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Malawi's 50 years of independence: A 'maturing democracy' is not enough, says analyst

media Peter Mutharika became Malawi's fifth president in May's elections replacing incumbent Joyce Banda. File photo: 14 November 2013 AFP/Amos Gumulira

Malawi celebrated 50 years of freedom from colonial rule on Sunday with an event in the capital Lilongwe marking independence from Britain. Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world with more than half its population living below the poverty line. RFI spoke to Blessings Chinsinga, a political analyst from the University of Malawi.

What does it say about Malawi’s new President Peter Mutharika that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was the only African head of state taking part in Malawi’s golden jubilee celebrations?

I think it’s a challenge for the new president, but not very surprising because he comes in after two years following his brother’s death and his brother was very close to President Robert Mugabe. So on that score it is not very surprising, but of course it doesn’t portray a good image of us as a country especially within the sub-region.

In his speech, the president said that Malawi’s democracy is fast-maturing and a good example to countries in the region. Do you agree?

I do not necessarily agree. I think there would have to be some qualifications made. Of course, most democracy enthusiasts have looked at the way Malawi conducted the 20 May 2014 elections as a sign that Malawi’s democracy is maturing for the simple reason that we managed to change our government through the ballot. For me, I think that is not enough, we have to look at how the whole election was conducted, but more importantly the implications of the results in terms of Malawi being able to churn out, what I would call an inclusive political settlement. To put that in context, the president was elected with only 36 per cent of the vote, meaning that 64 per cent of Malawians did not want him to be the president. And I think that raises serious questions about his legitimacy as a leader.

British Prime David Cameron issued a statement saying that he looks forward to working with Malawi’s government and the people of Malawi in the years ahead. But donor funding remains frozen – how do you see this developing?

Most donors have adopted a wait and see approach. For the simple reason that the current president is the leader of a party that created the problems with the developmental partners barely two years ago and almost plunged Malawi in a situation of complete political, social and economic meltdown. So, although most of the donors have welcomed the developments following the elections, they’re still not sure as to whether the current government is going to pursue a different path from the former government of late president Bingu wa Mutharika. But looking at what has happened between 20 May and now, there are some signs that probably this new government would like to take a different course of action altogether. But those signs are not as promising yet. So, as far as I am concerned we’ll probably not see the donors returning to support Malawi through its budget, but rather a continuing with the project approach through both the international and local NGOs.

Some Malawians are critical of the poverty and corruption over the past fifty years. Can this new government turn it around?

I have my doubts. I’m saying so because to really turn things around would require tough and bold decisions to be made, especially in terms of how we handle our government affairs. And so far I haven’t seen any serious indications to suggest that the new government would even want to initiate a clean break with the past. A very good example in this regard is how the appointments have been made so far. I think they still smack of regionalism, they still smack of patronage, etc. So chances are very high that we may not experience a clean break between this new government and the old government.

Maybe we should also look at the plus points – what major successes would you highlight from the last 50 years of Malawi’s independence?

Two things: the first is the set up of infrastructure that was put in place, especially in the 70s and the 80s, the national university, the hospitals, schools, etc. I think as much as Dr [Hastings Kamuzu] Banda’s government was authoritarian, but it indeed put in place institutional frameworks that facilitated the tangible infrastructure development. Since then, I think we have done very little to build on that. The second major success, I would say, is the transition from one party dictatorship to multi-party democracy. I think we were able to do that largely outside the limelight of the international community. Although twenty years down the line we have really failed to build on that success. Predominantly because I think we were simply excited with the transition, without thinking very clearly of an alternative society that we wanted to put in place of the fallen one-party dictatorship.

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