Malawi may be small in size, compared to Nigeria, aid-dependent and like Nigeria, corruption-ridden. However, it has done what we have been trying to do but haven’t done. Malawi has enacted a piece of legislation that criminalizes vote buying by politicians. The law known as the Political Parties Act bans politicians using cash payments and other incentives to buy support ahead of major polls due in May 2019.The legislation took effect last Saturday and will see candidates convicted of improperly swaying the electorate. The offenders will face fines of up to 10-million Kwacha ($13,600 or N4.7 million) or five years in prison. However, campaign materials including posters, leaflets and clothing are unaffected.
Malawi goes to the polls in presidential, parliamentary and council elections on May 21, 2019, three months after Nigeria’s and candidates at every level have typically used cash payments and gifts to secure support in advance of past votes. University of Malawi political scientist Henry Chingaipe said the new law will help clean up politics. “We have propagated a culture of patrimonial politics through handouts,” he said. “Instead of people voting out of conscience, you are essentially buying their vote.”
Surprisingly, the political class has accepted the law. Former president Joyce Banda’s Peoples Party said “we have to follow what it says”. May’s election will prove to be one of the most significant in Malawi’s history as Banda, a popular former head of state, will face off against President Peter Mutharika. Banda is known for donating to the poor across the country, and a party spokesman said it would “see how it (the new law) will be implemented”. Mutharika’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party said it would obey the law “as we do with all other laws”. The United Transformation Movement (UTM), led by presidential hopeful vice-president Saulos Chilima who has broken ranks with Mutharika, said “we needed this law yesterday”. The party’s spokesman Joseph Chidanti Malunga said “We believe that people should be voted for because of the issues and ideas that they propagate.”
We welcome the Malawi example because it is a healthy sign that democracy is maturing in Africa. People should be allowed to vote according to their consciences. However, vote buying takes place because politicians have no ideas and programmes to take to voters. And people sell their votes because of pervasive poverty caused by mostly politicians who steal from the public till, instead of using the funds to improve the wellbeing of the people. Criminalizing vote buying is one sure way of solving this problem. However, implementation may prove harder because of impunity, which basically, is disrespect for rule of law by political leaders.
The tendency of law enforcers to look the other way if the offender is a top official of government is also a big problem.
These hurdles notwithstanding, we welcome, as we stated earlier, the Malawi example and recommend it to Africa’s other democracies. Nigeria that would have taken the lead in that direction has an electoral law that is still a draft. The National Assembly has amended the Electoral Act 2010 but President Muhammadu Buhari has withheld his assent severally. Section 130 of the amended Electoral Act prescribes a fine of N100, 000 or a 12-month jail term for vote buying. We recall, with sadness, that this was very glaring during the recent governorship elections in Osun and Ekiti states.