Malawi’s President elect Lazarus Chakwera (L) and First Lady Monica Chakwera (R), leaves his inauguration at the Kamuzu Baracks, the Malawi Defence Force Headquarters, in Lilongwe on July 6, 2020. (Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA / AFP)
While outgoing US President Donald Trump has repeated tantrums at the prospect of leaving the White House, a lesson in democracy from Malawi is worth paying closer attention to. Lazarus Chakwera was inaugurated as Malawi’s sixth president on 6 July 2020 after winning a historic election, which was held after the judiciary overturned the 2019 presidential election and called for a fresh election. This is only the second time this has happened in an African country.
Against all odds, the defeated incumbent — Peter Mutharika — stepped down. Chakwera and his running mate, Saulos Chilima, together achieved more than they had individually in the previous election when they both stood as independent candidates. Chakwera’s Tonse Alliance with Chilima was supported by most other opposition parties. Moreover, the election was held during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and without external election observers.
With democracy at risk of backsliding across the globe, comprehending the genesis of Malawi’s opposition coalition may prove beneficial to opposition parties and pro-democracy activists across the world.
For Chakwera and Chilima, running separately in 2019 paved the way for Mutharika to remain in power for longer. Mutharika won 38.57% of the vote against Chakwera’s 35.41%. The political reality at the time was complex, but it is obvious in hindsight that senior figures in the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had to be convinced to step aside and free positions for Chilima and his United Transformation Movement (UTM) colleagues.
The importance of this dynamic for forging a successful coalition cannot be overstated. Chilima set aside his personal political ambitions for the collective good of removing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from power. In 2020, the Tonse Alliance’s masterstroke resulted in the coalition securing a sufficiently large winning margin (17 percentage point) that made it all but impossible for governing party to rig the outcome.
In recent elections in Tanzania, the opposition emulated the Malawian coalition experience. Initially, opposition parties were set to head to the polls without an alliance to unseat the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi. However, the two leading opposition parties, Chadema and ACT-Wazalendo, formed a “loose collaboration” and endorsed a common candidate in each region. Unfortunately, the results did not emulate that of the Tonse Alliance, but the value of forming coalitions to unseat incumbents appears to be gaining traction beyond Malawi.
The MCP and UTM had initially challenged the 2019 election result separately. Lilongwe high court Judge Charles Mkandawire shrewdly requested the respective plaintiffs be joined as parties in the action. Satisfied that the two cases were of a constitutional nature, he needed Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda’s certification to have them heard in the Constitutional Court. During the Constitutional Court proceedings, political serendipity struck: a bond formed between Chakwera and Chilima as they shared a bench under a tree outside the courtroom during recess.
Coinciding with this judicial process, the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Justice Jane Ansah, resigned. The 2020 election may not have taken place had Justice Chifundo Kachale not been appointed as her replacement. Kachale, committed to electoral independence, navigated a combination of political and logistical obstacles, despite taking charge only two weeks before the election. For instance, he was able to persuade the government to release funding for the election and to implement measures to prevent earlier widespread irregularities, including the use of correction fluid on ballots. His role reinforces the truth that both individual agency and institutional structure matter.
The boldness of the Malawian judiciary in checking executive power and upholding critical election-governance structures is laudable. It should catalyse regional pro-democracy activists to advocate for judicial independence, especially where the judiciary has been co-opted and corrupted, like in Zimbabwe. The judiciary’s ability to hold the executive to account is one of the most crucial elements of establishing the rule of law, without which democracy is dead in the water. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, during a state visit from Chakwera in early October, failed to appreciate the “legal miracle” that had played out in Malawi or see its positive long-term consequences. He chose instead to selectively note that election observers were unnecessary for democracy. Election observers are typically deployed to help safeguard voting integrity.
After the success of the re-run Malawi election, one would have expected the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to adopt the obvious lessons from the Malawi experience regarding the “home-grown ownership” of their election process during the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, these were instead subverted, resulting in further electoral instability in the region. For instance, SADC did not deploy a physical SADC electoral observation mission to Tanzania, presumably under the guise of adhering to Covid-19 restrictions. Instead it held a series of virtual engagements with key electoral stakeholders in preparation for the election. These ultimately provided unfruitful for upholding any kind of electoral credibility.
External observers are useful and important, but cannot provide a substitute for the fundamental requirements of independent institutions. Judicial independence, coupled with electoral commission independence, are irreplaceable building blocks for democracy.
In short, there is no easy formula to follow for opposition parties seeking positive election outcomes. Several factors need to be in place simultaneously. However, if opposition parties had to choose one factor to build on from Malawi’s experience, it is the importance of opposition candidates with similar election ideologies putting aside personal ambitions and rivalries in favour of a more collective united stand at the polls.
Craig Moffat is head of programme: governance delivery & impact at Good Governance Africa
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian here
Ugandan musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, lays flowers during a prayer for the victims of the protest against his arrest at the headquarters of his opposition party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), in Kampala, Uganda, on November 21, 2020. – A Ugandan court on November 20 charged opposition leader Bobi Wine over an election rally which allegedly flouted Covid-19 rules, then freed him on bail, after his detention sparked violence that left 37 dead. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)
Our continent has had its share of despots in the post-colonial era. There was a time when it looked like they were on their way out. Sadly, for the citizens of Uganda and a handful of other African countries, despotism is again on the ascendancy. Despotism and autocratic consolidation invariably destroy good governance. At Good Governance Africa, we contend that this governance deficit not only leads to reckless (if calculated) brutality, but ultimately to insecurity for the despot himself.
Harrowing scenes from Uganda shared across social media platforms show the human carnage behind the bland statistics that at least 28 people have been killed and 557 arrested, with scores more beaten, shot or maimed in protest action against the state over the weekend. Uganda goes to the polls in 2021. As the graph below clearly demonstrates, history is simply repeating itself. The cycle of electoral violence is mirroring, almost to a tee, the 2005 eradication of presidential term limits followed by extensive intimidation and repression of any form of opposition or protest in 2006. The 2016 elections were relatively peaceful by contrast.
Museveni came to power in 1987 and is fast approaching the record for the longest-standing autocrat on the continent. Like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola, who ruled for 37 and 38 years respectively, Museveni has followed the careful script of eradicating internal opposition to his rule. External opposition has been a mere irritation in Museveni’s political calculus. At every opportunity, he has accumulated more power to himself and, in the process, minimised the probability of an internal coup being launched.
Each power-grab eroded the integrity of the internal power-sharing mechanism, reducing the probability that remaining members of the ruling coalition would band together and oust him from office. With increased personal access to power and rents, Museveni could calculate just how large he required his patronage network to be to avoid disrupting the equilibrium. The prospect of impending oil wealth simply deepens this scourge and intensifies the probability of ‘successful’ autocratic consolidation.
Given this analysis, why do we contend that the resultant governance deficit is ultimately risky for the apparently ‘successful’ autocrat? Because Mugabe and dos Santos were both removed from their perch by bloodless coups launched by their own ruling coalitions, a relatively novel occurrence in our more recent context. Moreover, even though the Arab Spring did not produce lasting governance gains, autocrats do risk widespread popular grievance against their rule. This risk is increasingly concomitant with a rising risk of organised crime and terrorism proliferation.
Extremist insurgents take advantage of local grievances. Local grievances are almost always a direct function of poor governance. In the absence of governance, public goods cannot be delivered, and broad-based economic growth cannot occur. In resource-wealthy contexts, unscrupulous extractive industry companies are often willing to pay short-term rents to politically connected gatekeepers to gain access to the relevant resource. This exacerbates local grievances. This matching of short-term politics and short-term business thinking is an explosive cocktail that destroys the long-term prospects for both.
Museveni will rue the day he neglected good governance (even before he destroyed presidential term limits) when terrorists start blowing up Uganda’s oil fields. That oil companies off the coast of Mozambique have started to employ private military companies to prevent terror attacks is just one example of the growing trend. Only a few weeks ago, the Islamic State Central Africa Province, mounted an attack on Mtwara in southern Tanzania.
The best empirical evidence we have about the resource curse shows that natural resource wealth correlates with under-development in the absence of institutions that ensure good governance. What we don’t have evidence for yet, but that we strongly predict on the basis of the trends unfolding, is that the resource curse will no longer benefit elite insiders at the expense of the majority (the traditional resource curse), but instead destroy the prospects for the very autocrat who destroyed those governance institutions.
In Uganda alone, the governance deficit is clearly on display in the graph below. The country has not scored above 0 (where -2.5 is the worst possible estimate and 2.5 the best) since 1995, according to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators.
According to the Fragile States Index (powered by The Fund for Peace), Uganda has seen a near continuous improvement since its 2016 low (but with a preceding average deterioration from 2006 to 2016). In this instance, the past decade is a poor predictor of the future.
On the Political Indicator Trends, similarly, the apparent improvement of public service delivery is undermined by a poor human rights record and a poor state legitimacy score. The country’s failure to improve its governance scores, combined with Museveni’s iron grip on power, has not only led to despair for millions of citizens but will increase the fragility of Museveni’s own position within his ruling coalition. Junior members of the coalition, with longer time horizons (and therefore lower discount rates) will possess increasingly stronger incentives to overcome their collective action problem and overthrow the ruler.
This is especially likely to be the case if the risk of extremist activity proliferates. Given the current expression of citizen grievance, and brutal state response, over poor governance, this risk is evidently growing.
The bottom line is that abrogating good governance, while apparently a useful short-term bet for personal power acquisition, is likely to lead to longer-term insecurity for the autocrat. This is a lesson that all leaders across the continent should heed. It should also lead to stronger condemnation and action from regional bodies that seem impotently intent on allowing the status quo to continue ad nauseum.
Good Governance Africa is a research and advocacy think tank. Our vision is to drive improved governance performance across the continent to deliver broad-based social and economic benefits for all citizens. All content generated by GGA (including research, data modelling and journalism) must serve to further the overall objectives of the organisation.
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PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – NOVEMBER 05: A man participating in a protest in support of counting all votes watches U.S. President Donald Trump hold a news conference as the election in the state is still unresolved on November 5, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With no winner yet declared in the presidential election, all eyes are on the outcome of a few remaining swing states. Chris McGrath/Getty Images/AFP
In a historic US election, President Donald Trump was ousted from office by Joe Biden. Biden won 50.8% of the popular vote, while Trump still managed 47.5% in the largest voter turnout since 1908. The presidency of Donald Trump is widely viewed as anomalous, a monstrous blip in an otherwise healthy and deeply consolidated democracy. This would be a mistake. A deeper analysis reveals that populism can take root even in societies with relatively broad-based access to political and economic opportunities.
Globalisation, accelerating apace since the end of the Cold War in 1989, has resulted in a highly uneven distribution of the gains from trade and volatility from easy flight of capital. While global GDP has ballooned, inequalities have widened, with real income growth among the top quintile rapidly outpacing middle class wage growth. Local displacement has intensified. Outsourcing or automating jobs in the name of economic efficiency has created political ruptures in historically strong democracies. These dynamics have ploughed the soil for populism to take root. The populist playbook is to exploit the fears and disappointments of the economically marginalised and subvert democratic institutions in the process.
Trump’s tantrums over alleged vote-rigging and repeated court threats are simply part of the script. The phenomenon of democratic backsliding has so arrested the attention of scholars that between 2011 and 2018 alone, 1,700 academic articles were published on the subject. In the 40 years prior, a total of 1,500 articles covering threats to democracy appeared. The fact that Biden has won out against Trump may provide some reprieve for friends of democracy across the globe, but complacency is unwarranted. Otherwise strong democratic equilibria tend to be disrupted by socio-economic inequality, financial shocks, the exploitation of extreme political views by technological interference (read Cambridge Analytica) and the resultant perpetuation of echo-chamber social-media politics.
None of these trends show any sign of abating. Worryingly, they are also mutually reinforcing, which can create path-dependent trajectories away from democracy. As scholar Daron Acemoglu has pointed out, the global factors that have contributed to growing domestic inequality in the US have not been addressed, and policymakers are far from a consensus on how this can be done. Biden’s work is cut out for him to forge bi-partisan agreement that, for instance, higher federal minimum wages and a more redistributive tax system may be desirable. Even with that in place, though, the global trend towards distrusting scientific facts and resenting elites is strengthening. Populism thrives in such contexts.
Perhaps the most concerning element of Trump’s ascendancy was the willingness of Abraham Lincoln’s 150-year-old party to acquiesce to Trump’s proposition to ride on a Republican ticket. And, typical of populist incoherence, most of what he stood for and campaigned on were diametrically opposed to orthodox republican positions such as free trade. Nonetheless, as one commentator put it, Biden has ‘sleep-walked’ into the White House and the embers of democracy are still alive in the US. Notwithstanding the warning to avoid complacency, it remains good news because, on average, democracy causes economic growth. Why? Because its ability to remove leaders like Trump is one of its enduring attractions.
Consolidated democracy, for all its inefficiencies, respects the rule of law, insists on the separation of powers, punishes corruption, and gives the citizenry a voice that produces proper accountability from the elite. This institutional strength, in turn, results in economic dynamism, as contracts are honoured and businesses can flourish. Responsible players are crowded in while irresponsible players are either crowded out or deterred from engaging in corrupt activities. In a nutshell, good governance is more likely to take root in the context of robust political competition where the opposition has a fair and credible chance of winning elections.
While the world breathes a momentary sigh of relief, African countries continue to fight for democracy to take root at all, never mind worrying about whether it will consolidate. While the evidence suggests that democratisation across the continent is advancing, on average, a number of important red flags punctuate the trend. Tanzania, soon to be among the most populous countries on the continent, held its general elections on 28 October 2020. Incumbent President John Magufuli successfully rigged the process to secure for himself an incredible 84% of the vote while the main opposition managed to eke out 13%. According to the Polity V dataset, the country’s democratic score improved from 2 (out of a possible 10) to 4 from 2014 to 2015 (the year in which Magufuli came to power).
We expect that figure to move below zero once the next set of figures is released. Not only did Magufuli rig the elections, he has ruled with an iron fist of fear, initially rooting out some petty corruption – his populist ticket – but he has since crushed civil liberties and shut down opportunities for opposition parties to engage in politics. Post-election, Tundu Lissu, chief opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt in 2017, has had to flee the country after calling for protests against the election results; this in the midst of reports that at least 150 opposition leaders and members have been arrested since 27 October, with at least 18 remaining in custody. The frequency of abductions and/or forced disappearances has ticked up significantly since Magufuli came to power.
Economic growth has been sclerotic under Magufuli’s rule as he continues to be suspicious of the private sector and insists on white elephant megaprojects such as the Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project that the country cannot afford. GDP per capita growth initially fell to 3% in 2015 (from 3.6% the year before) before recovering to 3.7% the following year. It has since fallen to 2.7%.
Magufuli came to the presidency from a weak base within the CCM – the liberation movement of Julius Nyerere – and is working hard to purge elites from within his ruling coalition who would otherwise ensure some degree of power-sharing. There is every reason to expect that Magufuli will attempt to clinch a third term in office, which would violate the constitution. He would join a long list of those who long ago eschewed term limits, a fundamental governance limit on executive power. A fundamental problem is not only that autocratic rule tends to result in misery and squalor for the majority, but that governance-dismantling autocrats seem to spur each other on across borders.
Zambia’s elections are set for 2021, and President Edgar Lungu appears to be taking a leaf out of the Magufuli playbook but with some variety to spice up the mix, drawing on Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwean script too. It appears that his strategy for rigging the elections is to amend the constitution to allow coalition formation (instead of a runoff second ballot between the top two candidates) in the case of no candidate winning more than 50% of the vote. He brought this infamous “Bill 10” to parliament at the end of October but it failed (though by a margin of only 6 votes). At least this strategy indicates that Lungu is scared of losing the popular vote and does not have Magufuli-like power to simply rig the election to an arbitrary winning proportion of his pre-selected choice.
The opposition has a strong likelihood of winning the election, though Hakainde Hichilema – the leader of the opposition – is undoubtedly keen to avoid more jail time at the hands of Lungu’s trumped-up charges (as has happened before). Analysts expect that Lungu, on failing to win Bill 10, will now simply abolish the current voters’ register and create a new one more favourable to his prospects. The graph below indicates a surge of violence around the 2016 elections that saw Lungu gain a second term in office. As Natasha Chilundika has written over at Democracy in Africa, we really need to avoid a repetition of this come 2021.
Slightly further afield in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. Still going strong, according to scholar Moses Khisa, Museveni has “run roughshod over important constitutional and institutional safeguards, checks and balances that were enshrined in what was a relatively progressive and liberal  constitution”. Museveni is edging in on the 38-year rule exercised by Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and the 37-year reign by Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (both upended by their own ruling coalitions in 2017). Museveni’s assault on democracy began in 2003 with an eradication of constitutional term limits.
In addition to subverting apparently democratic institutions to advance authoritarian ends (by co-opting and corrupting the judiciary, for instance), he has also used external security threats as a cover under which to criminalise otherwise legitimate political activities. Museveni has had Kizza Besigye, his main opposition, arrested more than 1,000 times. A period of relative calm prevailed between 2007 and 2013, but violence against citizens has been on the rise, with incidents this year alone matching the 2006 data. The prospect of commercial oil revenues will further embolden Museveni’s autocratic stranglehold through enabling him to distribute patronage to a carefully selected circle of insiders and repress outsiders.
On the subject of Mugabe and dos Santos, their removal tells an important story. Autocrats who successfully consolidate power are almost always only removed by an internal coup or death in office. Very few in contemporary history have been upended by democratic forces. The risk of further autocratic consolidation is, therefore, immediately at hand. In Russia, Joseph Stalin’s death did not suddenly usher in democratic rule. Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold over the ruling coalition in Russia today is evidence enough to show that new autocrats are likely to gain ascendancy and the fight for democracy to take root requires far more than the removal of one autocrat. It requires the slow, hard work of establishing governance institutions that respect the rule of the people by the people.
In both Zimbabwe and Angola, new autocrats have arisen. Mnangagwa and Lourenco respectively came to power through removing their long-standing leaders who had placed family members ahead of party loyalists, threatening their access to power and rents. One may have expected that some kind of power-sharing mechanism would be re-established in both Zanu-PF and the MPLA respectively, but there is little cause for optimism on the basis of the current evidence. Both incumbents enjoy vast access to resource wealth, again enabling the distribution of rents to a select circle of loyalists and careful elimination of internal and external threats to their rule.
Citizen attempts to protest against grand corruption in Zimbabwe around July this year resulted in a rapid rise in disappearances, abductions, torture and arrests – these have not yet been captured in the data below, but the graph still paints a terrifying picture of the militarised regime’s willingness to exercise repression to prevent any accountability. With elections set for 2023, we can either expect to see further violence escalation or an indefinite postponement of elections altogether.
A similar pattern emerges from Angola, with violence against citizens increasing again in the aftermath of the 2017 elections that saw Lourenco come to power through a rigged election. Unlike Magufuli’s CCM, though, the MPLA chose a winning figure of nearer to 60% than 80%.
For all one might say about the Trumpian episode in US politics and its dangerous flirtation with autocracy, the fact is that the vote matters in the US and Trump is out (or at least probably will be with Republicans now also losing patience with his intransigence). Americans have exercised their voice. Moreover, no matter whether one resonates with Kamala Harris’s political views, it is a significant feat that an African-American woman has ascended to the White House (and the first woman vice-president in US history) despite so much underlying racial tension in the country.
It is easy to be despondent about the deep structural divides that threaten to disrupt the US democratic equilibrium, but the fact that it has stood firm should encourage us to war against the proliferating autocratic threats to democracy in many African countries. Of course, the continent is not without hope, and the general trend is arguably positive. But it would be amiss of us to ignore the warning signs in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, not to mention Ethiopia (in which the risk of a full-blown civil war escalates daily), the DRC, Nigeria and Mozambique. Mozambique, in the context of poor governance, deep local grievances and a poverty trap, is fertile soil for the rise of violent extremism. It’s an explosive cocktail that risks spilling over into neighbouring countries.
One recent light in these otherwise dark trajectories, though, is Malawi. Small and poor, for sure, the country is wracked by a history of corruption and extensive poverty. Nonetheless, when Lazarus Chakwera came to power earlier in 2020, in the midst of a global Covid-19 pandemic, he showed that it is possible for the judiciary to stand firm against an incumbent executive bent on staying in power and for the people to vote that president out in an election re-run. This should be celebrated loudly, if cautiously, and remind us that it all starts with governance.
As Dr Grieve Chelwa has quipped, SCOTUS might do well to cite the Malawian court case should Trump successfully get to the Supreme Court over his allegation that the US election results were rigged. We should never give up in our quest to build governance institutions that prevent the abuse of power and give the people a voice.