When he topped the polls in Malawi’s Presidential election in June, 65-year-old Lazarus Chakwera broke through a number of African barriers. It is infrequent enough to see a peaceful transition to power from an opposition leader, but what is surely a first in post-colonial African politics is that Chakwera gained the Presidency after a Constitutional Court (reaffirmed on appeal by the Supreme Court) overturned the results of a controversial vote in May that had been ‘won’ by the incumbent Peter Mutharika.
This election was widely regarded to be fraudulent and it was the second time the corrupt Mutharika regime had been installed by a lapdog electoral commission that ignored the constitutional provision that the President required at least 50 per cent of the popular vote. This time Malawians had had enough and launched a campaign of relentless pressure on the streets and in the media to ensure the judiciary and security forces guaranteed their rights.
Chakwera and his Malawian Congress Party made common cause with Malawian economist Saulos Chilima (now Vice-President), running for election together as the Tonse Alliance to ensure the opposition vote was not split as in 2019. Tonse means ‘everyone together’ and their support, amounting to nearly 60 per cent of the vote, came from all sections of the country.
As a theologian and former head of the Malawian Assemblies of God, Chakwera employed the powerful cadence of a preacher in his remarkable acceptance speech, in which he called for an end to tribal nepotism and corruption. He promised a new era of openness with trimmed presidential powers, greater transparency and replacing the kleptocracy that has plagued Malawi since the 30-year dictatorship of the brutal Hastings Banda, propped up by apartheid South Africa.
Welcome words to Malawian ears. Yet such words have been uttered before, and the hurdles Chakwera faces are huge. Corruption has been an institutional part of the economy and political life since ‘President-for Life’ Hastings Banda turned it into state policy. It will take an enormous commitment to overturn it, and citizens don’t yet have a model for how a society without extensive abuse of power by those in government should function.
Dating back to the Banda dictatorship, which ended in 1994, Malawian society has been dominated by people from the Chewa ethnic group from the centre and south of the country. This makes the Tonse appeal of ‘all Malawians together’ even more remarkable. That said, while the Chakwera team may bring a commitment to fairness in government, they may not have the radical vision for social justice necessary to bring forth transformation in one of Africa’s poorest countries.
Chakwera, with Christian fundamentalist roots, is also unlikely to encourage an enlightened approach to LGBT and gender issues. Hope lies with the fact that his victory was propelled from below and that Malawians will continue to ensure that their leaders will be held to account. This small landlocked southern African country could provide inspiration beyond its borders to a continent badly served by its political class.