Centre for Social Concern (CfSC), a faith-based organisation, has warned that entrenched political manipulation and participation in active partisan politics by ethno-religious leaders could pose a serious threat to nation building and violence-free electoral processes.
The Centre is implementing Inter Religious Dialogue/Conflict Management Project whose major objective is to increase tolerance for peaceful coexistence between and among ethno-religious and political groups in a religious diverse Malawi.
CfSC Inter Religious Dialogue Program Officer Tobias Jere said in an interview on Tuesday that the reemergence of a democratic system of government gave room to religions previously not given sufficient recognition to establish themselves.
Jere said this growth has instigated a power struggle between different religious groups, resulting in struggles over geographical dominance between faiths over control of specific areas.
He explained: “To bring about the necessary tolerance, mutual respect and understanding, the Centre conducted several studies in selected districts to generate evidence about misunderstanding between and among ethno-religious and political groups in the country. Through the study, we established that faith and traditional leaders have great value in bringing about peaceful co-existence among themselves and then other leaders such as politicians.”
Jere added that the Centre realised that faith and traditional leaders have an upper hand in influencing peaceful elections.
“This is why the Centre conducted a survey on the collaboration of faith, traditional and political groups on promoting peaceful elections. The first of its kind was done in Mangochi where the agreement to ensure peaceful elections symbolized in the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the aforementioned groups in 2009 to ensure peaceful elections in 2009.
“In 2014, the same procedure of the MOU [memorandum of understanding] was pursued but extended to few more districts of Balaka, Lilongwe and Machinga in order to contribute to peace building efforts towards the then 2014 tripartite elections which were heavily contested by various political candidates at different levels. Faith and traditional leaders have been instrumental. For instance, if an ethno-religious leader says: ‘I will vote for you. It does not mean him only, but beyond his family or group’.”
Jere is working with local interfaith structures such as Lilongwe Interfaith Dialogue (Lida) and Local Advocacy Committee (Lac) in Balaka, Mangochi and Machinga to raise awareness on the danger lying ahead of chiefs and faith leaders actively participating in partisan politics and the need for the same to resist the temptation of being used by politicians to perpetrate violence ahead of the 2019 elections.
A German organisation – Miserior – is funding the project, which will run until 2018.
Jere emphasised that the role of traditional leaders in political processes in general and elections in particular remains a major threat to democracy and a challenge to electoral process, particularly where subjects do not support a different party.
He said: “Thus, with funding from a German organisation – Miserior – we are implementing a project aimed to sensitise the two groups to the dangers of engaging in partisan politics and tolerating political manipulation ahead [of the 2019 tripartite elections].
“We do appreciate that the Constitution allows every citizen to participate in politics, but faith and traditional leaders, who are supposed to be a symbol of unity in their jurisdictions, need to exercise caution when enjoying this right as it has potential either to make or break the nation.”
Jere said faith and traditional leaders play a vital role in the development of their respective communities where they serve as a link between governments, non-governmental organisations and the people.
He argued that when traditional leaders openly declare their support to a party and that party does not win election, it hinders the rate of development in the locality.
He further stated that active participation in partisan politics by faith and traditional leaders undermines their unique position and bring division in the community particularly where people oppose their party.
“Faith and traditional leaders who meddle in partisan politics are often faced with challenges in the administration of people who belong to different political parties. Therefore, faith and traditional rulers should remain neutral in politics and must be prepared to work with any government to ensure national development and safeguard the unity peace and security in their communities,” he narrated.
Lida chairperson Bishop Songolo Mposa said Malawi has a lot of examples and evidence where politicians have used law enforcers, traditional, faith and civic leaders to advance their agenda.
Mposa said it was therefore imperative that law enforcers, traditional, faith and civic leaders be trained in conflict management skills ahead of the 2019 elections.
“Lida and CfSC have since committed to creating awareness among faith and civic leaders so that incidences of violence during the campaign period ahead of the 2019 elections can be minimised. It is our wish that Malawians should have a violence-free campaign period next year to the polling day in May 2019,” he said.
Village head Kauma of Lilongwe said the project has come at the right time when there are indications that various political parties are on the ground preparing for the 2019.
Some traditional and faith leaders have previously been blamed for openly pledging support and declaring their affiliation to governing political parties.
Chiefs, in particular, have also been holding press conferences where they have openly denounced leaders of opposition political leaders.
Paramount Chief Lundu of Chikwawa was quoted by The Nation recently as defending their role in active politics.
An overview of the Law Reform Programme by the Malawi Law Commission questioned the ‘structural and institutional arrangement’, which places chieftaincy directly under the supervision of the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) and the minister of Local Government and Rural Development.
Political analyst Professor Blessings Chinsinga observed that it is difficult for chiefs to represent the views of the people or claim to be neutral when their subjects have different political affiliations.
Chinsinga blamed the status quo on the Chiefs Act, which he said is archaic and needs to be reviewed because it puts chiefs under a tight leash of the ruling party and its leadership.
“It would have been better to borrow a leaf from some countries where traditional leaders are just symbolic,” he recommended.