Lazarus Chakwera- The New Face of Democratic Struggle in Africa

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Lazarus Chakwera- The New Face of Democratic Struggle in Africa
Nwolu Obiajulu

Leadership in Africa has been unique with its abundance of long serving leaders most of whom could be adjudged to have lost passion for delivering dividends of democracy to citizens.

Dr Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera by virtue of his swearing in as the sixth president of Malawi set an unprecedented record in the history of the continent as the first ever President to unseat a sitting president after court annulled election. The events that played out in Malawi were reminiscent of that of Kenya which was the first ever presidential election annulled by election tribunal. While Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya went on to defeat opposition candidate Raila Odinga in the boycotted election in 2017, Chakwera claimed 58.57% of votes cast to unseat incumbent Arthur Peter Mutharika.

An insight into the events that led to the record setting events in Malawi would suffice at this point.

Chakwera’s predecessor, Arthur Peter Mutharika was elected as the fifth President of Malawi in 2014. After his swearing on 31 May 2014, he was quick to hit the ground running by setting up his cabinet. He earned admiration by naming one of his opponents in the election Atupele Muluzi, as the Minister of Natural resources while he designated the portfolio and control of the defense ministry to himself as the president and commander in chief of the armed forces.

Mutharika is the younger brother of former Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, who was the country’s third president. Prior to his election for a five years tenure which is only renewable once consecutively, he was embroiled in a United States (US) citizenship saga. Malawians expressed fears that his loyalty would be divided as he held a US Greencard.

People feared that as a president who had US Greencard, he would be obliged to spend three months in the US yearly to service his permanent residence status. Prior to the election, Mutharika renounced his US permanent residence status to pledge his full loyalty to Malawi.

His show of commitment won him support from electorates. Allegations of corruption and shortages of food and power cut was met by discontent among the people in his first term. Multitude of people took to the streets in 2018 to protest corruption scandals rocking the administration.

Bribery scandal and contract scam accusations did not help Mutharika’s reputation in the buildup to the 2019 general election. Though Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) cleared Muthatika on the Malawi Police Service food rations contract allegations, it did little to salvage his bruised image.

It was at that point that Chakwera, a member of the pioneer political party in Malawi- Malawi Congress Party (MCP) emerged as a strong opposition figure for the 2019 presidential election. Chakwera became a popular voter’s choice in the build up to the election.

The May 21, 2019 election was popularly dubbed the “the Tippex Election”. Election observers and opposition party representatives alleged massive irregularities in the election. Vote rigging, threatening of opposition political party monitors and tampering of election result sheets were reported to have characterised the election. Electoral officials were arrested in different regions of the country for manipulating and switching the votes of Chakwere’s result in favour of Muthatika’s DPP. Tippex, a popular brand of correction fluid was reported to have been largely used to mutilate result sheets in the controversial and disputed election.

Muthatika was declared winner and sworn in despite public outcry over the conduct of the election while Chakwere and his party sort redress at the court. Widespread protests erupted across Malawi to protest the suppression of the choice of the electorates. The protests went on until the recent court judgement on the petition.

On 3 February 2020, Constitutional Court judges traveled in a military vehicle under heavy police escort to the court to pronounce judgement on the disputed election. The 500-page court decision of the judges cancelled the result of the election and ordered a fresh election, thereby making Malawi the second county in Africa to annul a presidential election.

There was widespread jubilation across the length and breadth of Malawi in reaction to the landmark judgement.

The June 28 swearing of Chakwere after garnering majority of votes cast to overturn the results of the initial elections set an example for the African continent. The Southeastern country has set a new standard for democracy in Africa. There are lessons to be taken from all political actors involved in the process.

Former president Muthatika displayed his statesmanship by allowing the judiciary and electoral umpire reasonable liberty needed to discharge their duties fairly. His actions were more laudable compared to that of Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya. In 2017 after the presidential election in Kenya was annulled, high ranking electoral officials resigned their positions citing nonexistence of conducive environment to coordinate the election as reason for their resignation. Notably, before the rerun, recently resigned Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Commissioner who fled to the US said in a statement that the second Kenyan Presidential election would not be fair. Equally on the same day, IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati expressed skepticism about a fair election as well, claiming the IEBC commissioners were partisan-minded.

The controversies surrounding the reelection led to Odinga, the opposition candidate and beneficiary of the annulment, to quit the election on 10 October due to lack of reform of the IEBC.

Chakwere’s doggedness, resilience and assertiveness deserves high praises. He stood his ground and fought his battle with the right apparatus of the law. He did not advocate violence which would have resulted to loss of lives and property.

The Judiciary in Malawi has set a precedence which should serve as a point of reference to others in the continent. In the face of tension and pressure from interested parties in the election petition, the judges stood on the side of the people and delivered their judgement without fear or favour.

The whole continent can borrow a leaf from the example of Malawi. The Judiciary in Nigeria which has come into question in recent times due to some of its pronouncement could take a clue from their Black African counterparts. Presidential election petition tribunal judgement in Nigeria sometimes leave much to be desired. Most recently, the opposition candidate in the 2019 general election in Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar saw his petition against the election that ushered in the second term of President Buhari to power dismissed. Atiku had sought intervention of the court on the basis of electoral irregularities and cases of result manipulation but his claims were dismissed the supreme court, Nigeria’s apex court.

Nigerian court had as well given contentious verdict in Imo State where a fourth placed candidate was declared eventual winner.

As the world seeks to deepen the gains of democracy, Malawi has proven itself to be on the path of sustainable development which good leadership entrenches. When leaders known that the voice of the masses will count, they adhere by their vows of delivering social amenities to the people.

The commendable development in Malawi should serve as the beginning of a new wave of responsible governance in Africa. Its good citizens have proven their zeal to ensure their votes count, a stance which voters across the continent should adopt. This is the only way that Africa can grow and this is the way Africa should evolve. The greatest democracy across the globe was built by people standing for what they believe is right.

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Thanks for the update