We’ve just witnessed a rare political event in Malawi. Opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera defeated incumbent Peter Mutharika in elections held on June 23, and was sworn in as president early afternoon the next day, after the final results were announced on Saturday night.
It was the first time a re-run vote held after a court-overturned an election in Africa resulted in the defeat of an incumbent leader.
In February this year, Malawi’s Constitutional Court nullified the results of the May 2019 election in which President Mutharika had been declared the winner, saying the vote was stolen.
The rigging was so widespread, even correction fluid was used on ballots to change the votes.
I thought when the typewriter went of fashion, correction fluid followed it, but apparently Mutharika’s people knew where to find or, probably, made their own. Anyway, Mutharika appealed the decision, and lost a second time, when the Supreme Court upheld the February Constitutional Court’s ruling.
The February nullification of Mutharika’s “win”, was only the second time a court in Africa had overturned a presidential election, after Kenya’s in 2017.
Many Ugandans said they wished they would see our courts showing similar spine like the Malawian Judiciary, instead of mostly reading rulings half-written by State House in Opposition challenges to President Yoweri Museveni’s perennial contentious victorious.
For the record, the President and his camp say he wins fair and square, despite all the outrageous abuses against rivals and the law, that have marked the last five elections of the ruling NRM era.
Ugandans also have, once again, gone into the old debate of what it would take for a Malawi scenario to play out in a +256 election. Apart from a level of independence from the Judiciary, unlike Uganda, the Malawi army was even-handed if a little pro-Opposition.
It escorted the judges to and from court in armoured vehicles. On the day they read their ruling, they flew them in by military aircraft and then drove the judges, who were dressed in military bulletproof vests, to court. In Uganda, that sounds like amateur fiction.
The UPDF for one, is firmly in the President’s corner, in part because of its history as a rebel army. Rebel armies often take more than a generation to fully transition from being the private guard and militia of their leader when he takes power. It is just the way it is.
Secondly, the Malawians didn’t tire of protesting the election theft, going at it almost daily since May of 2019. In Uganda, that would end very badly, with red flowing on the streets.
Yet, to say all these, is only to highlight the differences, not to explain why the differences. Why wouldn’t Malawian security slaughter or cart off protestors to Nalufenya-like torture dungeons? Why aren’t judges so afraid of the wrath of the president? Why is a repeat election not also stolen?
Countries like Malawi, Zambia, Ghana, and Senegal, which might have had long-rule strongmen, and if they didn’t have had wars, have a far higher chance of transitioning to a benign competitive democracy. War scuttles the civic infrastructure on which that kind of politics is built. Also, strangely, a long-ruling autocrat is good for future democracy.
Malawi’s founding dictator, the Anglophile and bowler-hat-wearing Dr Kamuzu Banda, ruled the country for nearly 28 years from July 1966 to May 1994 when he lost to the Opposition.
Feared to no end, toward the end Kamuzu was sickly, nearly 100 years, and power just slowly slipped from his grip until he was defeated. I was in Malawi in late 1993, a young journalist still learning the ways of the world, and watched Banda returning home from abroad where he had spent weeks on treatment.
The man who made every Malawian tremble was frail and incoherent, and had to be helped off the plane into a wheel chair. The country looked on in disbelief.
The country was closed on public holiday on the day of his arrival, and women clad in his ruling Malawi Congress Party colours, lined the road from the airport in dresses emblazoned with his image. Yet in their singing, the forlorn tone was inescapable.
Watching Banda wither so dramatically publicly, sent an enduring message that, in the end, all powerful men are mortal. Watching that slow decay of a mighty dictator, takes a lot of fear away.
In Zimbabwe, perhaps the ruling Zanu-PF and the army knew that, and ended the sad Robert Mugabe spectacle by ejecting him in a soft coup in 2017, when he was 93, and had been “eating” for 37 years.
Uganda never had a leader who stayed in power continuously for more than eight years, until Museveni came along – and has stayed put for a record 36 years. What ended in Malawi in 1994, is only beginning to happen in Uganda 26 years later – and it could be until 2031, before we get there fully.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.