An outsider’s guide to the annulment of the 2019 Malawi Elections and all the politics since

The president of Malawi really likes power. It is not at all clear he actually won the 2019 election, but it is very clear he isn’t becoming an ex-president without a fight. The latest elections were annulled by the Constitutional Court in February, but that is just one battle in a prolonged war. It’s a pretty damming indictment of our press that, even before Corona, no one knew this was happening, so here is the story of that war.

In 2019 Malawi held elections that were widely seen as unfair. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a local NGO and perhaps the only organisation in this story with an accurate name, started organising mass protests that sometimes turned violent.

Resetting politics back to 2014

In February the Constitutional Court ruled that voting irregularities were sufficiently widespread the “the integrity of the result was severely compromised”. The annulled it and called for fresh elections within 150 days (The eminently quotable head of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Jane Ansah, said the ruling was a mistake because “Tipex was used to correct votes, not to change them”).  The court also suggested firing the Malawi Electoral Committee, or MEC, and clarified that the winner needs “50 per cent plus one” of the vote. Even with the help of tipex the president, Peter Mutharika, head of Democratic Progressive Party, only managed 38.6% of the vote, with the rest split between the other candidates.

Although Mutharika had been re-elected in 2019, the vice-presidency had changed hands. In the previous 2014 election the Democratic Progressive’s Party and the smaller United Transformation Party, which had split from it, fought the elections as a coalition. That has since broken down. The freedom of assembly laws the Human Rights Defenders have benefited from are UTM legislation and UTM have entered an uneasy coalition with the other political parties to become the DPP’s biggest rival. It is fair to say Peter is a bit hacked off to be back working with deputy president and UTM leader Saulos Chilima.

Shop in Mzuzu, Malawi with "Viscocity smiles for miles" painted on it

Fighting in Malawi’s Courts

The Malawi Electoral Committee, or MEC, and the president have been annoying the court with appeals ever since the original decision. MEC claim they can’t register voters in time. The courts told them to make it happen. MEC argue they don’t have capacity to implement the 50% plus one rule and any new elections need to be fought under the old rules. The Constitutional Court repeated it had clarified the existing rules as set out in the constitution, and it hadn’t changed anything. (The opposition have done MEC a solid and formed a coalition, so someone should win with at least 51% of the vote). MEC argue new elections will be expensive. As that is not a legal argument the court are unswayed so MEC have engaged very expensive South African lawyers. This went down really badly. The Nation, the paper we get delivered to the office, had an op-ed asking why they couldn’t engage local lawyers and quoted a politics professor accused the finance minister of lying when he denied all knowledge of the payments to the firm. It turns out no local lawyer was prepared to represent the president and MEC, but people still think the finance minister lies.

The Nation reports that various people have said MEC is incompetent. Ansah says “are people mad? Do they know what incompetent means?”

Fighting in Malawi’s National Assembly

Peter doesn’t want to go anywhere but unfortunately for him the National Assembly has the ability to write legislation. Even worse, the DPP only hold 50 seats of 193. As a result the National Assembly have drawn up and passed a bill calling for new elections. It just needs presidential approval.

Fighting in public

The Human Rights Defenders have been keeping the pressure on. Then three of them were arrested. There is some controversy over the timing of this, did the police act just before or just after the president threatened the leaders by name? Journalists, commentators and interviewees filled the papers the next day pointing out that none of the police officers accused of gang rape have been arrested yet HRDC leaders are immediately behind bars on trumped up charges. When I lived in Syria no national news outlet would print something like that, and after three days the Malawi courts freed the HRDC on bail. I try not to annoy people by saying I think things could be a lot worse (I think Malawi is doing much better than the US did with the impeachment).

View from the front of a small boat on Lake Malawi

Then Mutharika announced he wasn’t signing the bill mandating new elections and fired his entire cabinet. He’s since reformed it without the deputy president. He clearly likes sacking people, because he fired the head of the army a few days later. However in the same way the House of Commons can force the Lords to acquiesce to legislation the Malawi National Assembly can push bills through and they certainly seem determined to do so, so there’s a new bill on Mutharika’s desk.

The HRDC have declared tomorrow a day of rage, but due to Corona that is manifesting as a strike not a mass protest. In fact Corona may be just what Mutharika was hoping would turn up when he stalled for time; gatherings of more than 100 people are banned. The MEC seem to have acquiesced to new elections on July 2nd, if it is safe to hold them, and there is at least one more appeal due to be heard before then.

It seems like there is going to be lots more politics still to happen.

Who are the parties?

  • United Transformation Party – The kingmakers. Apparently they stand for maintaining cultural norms, but with freedom of speech.  
  • Democratic Progressive Party – A colleague said the DPP stand for the family. I assumed she meant family values, but she meant the Mutharika family. Before Peter was president Malawi had his brother Bingu, who died in office. Apparently there is a third brother waiting his turn. Peter has said he doesn’t like the North, the North doesn’t like him
  • Malawi Congress Party – The party of the 30 year Hastings Banda dictatorship, they’re for the good old days (possibly minus beatings administered by the youth wing), subsidised chemical fertilizer, and infrastructure
  • PP – The party that won the first, 1994 multi-party elections, a misallocation of funds scandal has tarnished their rep.   
  • Umodzi party – my colleague says they’re a nonentity and as I’m not a real journalist I’m leaving it at that.

(If you like reading my thoughts about the government’s of my temporary homes collapsing Iceland and Canada both lost their governments shortly after I arrived too)

Usisya Part Two – Legitimately Uplifting

I don’t know if our impromptu stop at the Usingini Watershed Management Project was designed to cheer us up after our encounter with the brutal outcomes of village life, but it definitely did.  The community are understandably fed up with seasonal streams undermining the road, washing away soil and then flooding crops as they join the river in the valley. The project involves Temwa’s agro-forestry experience, the villagers’ in-depth local knowledge and volunteer labour, and the odd expert when necessary. They’re now doing all the things that re-wilders claim beavers do better to slow seasonal streams and improve irrigation.

Sometimes people get excited in meetings and decide on quite ambitious plans, but then everyone hopes their neighbours will do the actual work. In this case it has gone the other way; the community is ahead of schedule. They’ve acquired some banana suckers to demarcate a buffer zone they’re taking out of cultivation on the banks of the main river. If you lop off the branch of a type of local tree and stick it in the ground it puts roots down within a fortnight. Annoyingly you can’t make charcoal out of it, but the staves are just beginning to green in the buffer zone. Our boss was clapping his hands and shouting with excitement to see the project going so well.

Hills near Usingini with newly planted vetiver grass slowing run off by the road

We also stopped in a village where the primary school and teachers house were destroyed by the rains some years ago (no one in Malawi is a climate change denialist). The teacher’s walk-in is challenging in mud and trees are more effective sun shades than umbrellas, so now school is seasonal. However the locals saw a project in Usisya. Rhe community donated labour and materials to stretch a grant for latrines at the secondary school so it also covered constructing a hostel for girls from far-flung villages. They thought that if the people in Usisya could build a hostel they could build a school. So they borrowed the building plans, adapted them, found some funding and are now about a third of the way through construction. Our CEO thinks that it has been going too smoothly and that there is trouble ahead for them, but it was great seeing a project having such an unexpected impact. We were much more upbeat as our legendary driver, Mr Moyo, slowly worked the car down a series of hairpins towards a patch of dark we were assured was Usisya.        

Usisya itself is beautiful, relaxing on the flat land between the lake and the mountains. The next day I enjoyed meeting my colleagues based in the village, seeing the projects I’d heard so much about and collecting comms content. However, unlike me Malawi loves a really, really long meeting (although looking like you’re paying attention seems to be optional). After several hours watching people talk in Tumbuka, the woman from head office and I were delighted to skive off from the maize distribution and meetings about reading camps to talk to the local head master and play with kids. Instead of actual balls the children have plastic bags bound into a rough sphere. Rather than playing actual football they take turns trying to get the ‘ball’ past a goalie, shooting from wherever the ball had ricocheted to. One of the boys was seriously good.   

Sasasa Waterfall, near Usisya
Sasasa Waterfall – great destination for a walk, terrible village water supply

I think that with four more people than seats it would have always taken two trips to get us all back to Mzuzu, even if two of us hadn’t been Brits who bleat on about duties of care and seat-belts and things. But it was really kind of Mr Moyo to collect the two of us and our CEO on Sunday so we could spend the weekend at the Usisya Eco-Lodge, walking, swimming and using the complementary snorkelling gear.  

When we’re at Usisya we stay in a Temwa guesthouse. After smelling it from two houses over I understood why ‘able to live in very basic conditions,’ was top of the list in the person spec. The woman’s bedroom had the right number of beds and mosquito nets, but it didn’t have enough ways to attach the nets to the ceiling, so I shared my double with a colleague. We got into bed, untied the net, and unwittingly let down so much mouse and cockroach shit onto us that we needed to have another shower and change the sheets. I’m pretty sure the eco-lodge would have always seemed idyllic – Dani, the owner, has a real eye for design and pays close attention to every detail – but as it was the contrast was almost impossible to believe.

View of trees and lake from the loo at Usisya eco lodge
View from the loo

Dani’s place, Temwa and the government are the only employers in the area. It was interesting chatting to Dani about training people who not only have never worked as a waiter, but also haven’t ever eaten at a restaurant. Her latest hire is very sweet and eager to check you’ve slept well, but only a couple of weeks into his new career, and with just one other guest to practice on, he was getting all embarrassed at the point in the conversation where you’d expect to be offered the breakfast menu. With a staff of seven and three of the cooks she’s trained sending remittances back from South African Thai restaurants, Dani has a big impact on the village and I admire her courage starting a business in such a remote place.     

Usisya Part One – The Sad Half

Malawi’s vibrant greenery and the thriving maize plots in Mzuzu gardens are deceptive. It is hunger season. Maize is the country’s main carbohydrate and harvest is still a couple of months away. Last year’s rains were poor. People’s supplies are running out.

Worse still, in parts of the country this year’s rains have been too strong – climate change is hitting Malawi hard. They’ve washed crops away, as well as causing floods, landslides and bridge collapses. In the north, where I am, we’re hoping the rains will ease off a bit; they could still destroy this year’s crop.

In a country where most people are subsistence farmers finding the money to buy food is a challenge. In lots of the villages the businesses people have to supplement their farming are seasonal; at this time of year people only spend money on maize, with school fees as a luxury item. Hunger season puts Malawi’s forests under pressure as people turn to selling charcoal in the cities. The steep, narrow hills are far more beautiful when they’re forested, and without trees the soils are soon washed away. The forests encourage rainfall, so people are forced to undermine their long term food security to eat now.

grocery and coffin shop under a baobab tree in Usisya, Malawi
For all your earthly and heavenly needs

Temwa does a lot of food security and income diversification work – most of the people we work with eat at least twice a day now – and we don’t usually distribute food. However anti retro viral medication controls HIV less effectively in undernourished people, increasing the risk of transmission (along with illness and death). All of this is a long way of saying that less than 36 hours after I arrived (but having sent some content back to the UK) the team decamped to our project base in Usisya to give maize flour to people living with HIV.

Usisya has an unpaved road in, meaning it is rather better connected than some of ‘our’ villages, accessible only by foot or by boat. However depending on the state of the road the journey lasts between two and nine hours and it’s been known to eat 4x4s. Our journey would have been at the two hours end of the scale, but we kept stopping to chat to people who live a long it. It was all very jolly, the scenery is amazing, and I was delighted when a monkey lolloped across the road and into a tree.

Truck heading up the road to Usisya, Malawi
A delivery for a project, a few weeks before our journey

Then one of the people we talked to said a pregnant woman had died recently. She’d developed complications and called for an ambulance. It was raining, the road was more mud than dirt and the ambulance couldn’t make it up one of the hills. It was forced to turn round, and by the time the road had dried out enough for a vehicle to make it through the woman was dead. We were much more subdued for the rest of the journey.

(Pt II is much more cheerful)