Led by our indefatigable leader of delegation, Ngwazi Prof. Dr Joyce Befu, we travelled to Kasungu to witness, not observe or monitor, the local government elections in the Matenje Ward where five candidates, if we are not mistaken, from the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), Mbakuwaku Movement for Development (MMD) and two independents fought to fill the vacant seat.
Obviously missing were hitherto ruling parties, prominent among being the United Democratic Front (UDF) which once governed in league with the Alliance for Democracy (Aford), and United Transformation Movement (UTM), which by default was in a coalition government with the DPP. These parties have reduced themselves to briefcase political organisations that are evanescing.
As the late George Nga Mtafu warns in his yet-to-be published memoir, greed and personalisation of political parties by founders and their offspring is one major factor that kills political organisations, including political parties in Malawi.
During the announcement of the results of the by-election, the chairperson of the Election Commission bemoaned voter apathy that has characterised all stand-alone local government elections since 2000 and suggested that something needs to be done for Malawians to appreciate the role of councilors in development.
As expected, two days after the elections, Monday coaches, that is, armchair voodoo political scientists and election experts, started offering their explanations for the voter apathy without even asking the potential voters a single question.
The experts explained that the voter apathy in the 2019 Matenje Ward election was as a result of the long absence when this country did not have councilors. Some blamed voter disillusionment because previous councilors did not perform or interference by members of Parliament.
We are neither political scientists nor political elections experts. That’s we differ and hereby offer different interpretations and factors surrounding voter apathy. Our explanation is from the bottom, from the people, from the voters and the very people experts don’t ask before they make comments and assessments.
When we arrived in Kasungu on Sunday November 3, we booked ourselves accommodation in a decent hotel (name withheld) and, in the evening, went to a pub near the Kasungu Market to chat with the people that matter most in elections.
What we got from there tells us why there was voter apathy in the Matenje ward local government election.
“Biggie, why should I waste time on an election that will have no impact on us?” asked the barwoman (name withheld because we don’t want to triavialise the decency of a woman).
“What impact do you expect?” Abiti asked.
“Bridges, good schools, roads, drugs in hospitals; many things, but each time we ask for such we are told the council is waiting for funding from government. It means local councils are not government!”
“Madam, you know the truth. In Malawi, councilors and, even members of Parliament, don’t matter. There are just there to fulfill a political calendar. In Malawi it is CheJumo, or Nkhomu, that matters,” said, one man who was addressed by the barwoman as Angelo (name given because the decency of a man can be trivialized).
“What’s that you just mentioned?” asked Al hajj Jean-Philippe LePoisson, SC (RTD).
“CheJumo or Nkhomu?” Angelo said.
“CheJumbo or Nkhomu is a freshwater catfish that grows into the height and weight of an average Malawian man. The largest I have seen measured 2.1 metre and weighed 75 kilogrammes!”
“Wow. And how is that related to elections?” Jean-Philippe went on.
Replied Angelo: “Malawian elections are about the president. The president calls for Parliament sittings, controls budgets, appoints judges, electoral commissioners, vice chancellors, police inspectors-general, army general, judges, chief secretaries, cashgate, sorry, IFIMIS experts, chairpersons of all boards including the electoral commission. He even controls MPs, Councillors, Chiefs, drummers, and dancers; everybody.”
“But budget proposals are scrutinized by the MPs!” I said.
“Scrutinised, indeed,” Angelo said, “but which budget have our MPs shot down to prove they are worth their salaries? They can delay it but they eventually pass it. We don’t need MPs, we don’t councilors, not even the vice-president in Malawi, to be honest. It is just the president that matters. The president is the government, development and everything. The rest are just messengers.”
“In fact we should stop wasting money on elections that don’t matter,” added the barwoman, “that’s why UDF and UTM were clever enough not to even bother to participate. Even journalists have boycotted the by-election here. They are not here to cover the campaign. Nothing is being said in the media. Not even by the social media. Everybody is talking about the presidential elections case.”
“In short, what do we expect to see come Election Day in Matenje?” Abiti asked.
“Low turnout, of course, as expected.”
“That will be sad”, Abiti said.
“And it will remain so until voters are shown the value of the councilors. That will incentivise them to turn out and vote!” Angelo concluded.
“The electoral commission also is guilty the way it treats the elections. It gives more value and thought to presidential elections and negligible attention to local government elections,” said the barwoman (name still withheld).