In 2020, Malawi was a country on the rise, and its democracy was a beacon of hope.
The year before, relentless street protests followed the results of a general election that saw the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, declared the winner. The vote, widely perceived to be rigged, was contested by the opposition. In the end, constitutional court judges ruled to reject the election outcome.
The presidential elections were held again, votes recast and the Tonse Alliance – a union of the two main opposition parties – emerged victorious. The leaders, Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party and Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement, vowed to rid the country of its endemic corruption.
Malawi’s false dawn
They also promised to create one million jobs. It was exactly what a citizenry struggling to get any form of employment wanted to hear. And the international community duly rewarded the efforts to root out systemic and electoral corruption.
‘We must clear the rubble of impunity, for it has left our governance institutions in ruins,’ Chakwera said at his inauguration. Chilima took the vice presidency.
Euphoria akin to a revolution swept the country. The Economist magazine named Malawi country of the year. The five judges who had presided over the historic election case were awarded the 2020 Chatham House Prize for setting an example ‘for their peers across the world by upholding the centrality of the rule of law and separation of powers’.
‘This is a historic moment for democratic governance,’ said Robin Niblett, then director of Chatham House. ‘The ruling by Malawi’s constitutional court judges is not only crucial for rebuilding the confidence of Malawi’s citizens in their institutions, but also for upholding standards of democracy more widely across the African continent.’
But the applause came too early.
Corruption, once again, has dogged the new government. A recent survey carried out by Afrobarometer found that two-thirds of Malawians believe corruption is getting worse under the Tonse Alliance. The president has responded to the demand for more action by vowing to remove from office all individuals found to be involved in corruption while funnelling more resources into institutions mandated with fighting graft.
Now a major scandal is turning into an existential threat to the alliance itself. In a joint investigation, the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) and Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau have linked a Malawi-born British businessman to a procurement scandal over public contracts.
Zuneth Sattar was arrested in October 2021 by the NCA on charges of corruption relating to three public contracts worth $150 million, awarded between 2019 and 2021, involving the supply of armoured personnel carriers, food rations and water cannons. Sattar strongly denies any wrongdoing, and while he has yet to be formally charged with any offence, it is expected to happen at any moment.
Among those alleged to have had a corrupt relationship with Sattar are Chilima, the president’s chief of staff Prince Kapondamgaga, head of the police service George Kainja, and senior officials in the police, military and procurement agencies.
The collapse of the Tonse Alliance
Following these allegations, President Chakwera stripped his deputy of all delegated powers – the most he can do for an official who cannot be removed constitutionally. The police chief has been fired, and the president’s chief of staff suspended.
In a televised speech, Chilima accused his own administration of scapegoating failures to deliver campaign pledges and of failing to honour terms of agreement on the creation of the Tonse Alliance government.
‘We should not allow history to be changed because someone or some people have now just realized that power which should be shared has become sweeter and begin to display as much excitement as a two-year-old at the sight of candy,’ Chilima said.
Regardless of the Tonse Alliance’s fate, its leaders would struggle to attract support at the next election. On top of the corruption allegations, the already fragile economy has been battered by the pandemic and escalating commodity prices worsened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since the end of last year, protests have broken out over the rising cost of living.
‘The Tonse Alliance administration made a number of promises premised on the economic situation at the material time. Then came the devaluation of the kwacha, the war in Ukraine, the two cyclones and skyrocketing inflationary pressures both within and outside the country. All these mean that the promises can no longer be fulfilled in full,’ says Betchani Tchereni, an economist at the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences.
He says that while commodity prices have adjusted upwards, revenue generation has not improved. Traditional western donors have not thrown an economic life jacket as expected. ‘Potential developer partners are also going through economic pressures themselves, and the IMF is demanding certain conditionalities before the ECF [Extended Credit Facility] can be approved and have stabilization funds released,’ he added.
While the government cannot be solely blamed for economic instability, it has also mismanaged public expectations and misunderstood the aspirations of the electorate, according to Danwood Chirwa, a law professor at Cape Town University in South Africa and a critic of the administration.
‘The leaders of the coalition thought and still think that a change of government was all that the people wanted,’ he says. ‘Once they got the power, the job was done. But this isn’t what the electorate had in mind. A complete overhaul of the practice of governance and improving the delivery of public services were the main concerns in the minds of voters.’
New government, same bad habits
He argues that instead of delivering on the aspirations of the people, the new government delivered ‘the same pattern of bad governance, the blossoming of corruption networks, the use of state resources to protect those accused of corruption, the continuation of nepotism, wasteful expenditure, lack of vision and planning, lack of interest in action, and more importantly, increased interest in appearances and false promises and self-promotion.’
Gift Trapence, chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a civil society body that organized the post-2019 election protests, agrees.
‘The reason why Malawians voted the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party]out of government was mainly because of the party’s arrogance and nepotistic tendencies. However, the new government is entrenching itself with the same culture. For example, public appointments are skewed towards the Tonse Alliance’s political base of the central region at the expense of those from southern and northern regions,’ says Trapence.
The government argues that the accusations are exaggerated but accepts that there’s room for improvement. ‘We could have done better if most of the factors were equal. Covid-19, disasters motivated by climatic changes, the effects of the Ukraine/Russia war have not assisted our course,’ says Gospel Kazako, Malawi’s information minister and official government spokesperson.
He said the administration has not backtracked on ensuring rule of law, however. ‘Organized syndicates of crime and corruption needed more time for us to thaw them and crack them. We are not on top of issues. All this is being driven by the dictates of the rule of law that plays a central role. We believe it is through strict compliance to the rule of law that we will multiply our achievements as a government,’ he said.
The next general elections will take place in 2025, when the president and ruling coalition will have to convince the electorate that they deserve another chance.