By Donald Deya
I think there are many lessons to learn from Malawi, and, on my part, I am still learning.
1. THE PEOPLE: They were really resilient and protested the theft of their vote, on the streets, for close to a year, without ever giving up. We are not often exposed to that kind of longevity in principled protest in Africa, although it is by no means the first or the only example.
2. THE MILITARY: They have consistently demonstrated fidelity to the Constitution of the Republic, above their loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief. They stepped in, way back in 2012, when the outgoing President, Prof. Peter Mutharika and his cabal were trying to subvert the Constitution upon the death of his older brother, President Prof. Bingu wa Mutharika (who, by the way, is believed by many to be the first person to write a doctoral thesis on regional integration in Africa). They have also stepped in, over the last year, to protect the peoples’ right to peaceful protest, when it was under threat by the Police. We saw them yesterday stepping in to guard the President-elect, and to demonstrate that power had shifted, due to the actions of the people of Malawi, despite COVID-19.
3. THE COURTS: They displayed independence and courage that is rare, amongst their peers in the continent. Picking the baton from their Kenyan counterparts (some would argue their Sierra Leonian counterparts too), they annulled a flawed election at High Court level, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal. They issued two Stay Orders, on a Sunday, within minutes of filing, in Lilongwe and Mzuzu, when the President and his minions purported to send the Chief Justice on terminal leave, on the eve of a fresh Presidential election, ostensibly to ‘pack’ the Court with pliant and compliant Judges. Their Nigerian counterparts were neither as fast nor as resolute when Muhammadu Buhari and his minions did the same, on the eve of the February 2019 Presidential and General Elections.
Again, we have to honour the dynamism and alacrity of the Malawian people, especially their human rights lawyers and the Malawi Law Society leadership, in filing the two urgent Applications (both drafted in less than 20 hours) that led to the Stay Orders in the first place.
4. THE ELECTION MANAGEMENT BODY (EMB): After a dishonourable display under the leadership of my friend, Dr. Jane Mayemu Ansah, a change in leadership late in the day brought about a great leap in integrity in managing elections in the country. The short preparation period, the COVID-19 and other logistical challenges did not deter them from delivering an election with the highest integrity that they could muster, in the circumstances. It shows that leadership and integrity is everything, and ‘logistical challenges’ are over-rated fabrications by those who steal for those in power, and those who provide the intellectual ‘cover’ for it.
It helped that the Malawi Constitution constrains the President in who s/he can appoint to head the EMB; it is not a free-for-all, like we see in some other countries. This mattered.
5. AFRICAN SOLIDARITY: Overtly and covertly, there was a significant amount of solidarity generated for our Malawian colleagues, within a very short time. I was witness to, and small player in, some of the citizen solidarity efforts. And we all witnessed a lot more. Two that stand out for me is how serving and retired African Chief Justices and Judges rallied to practically and prominently support their Malawi counterparts. Also, how young and old, female and male African law professors openly rebuked their former colleague, the former Professor of Law, Arthur Peter Mutharika. It mattered. It matters. I hope we see more of this, all over Africa, in the near future.
A lot can be said about opposition unity, which reminds me of a halcyon moment in Kenyan politics in 2002, when opposition unity helped to ‘retire’ Mzee Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi, and put paid his plans for his then ‘project.’ I wonder who, between him and the people of Kenya, has had (or will have) the last laugh on that ‘project.’
There are still risks. Will the swearing in be smooth and safe? Will Dr. Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera turn into a theocratic demagogue, spewing forth HIS view of what HIS Lord has told him to do with HIS country? Will the military stay in the barracks and stay out of day-to-day politics?
To manage all these, and to protect their democracy, I choose to trust the Malawian people, with whom I started, and with whom I end these preliminary thoughts. Solidarity forever!
Donald Deya is the Chief Executive Officer of the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), based in Arusha, Tanzania. He was previously Chief Executive of the East Africa Law Society (EALS) and before that, Acting CEO of the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ-Kenya), and Deputy CEO of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK).