Lessons from Trump’s dethronement for Africa

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 [1995] 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.


Dr Ross Harvey is Director of Research & Programmes at GGA. Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria.

Diverse situations requiring unique solutions

African conservation: a wake-up call

Fixed and polarised attitudes to African conservation remain a major impediment to robust, solution-seeking debate

Park rangers in Zimbabwe
Photo: Richard Maasdorp

A lifetime of wild experiences in the Zambezi Valley and a decade at the helm of The Zambezi Society – which practises a no-nonsense, hands on, practical approach to protecting this magnificent wilderness area – has given me many opportunities to reflect on the realities of conservation in Africa.

We are in danger of becoming bogged down in conventional and conservative thought. The current COVID-19 crisis brings this into sharp focus. Our worlds may have shrunk temporarily, and our activities, too, but we must not lose sight of the broader vision that gave birth to our commitment in the first place. I think it’s time we opened our eyes to reality. We need to stop thinking about Africa’s conservation problems in generic terms. Many opinion leaders, international conservation organisations and media tend to see Africa’s conservation challenges as generic.

This leads them to suggest  “one-size-fits-all” solutions that lack relevant local context. The results may produce inappropriate interventions, ill- advised lobbying and funding channelled into initiatives that, while they might work in one place, may be totally ineffective, even destructive, in others. From a platform of research, professionalism and transparency, Africa needs to continue to challenge the idea that international organisations or donors have solutions to the continent’s conservation problems that are in some way superior to our own.

That these internationals have political clout and financial resources does not mean they can solve our problems. Take elephants, for example: some African countries have either lost or are losing their elephant populations at an alarming rate. Others have stable populations. But the individual circumstances that led to the latter are not discussed. Botswana and Zimbabwe together are custodians of more than half the population of African elephant.

In East Africa, over decades, elephant populations declined dramatically due to illegal activity, habitat loss and human encroachment. The conservation voices of these countries demonised traditional elephant management techniques such as hunting (even in marginalised habitats), or wildlife population control and preached that photographic tourism, conservation outfits and government could provide all the solutions. Their generic message has become “gospel” for elephant conservation models across the world.

But in southern African countries – notably Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia – hunting and wildlife population control measures have, for decades, been incorporated into a range of conservation policies aimed at discouraging illegal activity, human encroachment and habitat loss. The elephant populations of these countries remain relatively healthy – a story not often told. Yet, international pressure for southern Africa to adopt the all- purpose “East African” conservation model is great.

Even within a country, the contexts are varied. In Zimbabwe, for instance, there are four distinct elephant sub-populations – each with a different problem requiring a customised management solution. With such varying situations, a buffet of management solutions is required. Each of these four separate areas in Zimbabwe now has their own customised Elephant Management Plan devised by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and a group of stakeholders and is subject to regular review and update.

When I first entered the conservation arena in Zimbabwe, I was shocked by the bloodletting between the players, driven by egos and the perception that funding is a scarce resource. Even in my former life in the construction industry, we had a collaborative umbrella organisation to take care of the industry as a whole. This allowed for robust debate, and gave us a platform from which to  lobby for enlightened policies on which we could stand together against unfair or inappropriate practices emanating from new international players.

But Zimbabwe’s conservation “industry” has no such platform at a national level. A newly-developing collaborative effort in the Lower Zambezi Valley area is making some progress. But the future of the wildlife spaces that conservation bodies purport to protect is most often at the mercy of the loudest, most influential, monied or most connected voices. These are not necessarily the most constructive or sensible. My participation at the African Conservation Lab in 2017 in South Africa did little to reassure me that this problem is confined to my own country.

Fragmentation and rivalry in the conservation arena appears to be a common problem across other elephant range states. National conservation vision and strategy is not crafted by a collective of informed and pragmatic stakeholders (Zimbabwe’s Elephant Management Plans are laudable exceptions – with the Lower Zambezi Valley’s collaborative and dynamic one often now acknowledged as a game changer that works).

Individual activities that support wildlife spaces and are having a positive impact most often lack synergies and are missing out on optimisation possibilities. The embryonic Lower Zambezi Valley collaboration model is an exception (although even this has its mavericks), and has demonstrated that significant results can be achieved with effective collaboration. Donor organisations, with a few exceptions, also do not often collaborate with each other. Funds are committed to fragmented initiatives. Donors, often driven by their own priorities or their reading of country politics, tend to withhold funding or are skewed towards activities that may be inappropriate.

Elephants cannot vote. Local conservation organisations are often “muscled out” by international and regional entities or tourism operations that have the money and connections. In this way, a country becomes vulnerable to economic “recolonisation”. However, a collaborative approach that seeks genuine engagement with local stakeholders can harness latent potential that exists amongst a country’s citizens and its own biodiversity resources.

Similarly, without engaging local stakeholders to provide carefully channelled funding mechanisms, opportunities to build strong, long-term, impactful partnerships with the local regulatory authorities and other sectors (e.g. tourism, agriculture/tobacco-growing, hunting, communities, schools, etc) and to improve their effectiveness, are missed. Local conservation organisations are forced to march to the tune of international regulatory outfits such as CITES and larger international funders such as USFWS and GEF. These entities often have their own internationally-based lead managers who would do better if they collaborated with local stakeholders.

There are several “community myths” that are problematic, too. The first is that “Unless the buffer zone community is persuaded into conservation by reaping the benefits of it, we will lose the battle to protect these areas”. But we do not say… “Unless the neighbours to this bank/service station/commercial farm receive direct benefits from this business, it will fail”. Another myth is that tourism can help communities surrounding protected areas. The reality is that the margins in tourism are not great enough to save a community from poverty. It is also claimed that job creation in the buffer zones around wildlife spaces will alleviate the poaching problem.

In fact, young people in the main want jobs in the cities, not handouts or meagre pickings on offer in a marginal area. The reality is that we need an alternative means of tackling the “communities versus wildlife” issue; piecemeal inducements for conservation or handouts from a fickle tourism industry aren’t enough. Rural farmers will always see wild animals as a threat to their crops. Tourism revenue is unreliable and can cease altogether as a result of political unrest, natural disaster or pandemic. Meaningful jobs for rural people can be created. An example is the My Trees Project in the Zambezi Valley, which seeks to become a major employer of women in buffer- zone areas to replant and become guardians of indigenous forests by harnessing green climate funds or carbon credits.

But, frankly, this won’t satisfy the young. What the conservation industry really needs to do is pressure governments to put the cities to rights so that they can create and provide the jobs the rural young need. Better still, this industry should contribute to fixing the cities themselves (a 10 to 20 year journey if professional, public-private sector boards/ commissions collaborate to run them, not party-political councillors, as they often are in Africa).

Conservation is still tainted by a “greenie” image. It needs to become an industry in its own right (and be recognised as such), albeit with some philanthropic support towards not-for-profit outcomes, and become a tangible contributor to the economy, the service sector, and the manufacturing sector. It needs to become known for its job creation at a national level, as is the case in Kenya. I have been in the unique position of “working” between the bush and the boardroom. I spend days out on deployment with rangers and  understand their intrinsic value beyond their technical roles.

My most powerful insight has been that the conservation quest has been led, over the generations, by qualified conservationists (often pockets of ego-driven passion) and bureaucrats (regulatory personnel). What is lacking is holistic visioning, trans-sector thinking and commercial aptitude. A top-down management approach is out of place in the modern world. A level-one park ranger has valuable opinion! We need to move towards an enlightened leadership, vision-and-execution approach, so we can forge the links between the global desire to protect wilderness, the rangers on the ground and the wildlife under their stewardship.

Governments need to ensure that they place the value of wild land and its wildlife on their balance sheets – a value on par with the national power utility may result. This is particularly true in Zimbabwe, where a commendable 13% of

the country is legislated as wildlife estate (and a similar percentage under private custodianship), and would reinforce the bid for it to be managed accordingly.

In an increasingly developed world, the value of wilderness areas as places for spiritual and physical healing (for those who can afford it) is underestimated. But to expect African governments to fully fund these global wilderness gems shows a poverty of thought and understanding. Africa’s governments may never be able to prioritise conservation above health, education or military expenditure. Hence, there will always be a funding gap, which if not met (transparently) will result in globally important wild spaces eroded rapidly and irrevocably.

It is also risky to rely on tourism income to save wild places. Not all wildernesses are suitable for tourism. Indeed, some 70% of the impressive 13% of land area set aside for wildlife in Zimbabwe is too rugged and hostile for traditional tourism. But it is still in need of custodianship.

Even wild places popular for tourism are vulnerable to a crisis situation – as the current coronavirus outbreak demonstrates. It may take more than a decade for these destinations to recover from the setback. What future do wild spaces dependent on tourism now face? The world has a responsibility to assist the conservation of these wild spaces, with funding support and the provision of  appropriate expertise, relying on local accountability and capacity.

We need to bring the best minds and hearts to the conservation debate. Those with disguised motives should excuse themselves. We need robust discussion resulting in yet unimagined outcomes. We need to listen. Fixed and polarised attitudes remain a major impediment to robust, solution-seeking debate. The elephant issue is not about elephants across Africa or an individual elephant or its family (an unhelpful animal welfare narrative )); it is about finding the most suitable ways to conserve discrete populations in their distinct wilderness landscapes.

There is a global responsibility to fund, resource and upskill each of these wilderness landscapes. I encourage Africa’s conservation visionaries to use the mind space created by COVID-19 to shift out of the rut of present “looking- forward” dogma, and imagine beyond a 10-year horizon with a “future-looking- back” approach. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to conservation problems in Africa. Individuals, NGOs, governments and donors all need to understand this, and to respect that diverse situations require their own unique solutions.


Richard Maasdorp has a deep love for the people, the wildlife and the wild places of Zimbabwe, his country of birth. A retired civil engineer, he has a Masters in Business Leadership and a wealth of experience as head of several major construction companies, and chair of Zimbabwe’s power generation board. A patient and passionate observer of nature, he now leads The Zambezi Society, helping to conserve the Zambezi River’s magnificent wildlife and wildernesses.

Historic Malawi election provides lessons for opposition parties across the continent

Saulos Chilima and Lazarus Chakwera outside the court. PHOTO: EMMANUEL SIMPOKOLWE

On 6 July 2020, Lazarus Chakwera was inaugurated as Malawi’s sixth president after winning the 2020 Malawi election, an election that was extraordinary because it was the first on the continent held as a result of a court overturning an election result. Moreover, the incumbent was defeated and stepped down.

Chakwera and his running mate, Saulos Chilima, achieved more together than they had individually in the previous election when they stood as independent candidates, validating their decision to run on the same ticket.

Interestingly, both Chakwera and former President Arthur Mutharika of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) formed alliances with other parties. Chakwera’s alliance with Chilima was supported by most other opposition parties and was called the Tonse Alliance, while Mutharika formed an alliance with Atupele Muluzi (United Democratic Front).

Understanding the genesis of the coalition may prove beneficial to opposition parties and pro-democracy activists, as the lessons could strengthen and deepen democracy and good governance on the continent.

Lessons learnt

There are several important lessons from the coalition that proved advantageous to the Tonse Alliance. To obtain a better understanding of the Tonse Alliance and strides made, we review the events that took place between the disputed election of 2019 and the successful 2020 election:

Stronger together – unity for change

Had Chakwera and Chilima formed a coalition for the 2019 elections, they would have garnered more votes than Mutharika. Their decision to run separately paved the way for Mutharika to remain in power longer. While this option may seem simple numerically, it was more difficult in reality, as senior figures within Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had to be convinced to step aside and free positions for Chilima and his United Transformation Movement (UTM) colleagues. For the re-run 2020 election, Chilima importantly set aside his personal political ambitions for the collective good of removing the DPP from power.

Initially, the MCP and UTM separately challenged the 2019 election result but Lilongwe High Court Judge Charles Mkandawire requested that the respective plaintiffs be joined as parties in the action. Mkandawire indicated that he was satisfied that the two cases were constitutional in nature, and needed Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda’s certification, in accordance with Section 9(3) of the Courts Act, to have them be heard in the Constitutional Court.

During the Constitutional Court proceedings, a case of political serendipity occurred: a bond between Chakwera and Chilima formed as they shared a bench under a tree during a recess. Photographs of them seemingly cracking jokes went viral in mainstream and social media. This unplanned occurrence may have been the beginning of their alliance journey.

Importance of an impartial and independent electoral management body

The resignation of former Malawi Electoral Commission chairperson Justice Jane Ansah was a pivotal development. The 2020 election might not have taken place had Justice Chifundo Kachale not been appointed as the new MEC chairperson. Kachale brilliantly navigated a combination of political and logistical obstacles, even though he took over only two weeks before the election.

Judicial Independence

Malawi was able to hold the 2020 election only because the Constitutional Court  and later the Supreme Court ruled that the 2019 polls had been flawed. In addition, the court ruled that the victor in the presidential elections must win 50% + 1 of the vote, and also set out a timeframe for holding fresh elections.

The court’s overriding of the 2019 election results has set an important legal precedent that should find some footing in courts across the region. This precedent may act as a catalyst to embolden regional pro-democracy activists in other countries to address issues of poor governance and instances of perceived electoral fraud.

Neutrality of the security organs

The refusal of the security organs to be exploited to defy court orders and the popular will of the citizens stands in marked contrast to Zimbabwe’s electoral facades. Mutharika did in fact seek to bring the armed forces into play by firing the head of the military, General Vincent Nundwe, and his deputy, Clement Namangale, and replacing them with more pliable officers. Thankfully, the military has demonstrated a history of defending the rule of law during political transitions, and stood firm on this occasion too.

Minimise potential to rig the outcome

Past elections have demonstrated the benefits of obtaining large winning margins, as some incumbents may be impeded from rigging the result, or cannot rig it by a large margin and maintain credibility. A recent case in point was Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko rigging elections, resulting in an outrageous winning margin of 80.1%. In 2019, Mutharika won 38.57% of the vote, against Chakwera’s 35.41%. However, in 2020, this masterstroke resulted in the coalition securing a winning margin so large (58% – 41% = 17%) that it was all but impossible for the ruling party to rig the outcome.

Home-grown ownership

Malawians took “home-grown ownership” of the 2020 election process, in contrast to past experiences. Although the international community had raised concerns about the country’s ability to hold elections in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner, Malawi proved that it could be achieved even without external observers. Although the disputed 2019 result was seemingly endorsed by foreign electoral observer teams, on this occasion – due to COVID-19 restricting the presence of foreign observers – nothing was left to chance and local observers were called on to endorse the election, holding the government accountable.


The developments in Malawi should inspire pro-democracy activists across the continent. However, replicating the outcome in other contexts may prove challenging if the factors that led to Malawi’s outcome are not properly heeded.

Several countries in the region are preparing to hold elections but are starting from a more compromised position. For instance, in Zambia, the courts have faced criticism for endorsing President Edgar Lungu to run for a second term as president in the 2021 elections. In Tanzania, authorities have stepped up repression of opposition parties, non-governmental organisations and the media ahead of the country’s general elections in October 2020.

In short, there is no formula for opposition parties seeking positive election outcomes. As highlighted above, several factors need to be in place simultaneously. However, if opposition parties had to choose one factor to build their foundation on, from Malawi’s experience, it is the importance of opposition candidates with similar ideologies putting aside their personal ambitions and rivalries in favour of a united stand at the polls.

This article originally appeared in the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (CIJM).


Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.
Josephine Chinele is currently a Fellow (Biomedical HIV Prevention Advocate) at the Pakachere Institute of Health and Development Communication in Blantyre, Malawi. A multi-award winning journalist, she has worked as a news, features and investigative journalist for newspapers, radio and television platforms in Malawi and South Africa. She has been awarded several health journalism fellowships in the area of HIV and AIDS, health and human rights.

The right path

East Africa: food forests

Agro-ecology enterprises are helping to cushion African farmers and smallholders against climate change, improve nutrition and generate income

Ruth Okalo in her food forest garden, which has avocado trees, passion fruit and Leucaena leucocephala, a tropical forage tree whose leaves she uses for fodder and firewood Photo: Justus Wanzala

Chirping birds welcome you to Bio Gardening Innovations (BIOGI) a local not-for-profit organisation and demonstration centre in Vihiga county, western Kenya. The centre is a mass of fruit trees, other exotic and indigenous tree species and vegetables, tuber crops, a rabbit hutch, a fishpond filled with collected rainwater, and a kitchen. Although measuring less than an acre, the centre resembles a natural forest teeming with abundance.

BIOGI’s goals are to address challenges of climate change, deforestation and food insecurity through innovative agro- ecological principles and sustainable management of natural resources, and the NPO works with more than 2,000 smallholder farmers and their groups in Vihiga and Kakamega counties. The two counties have one thing in common, a high population density. Vihiga has a population density of 1,047 people per square kilometre, while Kakamega has a density of 618 per square kilometre.

Population density has contributed to deforestation, soil degradation and biodiversity loss in the region, but farmers, in partnership with BIOGI, have set up community learning ecosites as places to incubate new ideas for how to create regenerative enterprises in support of livelihoods in a sustainable manner. These enterprises include setting up food forests or organic gardens, in addition to rearing small livestock to cushion farmers and smallholders against climate, improve nutrition and generate income.

Farmers are also taught innovative approaches to crop and animal husbandry. These include aspects of permaculture, seed banking, organic farming, pre- and post-harvest handling and bio-fertiliser making. Ferdinand Wafula, BIOGI’s Chief Executive Officer, explains that the food forests concept is a  farming  system that involves integrating  trees  into  food gardens. Food forests, he says, mimic natural forests. “Soil degradation and high  demand  for  wood  fuel  led  to deforestation and poor harvests, which prompted farmers to collectively seek innovative remedies that ensure sustainable agriculture,” he explains.

Simon Amwoyo is among the local farmers affiliated to BIOGI. Amwoyo undertakes various activities on his one hectare farm, where he grows a variety of fruit trees such as mangoes and avocados, as well as Grevillea Robusta, a species used as a source of wood for fuel and timber. He also grows Calliandra and Sesbania trees, which provide fodder. “I have a tree forest and I also grow cassava,   pumpkins, sweet potatoes, bananas and indigenous vegetables,” Amwoyo says, adding that the skills offered by BIOGI have enabled him to establish a fishpond, an apiary and keep livestock. He has also learnt better ways of using wood-fired cooking stoves and to recycle farm waste for organic manure, all of which have enabled him to meet the daily needs of his household.

Likewise, Ruth Okalo, who is also affiliated to BIOGI, says she has been able to seamlessly  incorporate  her food forest and organic garden into rearing livestock. Okalo, who grows bananas, sweet potatoes and indigenous vegetables alongside fruits and Grevillea Robusta, also rears dairy cattle. “I am self-reliant and I supplement the income of my husband instead of depending on him as I used to do before becoming a member of BIOGI,” she says. Wafula says the practices espoused by BIOGI are turning around the lives of farmers because they mitigate against climate change and environmental degradation.

The forest cover provides protection for food and fodder crops, increasing the production of food and other farm goods that meet farmers’ needs in the short-, mid- and long-term, he says. Food forests also contribute to improving Kenya’s forest cover, given that the national average is less than 8%. The farmers, he adds, are also involved in regenerative enterprises such as converting waste into organic manure and fodder. The farmers working with BIOGI have also harnessed indigenous knowledge  to ensure climate resilience, Wafula says. “As part of the local culture, the community had traditional seed banks to preserve the germplasms of indigenous crops.

They knew how to undertake seed selection and methods of preserving them until next planting season.” To that end, he told Africa in Fact, they have now helped to establish a farm seed bank to preserve the seeds of endangered, indigenous crops, especially vegetables. BIOGI also educates partner smallholders on ways of preparing the produce and thus encouraging their consumption. As part of the move to include regenerative enterprises in the value chain, so boosting the local economy, the farmers prepare and sell traditional dishes using indigenous crops. Participating farmers are also taught how to establish and manage organic gardens, Wafula says.

They also receive training in integrating small livestock with crop farming, which can have benefits for nutrient recycling and renewable energy utilisation. Variants of BIOGI’s approach are appearing in other sub-Saharan countries. The approach is certainly applicable on a continent of some 51 million farms, of which 80% (41 million) are smaller than two hectares, according to the Africa Agriculture Status Report 2017 of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Richard Kimbowa, chairman of the International Network for Sustainable Energy (INFORSE), East Africa, says the concept is also practised in Uganda. The establishment of food forests in the East African country, he says, has resulted in a range of agroforestry systems, including the use of mangoes and avocado trees in home gardens. Food forests contribute to the maintenance of existing agro-pastoral systems involving livestock, such as cattle, goats, sheep and pigs, Kimbowa says. Food forests keep land under cover, thus mitigating degradation, deforestation and pollution from the overuse of agrochemicals.

They also provide firewood, which most farmers depend on for energy. Moreover, the trees contribute to improving air quality and and the development of microclimates. Unfortunately, food forests also face various challenges. “Food forests are threatened by the policies of governments that favour large-scale and commercial farming, resulting in displacements and land grabs with considerable socio- economic effects,” Kimbowa says. At the same time, rising population growth means that more farmers require extension services and education to help them adopt new technologies.

Chris Macoloo, Africa’s regional director for  World  Neighbors  (WN), an international NGO that educates communities about solutions to challenges such as hunger and poverty, says many smallholder farmers may also view food forest practices as competition for other profitable land uses such as cropping and livestock rearing. “Trees are seen as competing with crops for available and limited essential resources such as labour, water and nutrients. The farmers we work with also initially lack the skills and technical expertise needed for establishing and managing agroforestry systems.”

But he agrees that food forests enhance food security and biodiversity protection. “They create a suitable habitat for wildlife and insects, including pollinators,” he says. “They also enrich the soil with organic matter and support the control of pests and diseases, enhancing and promoting agro-ecology.” Partner farmers work on their own farms, and are therefore more motivated to plant and manage the trees than those who cultivate communal areas. Moreover, he says, research has shown that vegetables, fruit trees and shrubs are more productive when cultivated in a near-natural habitat model such as that provided by the food forests.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) runs a project, the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), which offers financial support and technical assistance to strengthen forest and farm producer organisations, says Philip Kisoyan, a programme coordinator. He describes food forests as “multi-storey gardens” that include root crops, cover crops, vegetables and fruits. “Our goal is to enable farmers to adequately benefit from tree products such as fuel wood, timber, fodder for livestock and fruits.”

The choice of tree species to plant depends on climatic and ecological factors as well as the farmer’s needs. “Some farmers opt for multipurpose trees for fruits, fodder, timber and fuel wood, while others go for early maturing species,” says Kisoyan. The FFF works with smallholder famers in Africa, Latin America and Asia. In Africa, the programme operaties in Kenya, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia Ghana and Madagascar. It is also operating in Bolivia, Latin America and Vietnam in Asia, according to Kisoyan. “Smallholder farmers are a critical part of society, but without support they can’t fully fulfil their potential,” he told Africa in Fact.

They represent a huge number of our farmers. If organised and empowered with skills and capital, they could form a significant segment of the private sector.” Supporting farmers to organise into groups and co-operatives, he adds, also empowers them to collectively seek markets, inputs and add value to their products. The food forest concept is crucial for sustainable agriculture and climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration, he argues. “There are more trees on farms than in designated forests in Kenya. Around 40% of timber sold in Kenya is from farms.”

Like other food security specialists, Kisoyan points to the many benefits offered by food forests.  In  his  view,  the key factor is that they improve biodiversity, which contributes to high crop productivity by offering a habitat for pollinators – bees and birds. Like the WN’s Chris Macoloo, though, he says that the concept and practice of food forests faces challenges. Incentives to cultivate a food forest can be adversely affected by government policy, or a lack of knowledge, or the availability of appropriate technology. Kenya’s position on trees is a case in point, he says.

“When you plant a tree it’s your personal decision, but should you require to cut and transport it, you’re compelled to obtain authorisation from authorities.” All the same, food forests are gaining popularity in Africa, says Ru Hartwell, director of Community Carbon Link, which runs a forestry project connecting Wales and Kenya. The organisation is currently working with a community in Bore, along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, to promote farm forestry. In Hartwell’s view, food forests should also be seen as contributing part of a solution to a larger problem – climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has asserted that humanity will lose the battle against global warming if the tropics are not reforested, he says. “Reducing emissions in the developed world without stopping tropical deforestation won’t fix the broken climate.” The   poorest   people in the world – who  include  sub-Saharan Africa’s large number of women farmers – now hold the key to fighting climate change, says Hartwell. They are increasingly getting involved in reforesting, and growing trees for food, fodder, fuel and even medicinal purposes, he says. “No- one really appreciates it yet, but poor, marginalised women now hold the fate of the entire planet in their hands.”

Meanwhile, Stepha McMullin, a scientist at the Nairobi-based International Council for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), also called the World Agroforestry Centre, says her organisation promotes the cultivation  of various species, including indigenous and under-utilised African food trees and crops, such as baobab, moringa and sorindeia. “These are crops with under- exploited potential for food and nutrition security and they have been ignored by researchers,” she says. “They can provide fruits, leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and oils into the local food system.”

However, fruit consumption remains low in sub-Saharan Africa, largely because seasonality poses a challenge. Moreover, the short windows of harvests, and gluts of certain species at particular times, lower market prices, McMullin says. “Fortunately, seasonality also provides opportunities, not just for income generation but, importantly, for food security and nutrition.” To take account of these issues, ICRAF has developed a “portfolio”  approach  to address the seasonal availability of foods in local food systems, based on studies of the mixes of trees and crops best suited to particular areas. Some 17 location-specific portfolios have been developed across East Africa in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia  and  Somaliland,  says McMullin.

Working with national partners and local farming communities, the centre promotes relevant portfolios to local farmers, training them on the benefits of diversification, tree planting and management, and the importance of using quality seed and seedlings. McMullin believes farmers can be incentivised to adopt food forests if they are involved in the research process. Researchers need to provide them with information on the diversity of food tree species that can be cultivated in their localities, and the opportunities for income that they offer. Crops derived from trees have an additional benefit, she argues.

“The extensive roots of trees make them more drought tolerant than annual crops, so they can provide food in dry periods when other food sources are not available.” Meanwhile, Nicholas Syano, co- founder and chief executive officer of the Drylands Natural Resource Centre (DNRC), which promotes agro-ecology among farmers in eastern Kenya, agrees that food forests can play a role in climate resilience.

“This isn’t really a new concept, but rather part of indigenous knowledge which the  continent  had  lost,”  he  says. Traditionally, homes would have forest gardens with food crops such as mangoes, guavas, avocadoes and cashew nuts, root crops such as sweet potatoes, as well as beans as a cover crop, vegetables, medicinal herbs, shrubs, climbers, and fruit trees, among others. BIOGI, it seems, is on the right path, back to the future.


Justus Wanzala is a Kenyan journalist who writes on the environment, climate change, agriculture and practical technologies as well as sustainable development and social issues. Currently, he works for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and as a freelancer/contributor for various publications across the globe.


Working from the ground up

Case study: Talensi, Ghana

A low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique has helped smallholders in northern Ghana resist the ravages of climate change

Farmers select pineapple plants to be cultivated on a farm in Ekumfi, Ghana, 2018 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

Although climate change has not received as much discussion as it should have in Ghana, it has taken its toll on the Talensi district in the upper east region of the country. Fortunately for the farmers in the area, a Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) project, sponsored by World Vision Ghana, has helped to alleviate its effects on the people. The project, which has been well received and is showing signs of success thus far, could be replicated across the African continent to increase food and timber production as well as resilience to climate extremes.

The Talensi district forms part of the 15  municipalities and districts in  the upper east region and is one of 260 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). About 90% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Production of the main staple food crops, namely cereals and legumes, is done by smallholder farmers using traditional methods, which have made little room for modern scientific advancement. The main crops produced are millet, sorghum, groundnut and beans. These are dependent on annual rain, which has become erratic over the years, leading to poor harvests.

Inusah Baba, a senior research scientist at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says the Ghanaian authorities have woken up to the fact that climate change is a phenomenon that is not remote to the country. Changing weather conditions have also led to flooding, which has become an annual ritual in all major farming communities on the banks of the White Volta [the headstream of the Volta River, Ghana’s main waterway], Inusah said. As a result, many people’s crops have been washed away by flood waters.

In addition, the erratic rains have reduced yields for most crops grown in northern Ghana. Moreover, in recent years intermittent droughts – which are understood to consist of three or more weeks with no significant rains – have also combined with unusually high temperatures in March through to April, affecting the period between August and September, when most crops are grown under rain- fed conditions. Farmers in the Talensi district, however, say that World Vision’s FMNR has helped to maintain their livelihoods.

Standing in his fields, wearing his fugu – a cotton outfit worn by men – John Anaba, a farmer at Namoalug in the Talensi district, said he was proud of what he had been able to achieve using only hoes and cutlasses. However, changes in the weather had given him good and bad times, he said. He did not understand what climate change was, but the weather had changed in recent years, negatively affecting his crops and those of others in the district. It was “better now”, he added.

“The Talensi FMNR, is a rapid, low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique to combat poverty and hunger that works with communities and partners to restore degraded lands in the district so as to improve on soil health for healthy agricultural production,” World Vision Ghana’s food security and resilience technical programmes manager, Maxwell Amedi, told Africa in Fact. In practice, FMNR involves the systematic regrowth and management of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, which helps to sprout root systems or seeds.

The regrown trees and shrubs, which help restore soil structure and fertility, inhibit erosion and soil moisture evaporation, rehabilitate the water table and increase biodiversity. Some tree species also provide the soil with nutrients. The FMNR approach encourages the use of living tree stumps, which can resprout or produce seeds. When trees are cut down, their root systems often remain alive underground. “In many formerly forested areas this underground forest [may be] vast, with millions of trees waiting to be regenerated. FMNR systematically regenerates this underground forest,” he said.

The project is a tree management practice, involving selection, pruning, protection and maintenance, and also empowers communities, regreening both community mindsets and peoples’ relationship with nature and the landscape. Preparation for the FMNR project started in October 2006, with the support of World Vision Australia (WVA). “WVA’s aim was to improve the socio- economic living conditions of the people in the Talensi area,” Amendi says. “The WVA contributed to this goal through a programme focus approach that tackled deep-rooted issues of poverty, economic empowerment and capacity building in health and nutrition, education, water sanitation and hygiene, environmental sustainability and livelihood empowerment.”

Farmers tapping rubber trees to collect latex at Agona, Ghana, 2019 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

The FMNR did not just take off, Amendi says. “A baseline study was conducted before the implementation of each of the three phases. With each phase, we worked with the communities to reverse land degradation and hunger resulting from poor soils in the district.” In addition to the drought, floods, and erratic rainfall patterns mentioned, the Talensi district is vulnerable to infertile and degraded soils, food insecurity, land scarcity, with occasional disease outbreaks of cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM). To further test the viability of the project before it was fully implemented, a pilot was started in 2009, which aimed to incorporate sound environmental management into the farming practices in the project area.

This led to the first phase, which started in 2009 and ended in 2011, involving nine communities using the FMNR concept. So far, more than 3,000 people have benefited, and the project has helped restore over 400 hectares of degraded lands. “After successfully implementing the first phase, the second phase began in 2012 and ended in 2017,” Amendi says, adding that, “The second phase was implemented in 33 communities with funding support from Computer Share Australia through WVA. It benefited more than 8,000 people and restored over 700 hectares of degraded lands in the district.”

The third phase of the project started in July 2017 and ended  in  June this year, with funding support from the Australian government through WVA. It aimed to benefit 8,000 people and restore another 500 hectares of degraded land. WVA has similar FMNR projects in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burundi, and Senegal, the organisation’s media manager, Mike Bruce, told Africa in Fact. The outcomes differ slightly from community to community, depending on circumstances.

“I have seen the difference that the project has brought to my people,” farmer John Anaba says. “Before, it was like the soil had quarrelled with us. Our crops refused to show any sign of life. We were just the forgotten people in the country, and food to feed our families became a problem.” So far, the project has seen an improvement in household food security and the resilience of people in the Talensi district, especially the most vulnerable and their families. This has happened through farmer-managed natural regeneration approaches and improved farming systems.

In addition, there has been better environmental management and stewardship, as well as an improvement in household income and savings among the people. Two project evaluations have taken place, both of which have shown that the approach has resulted in an increase in soil fertility and crop yield, as well as improvements in bulk compost and field mulching with crop residue, which has produced more food, Amendi says. Moreover, bush fires, once an annual occurrence, have been reduced by 80%, protecting the soil and allowing grasses and trees to recover, leading to massive reforestation of farms and communal fields.

The district now produces more fodder and nesting for livestock, which means the animals do not need to wander to feed. More fruit is available for home consumption and for sale, and more firewood is available. In total, the project has restored over 2,000 hectares of degraded land, with more than 10,000 farmers using conservation practices such as zero/minimum tillage, the use of stone bund walls, protecting the soil with layers of the residue from harvest crops, and making and using compost to improve soil fertility.

Other people in the district, among them several women, commented that FMNR has had a huge impact on the Talensi district by improving smallholder farmers’ levels of the production and reducing environmental degradation. Overall, the approach has seen an increase in opportunities for livelihoods and incomes for the people in the area.


Francis Kokutse is a journalist based in Accra, Ghana. A former member of the governing board of the state-owned Ghana News Agency (GNA), he is currently a writer for the Associated Press (AP) and a contributor to Science and Development.Net (SciDev.Net) as well as the University World News.