals a great deal of Malawi’s level of enlightenment.
Sharra looks at how a dwarfed urbanity, low employment opportunities, access to information and high illiteracy levels conspire to define a culture of political docility in Malawi’s society.
And it is in such a society where voters hail. Perhaps this explains why a 2013 study by Afrobarometer showed that, in choosing a leader, most Malawians vote based on ‘many issues apart from principles of national development as enshrined in the Constitution’.
In fact, in a paper titled ‘Politics without Positions: Party Loyalty and Voting Behaviour in Malawi’, researcher Daniel Young shows that during the 1994, 1999 and 2004 elections, most Malawians choice of leaders was based, mostly, on their ethnic and regional background.
“Neither voters nor politicians can be separated in terms of policy preferences. While citizens are not harmoniously united in political agreement, they are, generally speaking, all looking for the same output from government – local development.
“And while there is no shortage of disagreements on the campaign trails, such disagreements bear no systematic relationship on policy positions.
“Campaigns are largely contests where politicians promote their own credibility, and attempt to discredit their opponents’ credibility, in terms of capability to deliver back to the constituency,” he writes.
Credibility of the candidates
Comedian and political commentator Michael Usi, also known as Manganya, says this culture where Malawians fail to appreciate credibility of the candidates has led to the cyclic production of poor leadership culture in Malawi.
“We have to agree that no matter what, a president should only come from Southern Region. He/she should not come from the North because with think ‘northerners are proud’. He/she should not come from the Central Region because a leader from the centre ruled this country for so long. Can we move forward with such kind of retrogressive thinking?” says Usi.
Young, who argues party platforms diverge little and campaign speeches rarely discuss policy issues, found that this kind of political culture stems mostly from the reasons politicians gets into politics in Malawi—something which is fuelled by a docile public.
“Politicians in Malawi care about two office-related goals: short-term electoral security and access to government. Consequently, politicians use parties not as a way to join ideologically like-minded colleagues, but as a vehicle to be harnessed or abandoned depending on its usefulness towards those two short term goals. Thus loyalty is strictly instrumental because politicians are pursuing only careers, and not also causes,” he writes.
Against this background, Usi argues that Malawi’s redemption, then, lies in the hands of the voters.
“We need to find ways to revolutionarise the minds of the voters. We have invested a lot of energy and resources in trying to change our politicians but we have failed. We need a paradigm shift,” he says.
As part of this shift, the DfID, through the National Democratic Institute (NDI), has funded a number of non-governmental organisations aimed at civic education of the masses to demand issue-based campaign from candidates.
Blantyre Synod Church and Society is one such organisation. Its project officer Cydric Damala says the challenge is that politicians barely come with issues.
“They always come with handouts—buying their support. We civic educate the masses to mantle this problem,” he says.
Damala adds that though there might not be a fundamental shift by May, there will be observable difference.
Otherwise, voters in Malawi, though they have the potential to be part of the solution, have barely used it to curb the cyclic bad governance at the heart of Malawi.