One lesson from Kamuzu: How to lose gracefully

If ever Malawi should have descended into chaos, it would, first, have been in the May 1993 referendum and the second, a year later, in 1994—when the country held its first genuinely competitive electoral contest in the country.

In 1993, Malawians had to decide whether they wanted to change from being governed by a single party system or a multi-party one. The country was at a cross road. Just like today. A decision had to be made on whether to maintain the status quo or have a fresh start. Just like today.

The stakes were high for the ruling elite that had been in uninterrupted power for 30 years. Just like today, albeit with a shorter, interrupted, ruling period.

But unlike in 1993 when 3.15 million people (out of an electorate of 4.7 million) made the decision for the 10 million-strong Malawi population in that watershed moment, today it is five unelected people—judges comprising four men and one woman—who will decide the fate of the nation of an estimated 19 million Malawians via the Constitutional Court.

Still, the poignancy and historic nature of events of 27 years ago and this time should not be lost on Malawians. That cold June nearly three decades ago should give the country’s citizens reasons not to dwell on what has been decided, but how to move on. Remember that when Banda announced in 1992 that there would be a referendum, he and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) believed in their own propaganda that Malawians were so in love with them and their brutal system of government that they would choose to remain chained to a single party than pick a system they have never known before.

So, Banda was pretty sure of victory after which he would bury the pro-democracy movement once and for all then rule for life.

But lo and behold, Malawians gave MCP’s one party rule the boot with a 63 percent drubbing. Of course, it was two regions that overwhelmingly voted for multiparty system with 88 percent of Northern Region voters and 84 percent of Southern Region voters choosing change away from the single party system.

The Central Region—the ethic base for MCP and Banda—chose to remain with a single party system, with 66 percent of the vote.

Yet, people from all these regions accepted the largely peaceful electoral outcome and president Banda vowed to put in place systems that would prepare the country for a multi-party architecture, including changing the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi to secure the democratic will of the people.

The country—and even the defeated Kamuzu Banda—had chosen to move forward on this new path. A National Consultative Committee—that included members of the opposition parties—was set up to manage the transition. A few months later, an independent Electoral Commission led by then High Court Judge Anastasia Msosa was established to run the first ever competitive multi-party election. The country was moving on, shaping its future.

Throughout these processes the Malawi Army remained steadfastly neutral, even going on to crush the Malawi Young Pioneers within days when the MCP para-military wing started what could easily have degenerated into a civil war.

Then in 1994, Msosa presided over a peaceful election in which all stakeholders accepted that Bakili Muluzi of United Democratic Front had won the presidency with 47 percent of the vote largely thanks to his dominance of the Southern Region vote. Banda, who swept the Central Region vote, came second and Chakufwa Chihana of Alliance for Democracy came a distant, but powerful third having nearly swept clean the Northern Region vote.

There were isolated skirmishes in 1999, 2004 and even 2014 elections and half-hearted legal challenges after those polls, but nothing reached the unprecedented levels of legal decision finale and tension the 2019 presidential election dispute has reached today. Some might say with good reason given some of the glaring irregularities and the general conduct of the Malawi Electoral Commission under Justice Jane Ansah.

But like a people who believe in strong democratic values, including rule of law, those who felt the results were not a true reflection of the will of the people petitioned the courts to nullify the elections.

These were Saulos Chilima of UTM Party and Lazarus Chakwera of MCP, with MEC and DPP’s Peter Mutharika—who was declared winner in the May 20 2019 elections—as respondents.

All these parties to the case and their supporters must believe that when that five-judge panel walks to the bench on Monday, Malawians should have trust that the judgment these learned men and woman will deliver has been anointed by wells of integrity; that they have looked at the cold hard evidence on whose basis they will try, to the best of their mortal abilities, deliver justice and victory to our democracy.

There is no doubt that there will be some who will disagree with the verdict. That is healthy for our democracy. But such people have to respect the decision even as they exercise their right of appeal if they wish to invoke it.

Should they not respect the ruling and move on a peaceful path, Malawi’s history of multi-party tolerant democratic governance will judge them harshly.

If ever there is something to learn from one Hastings Kamuzi Banda it is how to lose gracefully—and with courage.

Banda had the grace and courage to be part of the process that would put in place a democratic architecture that was the antithesis of his political DNA, but he respected Malawians who made the decision to be governed differently enough to shepherd citizens to move forward on their chosen path.

Now that is Statesmanship.

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