Goodbye 2021! The year was turbulent for many Malawians. It got underway on a sad note with Covid-19 claiming the lives of many productive citizens, including two ministers and some lawmakers.
As the death toll crossed the 2 000 mark, the economy continued to be hit hard by the pandemic whose side-effects included slow economic growth, high inflation and high cost of living. Many people lost jobs while others accepted pay cuts as businesses either downsized or closed.
Here are five takeaways from the governing Tonse Alliance’s performance in the tough year.
1. War on corruption
The National Audit Office released a damning report on abuse of funds for Covid-19 response.
The report showed widespread mismanagement of the emergency funds, a new low in the fight against corruption.
While President Lazarus Chakwera must be commended for ordering the special audit and firing a Cabinet minister implicated in diverting the funds to his trip to South Africa, the lukewarm follow-ups—marked with failure to fully implement the auditors’ recommendation and finance a comprehensive audit beyond the K6.2 billion fund—were worrying.
By the close of 2021, two more Cabinet ministers and a top Tonse ally in Alliance for Democracy president Enoch Chihana had been arrested on corruption-related charges.
While this is commendable to ensure no one is above the law, it further brings into question the credibility of people in the governing alliance and its commitment to zero graft.
However, Martha Chizuma’s appointment as the Anti-Corruption Bureau director-general partly demonstrated some political will to fight corruption.
So far, the ACB performance under her guidance and Attorney General Thabo Chakaka-Nyirenda’s track partly attests to the President’s zeal to change the tone in graft-busting.
However, the progressive appointments in themselves mean nothing if the President and the Tonse government do not address age-old barriers to ending corruption.
2. Access to information
In 2021, government proactively opened and sustained communication channels to keep the citizenry consistently updated on what it was doing to address prevailing challenges.
The pathways included regular State House press briefings [now discontinued], Ministry of Health’s daily updates on the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the Ministry of Information’s weekly press conference.
Unlike its predecessors, the incumbents seemed not to live in denial of harsh realities, but acknowledged that the country was in an economic mess.
This marked a departure from a culture of secrecy and ‘executive arrogance’.
In 2022, the Tonse Alliance administration can build on this to sustain its commitment to access to information, transparency and accountability.
3. Official secrecy
President Chakwera’s failure to disclose contents of the public service modernisation findings by a panel of experts led by Vice-President Saulos Chilima was regrettable.
Denying Malawians access to the documents on review of civil service conditions was a mockery to access to information.
While the report was a product of the President’s directive, its State-sponsored contents remain a matter of public interest.
The government should lift the veil of secrecy and make the report public in the spirit of promoting access to information and fostering constructive public debate as well as engagement over the observations and recommendations of the taxpayer-funded experts.
The feedback would enrich the decisions government makes on the isolated reform areas.
Democracy calls for inclusive decisions and this can only be a product of public scrutiny and feedback.
Eventually, this will ensure public support and appreciation of the proposed reforms before they are executed.
However, the secrecy over the report shows national failure to ultilise the Access to Information Act activated by Chakwera, with no media house or watchdog invoking the law to uncover public secrets in the year ended.
The sneaking of tricky Bills into Parliament has been practised by nearly all successive regimes since the re-introduction of democracy in 1993.
Its ugly head resurfaced in 2021 when the opposition bench cried foul for not being consulted on the amendment of the Labour Relations Act but also being ambushed in the way the Bills were tabled.
The lawmakers lamented that they were not being given ample time to scrutinise the proposed laws before they are passed.
A presidential aide was detained for allegedly sneaking into Parliament’s agenda a Bill authorising government to obtain a loan.
This railed against the spirit and letter of the access to information law and Section 8 of the Constitution. The supreme law requires that the lawmakers’ debate over proposed laws should reflect the interests of all.
5. Right to protest
Most of the demonstrations held last year were largely peaceful, with a few ugly exceptions.
However, there were some antics that posed threats to the enjoyment of the constitutional right immortalised by the courts.
For example, some district commissioners and chief executive officers attempted not to “grant permission” to conveners of anti-regime demonstrations purely on petty grounds like, “you had already demonstrated on the issue; hence, no need to have follow-up demonstrations”.
Apart from the quirky excuse from Mulanje district commissioner to marchers against skewed land access in the tea-growing district, other councils such as Lilongwe City used regional meetings to freeze demonstrations though no gathering overrides the right to demonstrate guaranteed by Section 38 of the Constitution.
The decisions were unconstitutional.
The Constitution does not provide such limitations on the frequency of demonstrations one can hold on an issue.
This is why the Human Rights Defenders Coalition convened a series of demonstrations demanding electoral justice following the botched presidential poll of 2019.
At worst, the government simply ignored the marchers’ petitions on the grounds that the protests were politically orchestrated.
Most petitions delivered in 2021 raised concerns about worsening economic hardship, a harsh reality faced by Malawians.
Whether the conveners were politically motivated, the government is required to address the marchers’ petitions.
Notwithstanding the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2022 offers another opportunity for the governing alliance to deliver its campaign promise.
The government has to demonstrate efforts to improve the enjoyment of the socio-economic rights of Malawians. As such, this year is about translating the Tonse philosophy and rhetoric to action.
Disclaimer: The author is the secretary-general of Malawi’s Political Science Association (PSA) and works with Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC). He writes in his personal capacity.