Susan Dalgety: Hope abounds at the beginning of a new chapter in Malawi

UTM supporters celebrate the court judgement that will see Malawi's  presidential elections rerun. Picture: Govati Nyirenda
UTM supporters celebrate the court judgement that will see Malawi's presidential elections rerun. Picture: Govati Nyirenda
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Govati looked uncomfortable. He put down his fork. “I have to go,” he smiled. “Listen, I can hear car horns, and cheering. I need to capture those images. See you later.”

And slinging his camera back over his shoulder he was gone.

Govati Nyirenda is the chief photographer for the Malawi News Agency, and one of my oldest friends.

He has been documenting his country’s progress since the dawn of multi-party democracy in the early 1990s. This week something special happened, so momentous it made the pages of the Washington Post and the Financial Times.

On Monday, Malawi’s Constitutional Court declared that the 2019 Presidential elections were null and void because of irregularities in the ballot, including the liberal use of Tippex to alter many of vote tally sheets.

Five High Court judges, who had been considering evidence for many months, also heavily criticised the Malawi Electoral Commission for its failure to oversee the election properly.

In a decision that stunned the country, they announced that there must be a new election for the head of state within 150 days.

Further, the country should revert to the 2014 presidential team – Mutharika and former Vice President Saulos Chilima, now leader of a new opposition party, until then.

And they instructed parliament to follow Malawi’s constitution and amend the Parliamentary and Presidential Elections Act to require future winners to achieve an absolute majority of 50 percent plus one votes.

The incumbent President, 79-year-old Peter Mutharika, had only won 38 percent of the vote in May last year, and his authority had not been accepted by the majority of Malawians.

“He’s not our president,” people said, as they took to the streets in the months following the May poll to protest what they regarded as an illegal result. And on Monday, they were proved right.

Of course, Mutharika has threatened to appeal the judgement, but as one of Malawi’s leading political scientists, Boniface Dulani, wrote in the Washington Post, “as the High Court’s ruling was unanimous, such an appeal would be unlikely to end favourably for Mutharika…”

Malawi is only the third African country to nullify a presidential election and rerun the ballot – Kenya did it in 2017, with Cote D’Ivoire first in 2010.

The decision, and how it was been greeted so far, shows a political maturity that far richer countries, with much older democracies, can only hope to emulate.

The contrast between Malawi’s young democracy grappling, determinedly, with an electoral crisis and the shambles of the Trump presidency is stark.

The world’s biggest economy also self-identifies as the world’s best democracy, yet the judicial and legislative branches of its federal government seem powerless in the face of a demagogue.

A one-time reality TV star and multiple bankrupt has taken personal control of the United States of America, and its people stand helpless.

Not so in Malawi, where a coalition of the churches, civil society and the media, supported by the main opposition parties, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Transformative Movement (UTM) campaigned to unseat what the majority of people regarded as an illegitimate president.

And they won.

“I am so happy, I am over the moon,” my friend and colleague Maggie Banda said on Monday night following the judgement.

“Our country had been hi-jacked by thieves. This is a new beginning for Malawi.”

That sense of a fresh start has been palpable on the streets of the country’s capital Lilongwe.

People greet each other smiling and laughing. UTM supporters in their red berets and t-shirts wear them proudly. They are no longer defiant losers, but a movement with a future. Malawi has changed. The only demonstrations are ones of joy, as MCP and UTM supporters celebrate together.

But hope can be fragile.

Remember Obama? Malawi’s entrenched societal and economic challenges, with their roots in colonialism, remain.

High court judges cannot command an immediate end to the widespread poverty that plagues the majority of Malawi’s 18 million population.

Popular will cannot, on its own, tackle climate change, and Malawi, a small landlocked country in the south east of Africa, is an insignificant player in the global economy.

“The biggest challenge facing our people is food security,” argues Dr Asiyati Chiweza, a Professor of Local Government at Chancellor College.

“We cannot progress until our people have enough to eat, all year round,” she tells me over coffee at the end of day spent discussing how best to support Malawi’s councillors.

Malawians depend on maize flour to prepare their staple dish, nsima. Most grow the corn themselves, in small gardens next to their village homes.

But their crop doesn’t last a full year, and many people are forced to buy maize during the peak “hunger” months from November to March.

This year, for a number of reasons, the price of maize has doubled during the hungry period, putting it out of reach of many households.

“If there is no maize flour, people do not eat,” says Dr Chiweza simply. The UN estimate that right now, this week, there are nearly two million people in Malawi urgently in need of food assistance.

It is this stark truth, people going to bed with empty stomachs, that Malawi’s next President will need to tackle.

Yes, the country needs to develop its economy through better trade, to educate its people to meet the challenges of the 21st century and secure the infrastructure that will be the foundation for economic growth.

But first it needs to be able to feed its people.

A country cannot progress if its children are malnourished, its women sacrificing food to feed her family.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, UTM leader and Vice President, Dr Saulos Chilima, declared that the election judgement was a victory for all Malawians.

“It is a victory for all those women and young people who braved the elements, standing all for hours on end to cast their vote,” he said.

When asked if his party would make an electoral alliance with the main opposition party, the MCP, he said that if politicians put themselves first, then the country was lost.

“Let us discuss first what we want for this nation, how we will achieve it, and finally, which leaders will take us there.”

This week I witnessed the beginning of new chapter in Malawi’s history. A new generation is about to lead this beautiful, but impoverished, country.

Will they succeed where the old men failed? Only time will tell, but for the moment hope abounds, and it is an exhilarating feeling.