Malawi: Open Term, Third Term And Crisis Of Democracy


Recent events in the West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire have provided yet fresh images to bolster general perceptions about Africa, that it is a continent plagued with crises of all sorts. If it is not famine, natural disasters, negative performance in economic activity, (civil) strife, AIDS, it is political instability and unrest.

There is no denying that there are crises. For instance, it is a harsh reality that Southern Africa is in the grips of famine, with AIDS giving no respite. Not always presented in images is the crisis of democracy, sometimes proving to be the root cause of some of the other crises. The problem here can be stated quite simply. Presidents in Africa have a knack for fostering the belief that, once elected to office, they should remain in power indefinitely, nay, for life, because they are the most qualified, or the country needs them, or there is no one else fit to rule, etc.

The marketing of this belief, and the subsequent prolongation of tenure in office as it gets translated into reality, requires relaxation or ‘amendment’ of the constitutions to rid them of stipulations or provisions to the contrary. This also demands the labeling of such constitutional strictures as a nuisance and consignment of democratic practice to the trash-can of foreign practices which are un-African. Not surprisingly, presidents in Africa virtually become indistinguishable from monarchs and, previously, one-party systems served to provide means to that end.

With a few exceptions, for instance, the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who relinquished power and paved the way for succession, or Leopold Sengor in Senegal who, stepped down from the presidency, and, more recently, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, many other countries are hard-pressed to furnish anything comparable.

Thus, in Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi has been in power since 1978 after the death of the first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. In Namibia, Sam Nujoma is currently in his third term of office. In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda was president for over 25 years, eventually forced out when the people voted the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) into power in 1991, with Frederick Chiluba as president. He, in turn, was desirous of ‘amending’ the constitution so that he could have a third term.

The general uproar in Zambia against that move compelled him to desist and he had to leave. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has been at the helm of government since 1980 when the country came under majority rule. 22 years later he is still in power and very determined to remain so even as the country’s economy goes into ruins and its political luster has faded to the point where, within the international community, he has become something of a renegade or outcast.

Nay, even sanctions against the country are bandied about, somewhat reminiscent of its image during its earlier existence as Rhodesia. Into this crisis of democracy, with yearning for the single party system that would have facilitated the practice, enter the small nation of Malawi, neighbor to the ones just mentioned.

Following 30 years of dictatorial rule of former President-for-Life the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda, under one-party state, the country underwent a major political reorientation, bringing in multi-party politics and democratic practice in 1994. As safeguard against reverting to dictatorship whose legacy was, among other things, a dismal record of human rights violations, absence of freedom of speech or of the press, etc., a new constitution was drafted. In this, limits were imposed on the duration of tenure in office of president. The incumbent can hold office for two terms, each of five years duration.

In 1994,taking oath of office with the solemn proclamation to preserve and defend the constitution, Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) took office. Now his two terms are coming to a close. Now the theory or belief about the incumbent’s indispensability to the party, to the government, to the country, to the people, etc., has to be advanced, marketed, nay, forced down everybody’s throat if need be.

Now the constitution has to be ‘amended’ to rid it of proscriptions against his continued rule. The initial effort to amend the constitution was made early July when parliament had to vote on a bill called Open Term Bill. It was to remove the restrictions on the number of times the incumbent can submit his candidacy. It was defeated, after failing by three votes to secure the necessary two-thirds majority.

The defeat of the bill came as relief to many, was cause for celebration and jubilation for some, and source of consternation and embarrassment for the president and the leadership of some of the major opposition parties. They had supported the bill apparently in direct conflict with the stated positions of their constituencies on the matter, resulting in loss of credibility and integrity on their part. Naturally, rumors were rife that many politicians, including some opposition leaders, had been dutifully persuaded with cash incentives, to support the bill.

Whatever the truth may be, the idea of Open Term was considered settled and President Bakili Muluzi acknowledged the result of the vote. However, that was not to be construed as acceptance of the message that his tenure of office is to come to a close. With renewed vigor his political party, UDF, went on a blitz, proclaiming that ‘the people’ want President Muluzi to remain as the ruler and to have another term of office.

There is no need to intone claims about his indispensability, qualifications, etc. He must have, at the minimum, another term of office. If this has to be achieved at the expense of reduction or even (temporary) elimination of certain basic rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution and duly protected by it, so be it. Thus, with slight terminological modification, denuded of semantic significance, the bill has re-surfaced as Third Term Bill, to be voted on again soon.

Opposition to the bill and the uproar it has engendered has pitied the incumbent and the UDF ruling party against religious organizations, academics, segments of civil society and much of the country. This forced the president to ban demonstrations or gatherings commenting on the Bill, a ban recently over-turned by the courts. The events in Malawi have compelled the media and religious organizations to accuse the President of resorting to intimidation, distorting facts, engaging in corrupt practices and more, in order to perpetuate his regime and to satisfy his hunger for power. Yes, there is a crisis of democracy in Malawi.

Sadly, the preoccupation with Third Term and the marshalling of resources to that end obscure the gravity of the crises whose images feed the media. Malawi is still facing a serious famine, its economic performance is in negative territory, academic standards in its educational institutions are falling, health facilities have worsened with AIDS continuing to exact a toll on the economically productive segment of the population. An indication of the relegation of some of these crises to serving political ends can be gauged from some press releases.

Mafunde is a recently organized political party that is offering itself as a real alternative to the status quo. It claims to be ‘led by professionals, people of high integrity and good standing in society, ‘ and ‘intends to restore the dignity of the people and the glory of the Malawi nation through patriotism.’ Recently, Mafunde issued a press release decrying the politicization of famine by the ruling party. Writing in The Chronicle Newspaper in Lilongwe, Malawi, issued on September 23, Mafunde drew the attention of the Government of the ROC (Taiwan) to the fact that the corn given to Malawi as part of famine relief, was distributed at Presidential rallies where UDF party officials predominated.

Mafunde noted that “[T]he Presidential Rally at Nsanje at which maize was distributed, as all other Presidential Rallies, was clearly a UDF party campaign function. Relief maize from Taiwan or any other source should be distributed equitably on the basis of need, not political expediency, by proper organs of Government, with an organized plan. The Government of ROC (Taiwan) knows that Bakili Muluzi is the President only until 2004-not for ever.”

The final sentence is clearly a critical comment on the Third Term Bill. The point is made even more bluntly in other commentaries but the words of Martines Namingha in The Chronicle Newspaper of September 30, merit reproduction. Commenting on the defeat the week before of the Malawi National Soccer Team, The Flames, by The South Africa National Soccer team, Bafana Bafana, Namingha links the riots that disrupted the game in the stadium to politics.

In the article he makes the poignant observations that “…[M]alawi is bed-ridden with malnutrition. The economy is severely undernourished. Education standards are improving, from bad to worst. Corruption is growing from strength to strength, what with scams, maize, education, housing, Apex, PCC, unresolved and sticking like sore thumbs.

As if this is not enough, local companies are closing every day, and it is true that since the onset of Multiparty democracy, over 25 companies have wound up sending a lot of Malawians out of employment. More are yet to go, because some companies are already in the intensive care unit and their breathing is most labored after high taxes and lack of infrastructure. There is also this much talked about hunger. People in the rural areas are finding life unbearable due to the prevalence of our government imposed hunger.

But perhaps most worrisome is the dictatorial stance that the State President has taken against anyone that would like to speak openly against the Third Term.”

The gloom of losing to Bafana Bafana is viewed as symptomatic of the crisis in the country. Namingha’s closing statement is, “[T]here is absolutely nothing to celebrate about in this country at the moment. It is time for mourning.”

It can only be hoped that realization will set in that leaders come and go, whereas the people, in whose name a lot is done, live on. Qualification for leadership must include commitment to respecting the constitution and utilizing the power and office of president to promote meaningful participation of the people in the management of their affairs. In addition, there must be commitment to stimulation of economic growth, improvement of health care, investment in the youth through improvement of educational facilities and academic standards. Amendments to the constitution require principled grounds.

Sam Mchombo is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

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