30 years of polls

30 years of polls

This month, Malawi clocks 30 years since voters elected united Democratic Front founder Bakili Muluzi in the first ever multiparty elections after the fall of founding President Kamuzu Banda’s one-party rule. Our Features Editor JAMES CHAVULA caught up with eminent historian and Mzuzu University Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Wapulumuka Oliver Mulwafu during the third biennial conference of the Political Scientists Association’s third biennual conference in Mangochi. Excerpts:

Mulwafu: The more things change, the more they remain the same

 How do you sum up Malawi’s journey 30 years after the first post-dictatorship election?

In the last 30 years of multiparty democracy, Malawi has gone through ups and downs. It has not been an easy journey. There are some successful stories that we can tell, but we have also had some challenges. 

How do you describe the ups and downs? 

My assessment of the last 30 years is that it has been a process where we are trying to consolidate democracy. We have made some significant strides but there is still room for improvement. The most important aspect is that the process has started and we just need to build, particularly in terms of strengthening and institutionalising the systems.

 In your presentation, you said Malawi has passed through a murky and convoluted process of democratisation. Can you unpack that?

Basically, what I mean is that between 1992 and 1994 there were high expectations that Malawi would bring a complete change in  the way we govern our society and certain services that were not being provided adequately.  Although we have seen a great improvement with the transition to multiparty democracy, you can agree with me that not all promises have been fulfilled. So, it has been a convoluted process and the ideas that people had in their minds when they demanded leadership change and a switch to democracy have not been fulfilled. For example, Malawians wanted an end to life presidency, but there was an eruption of open term and third term debates towards the end of Bakili Muluzi’s administration. That was not in line with what people expected when fighting for democracy.

When Malawians were fighting for democracy, I remember the motto was “we want change”. Everywhere, people were chanting: “We want change!” Change from one-party rule to multipaty politics and elected leaders everyone can trust, from impunity and secrecy to transparency and accountability. However, we are still talking about impunity and traditional leaders still prevail in areas best left to elected leaders. Where did we get it wrong?

 You see there is a saying that goes: the more things change, the more they remain the same. It is essentially what this points to. Individual leaders needed to change their mindset for the systems and the ideas that we are talking about to bring the change people wanted.  If individuals themselves are not prepared to change, do not be surprised that we are still having these challenges. 

If people in power are not ready to change, is there anything the governed can do?

 Yes.  This is very possible if Malawians demand transparency and accountability at all levels. We have seen for the last 30 years that civil society organisations have fought hard in terms of mobilising communities and the citizens to rise up and challenge some of the policies and decisions that are seen to be running against the expected change in the society. But also the recent demonstrations [for electoral justice] in 2029-2020, we have seen the civil society and citizens mobilising across the country to fight to see some changes being implemented. 

 For the past decades, some civil society  actors have been swallowed by the governing system they are supposed to keep in check. What do you make of this trend?

 Co-option of civil society leaders into government system is indeed a big challenge. As Malawians, we need to stick to the principles and ideas regardless of the offers and promises that may come if you abandon the cause. We need a civil society that is independent and grounded in principles. I think starting from 1994, we have seen this idea of coopting members from civil society into government structures taking place. This is not an easy aspect. It requires individuals themselves who are championing the cause for democracy should really work for the good of the citizenry, not necessary working toward getting personal benefits.

 What does the cooption of civil society actors into government say about our nation that produces these watchdogs and the leaders we elect?

As my colleague Nandin Patel said, this could be an issue of weak systems and lack of ideology. If individuals believe in the ideologies that they are fighting for the interest of the citizens, what has been offered to you does not matter anymore. As long as you stick to the principles and know that you really stand for the truth, you have to continue fighting for what you stand for. Honestly, this tells us that human beings can be easily tempted to abandon the cause and join the systems. Civil society leaders are human beings.

At 30, are Malawians learning anything from history?

Definitely, the greatest lessons that we need to learn is that democracy is a process and it cannot be established or consolidated in a matter of months or years. The process will take time , but we just have to stand for the principles of democracy.

Secondly, we should also learn that our leaders are not going to be angels who will bring democracy fully to the end. They are leaders who can be tempted in so many ways to abandon the cause. I talked about the third term debate, spates of repressions and the infringement of academic freedom at University of Malawi. These are speaking volumes that the leadership itself may not have fully pursued the spirit of democracy all along. 

 If we continue at the current pace, what does the future look like?

The future of Malawi in terms of democracy looks bright, but we must work together and collectively consolidate the gains that we have achieved so far. This requires us to be vigilant in safeguarding and nourishing democracy. 

The post 30 years of polls first appeared on Nation Online.

The post 30 years of polls appeared first on Nation Online.