Southern Africa: Constitutional Democracy Triumphs in Malawi

editorial

THE ascendance of Mrs Joyce Banda to the high office of President of Malawi in line with the provisions of the central African nation's constitution, following the death of Dr Bingu wa Mutharika, has renewed hope for a continent steadily breaking with past practices that have long cast it in poor light.

The bane of politics on the African continent has been the impunity with which constitutions have been altered to suit individual tastes or, as the common notion goes, to allow those in power to build empires for their families and friends, no matter how they polarise their countries.

Laws have been repealed - without any sense of shame - to justify the continued stay in power of some leaders, as was almost the case even here in Zambia where our late president Frederick Chiluba was only pushed off the "third term" track by a sustained public outcry.

We recall how new governments in some countries, during the years leading to the "wind of change" on the continent, usually came by way of force, but we sadly seem to have many political players still latched to the idea of eternal leadership and are seeking to achieve their dreams by manipulating constitutions.

They have fought political battles on flimsy grounds and have employed less convincing reasons to stifle their competitors, but these tactics expectedly whip the schemers in their faces in the manner it has happened in our neighbouring country.

We are restating the fact that political mischief has only succeeded in promoting divisions and facilitating poverty among citizens.

There was quibbling in Malawi as some ruling party loyalists jostled to raise petty or irrelevant objections to Mrs Banda's eligibility as Dr Mutharika's successor.

Some conservative party members gave the sole excuse of the new president being a woman while others harped on the political row between the late leader and Mrs Banda as the reason she could not ascend to the presidency.

It is a matter of concern that even enlightened people in the form of Information Minister, Patricia Kaliati chose to be confederates in a bad game.

Following Dr Mutharika's demise, Mrs Kalyati pressed ahead with the argument that Mrs Banda, by not being a part of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, could not lead Malawi.

Yet the constitution of Malawi clearly states that in case the president becomes incapacitated or dies, as is the case now, the vice-president will take over.

Mrs Kaliati and others wielding partisan interests decidedly ignored the position of the national constitution on the matter and instead gave currency to the less sophisticated means - and folly, we dare add - with which many political players have increasingly blurred the line between ruling party and national business.

It is such warped views that have given Africa an unflattering poor record of governance.

However, we are relieved that Mrs Banda has occupied the office of President of Malawi in accordance with the constitution.

In other words, constitutional democracy has triumphed, and this must be a major lesson for self-serving individuals living on the wrong side of reality, whose only preoccupation is to preserve their ill-gotten positions and wealth.

It is a lesson that those besotted with unorthodox practices and would want to manipulate constitutions authored at great taxpayer cost have no place in modern-day African politics.

The political upheavals in Malawi remind us about the importance of formulating a solid constitution.

Despite their varying political inclinations, Malawians decided - and it is well documented in their constitution - that the vice-president shall be the president's running mate.

Therefore, the late president was able to oust Mrs Banda from his party, but never the twain could he extend such action to the office of vice-president, which is protected under the wings of the national constitution.

It is thus important for all of us in Africa to become level-headed and embrace all essentials we need to keep our democracies afloat.

Our neighbouring country has earned the unfortunate tag of being among the poorest in the world, largely due to the squabbles that have engulfed decision making at the highest level.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an estimated 75 per cent of the population living on less than a United States dollar a day.

This has been exacerbated by the fact that the country has been teetering on political uncertainty from the time the late leader subtly pointed to the possibility of his brother, Finance Minister Peter Mutharika, taking over the presidency.

Dr Mutharika governed Malawi for eight years, and was accused of mismanaging the economy and being autocratic.

The country descended into economic turmoil, aided by what many observers saw as intolerance by the late leader, who once made a public show of expelling a British diplomat despite Malawi needing economic assistance of cooperating partners.

Britain, the former colonial power, withdrew its direct aid, as it accused the Malawian government of failing to respect human rights and mismanaging the economy.

Shortages of fuel and foreign currency are now an everyday experience.

We are aware that Mrs Banda's critics have questioned her ability to rebuild the country's economy and restore dignity to the hopeful Malawians.

But we are confident that with the path of reconciliation, unity and defence of the constitution she has declared to pursue, the new leader will rise to the occasion and help clean the mess that has been created by endless political wrangles.

We are humbled that, when taking the oath of office, Mrs Banda pledged to "defend and preserve the constitution" and to do right to all manner of people, according to the laws of Malawi.

Earlier at a Press conference, before she took the oath of office, Mrs Banda exhibited her eagerness to show Malawians and the international community the importance of respecting the constitution.

"I don't think there's any way we can discuss who is caretaker and who is not. The constitution is prevailing right now."

With these words, Mrs Banda must have perforated the lust and ill will that had been driving some political players in the late president's inner circle of power.

Mrs Banda, parading the skills and knowledge of a defender of democracy, determinably put to rest any lingering doubts about the strength of a constitution as the supreme law of any country.

She demonstrated that, regardless of personal preferences that could be controlling the views of the ruling elite, the general citizenry have the legitimate right to reside under the protection provided by the constitution.

It is a matter of necessity for our neighbours to unite and support the new leader who has also placed Malawi on the global map as the second female president in Africa, after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Mrs Banda is now the first ever female leader in southern Africa, and has defied the long-held notion that Africa is not ready for female presidents.

We have no doubt that as the people of Malawi mourn Dr Mutharika, they will prioritise the rebuilding of their economy and the respect for human rights under their new leader.

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