By Tafi Mhaka
On March 17, Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika fired the country’s military commander, General Vincent Nundwe. This followed the president refusing to ratify changes to the electoral laws intended to facilitate a fresh election in May.
In February, Malawi’s Constitutional Court nullified last year’s disputed presidential election and ordered a rerun to be held in 150 days, leading to heightened tensions.
But while Malawi is engulfed by political turmoil, it is business as usual at the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
On March 3, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, in his capacity as the chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, met with the Executive Secretary of SADC, Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax, for a briefing on the political situation in southern Africa.
Instead of it focusing on pressing problems causing political instability, the meeting degenerated into a weird praise fest and shameful chest-pumping affair.
Tax went the whole nine yards to praise Mnangagwa’s leadership of Zimbabwe; and give a misleading analysis of political developments in Southern Africa, by disingenuously claiming the elections held in Botswana, Malawi, Mauritius and Mozambique demonstrate SADC’s efforts to “consolidate democracy”.
While she did state that some polls were “contested, and dealt with in line with the legal mechanisms of respective countries”, she avoided mentioning the regressive role SADC has played in misrepresenting highly disputed elections as broadly free and fair and generally nurturing repression.
Indeed, she didn’t mention that Malawi’s current political crisis has again exposed SADC’s repeatedly weak and largely inadequate response to biased, mismanaged and overwhelmingly fraudulent elections.
Last year, the SADC Electoral Observation Mission to Malawi’s 2019 Tripartite Elections claimed that the Malawi Electoral Commission “conducted itself professionally through its improved administrative procedures, and in line with the electoral law and Constitution of the Republic of Malawi.”
But Malawi’s Constitutional Court, in February, said otherwise, ruling, “widespread, systematic and grave” irregularities had actually violated citizens’ constitutional rights.
Not to be outdone, SADC changed tack and instead commended “the Constitutional Court for upholding the Malawian Constitution, and the electoral law in the conduct of the petition”. As usual, SADC had been caught wanting, but this time around, angry and dejected Malawians had to bear the brunt of its complicit stamp of approval.
Blighted by corruption and overshadowed by perennial crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe, Malawi doesn’t occupy a prominent role in SADC matters, and its political affairs hardly draw intensive regional or global attention. But despite its seemingly subdued position, Malawi is making credible democratic strides – all without SADC’s help.
Over and above a landmark Constitutional Court ruling nullifying last year’s hotly disputed presidential election, the army has previously stepped in to protect protestors amid violent clashes with police.
Last August, Nundwe proudly declared that his priority was to “ensure that Malawi is sovereign as well as peaceful”.
This is wholly unlike Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where security forces stand accused of perpetrating severe human rights buses and killing peaceful protestors.
SADC, meanwhile, is incredibly proficient at turning a blind eye to political injustices perpetrated beyond elections. Indeed, as Mutharika clamps down on dissent, why is SADC actually not helping to promote a generally free and fair presidential election in Malawi?
Ironically, only it is best placed to offer solid interventions to democratic shortfalls. On reading Preliminary SADC Observer Mission reports from the Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique elections, it is clear that SADC fully understands the problems propagated by oppressive policies and illiberal tendencies, but lacks both the leadership and progressive will to solve them.
The electoral reports focus on voter registration, policing, electoral bodies and biased media coverage. In Malawi, for example, SADC last year noted that “allegations of selective election-related criminal law enforcement” marred the 2019 election.
Yet, now, as three democracy campaigners face prosecution for trying to get the president to respect and fulfil a Constitutional Court ruling, why is SADC so unnervingly quiet? And where, amid this repressive episode, is SADC’s unapologetically carefree and self-promoting duo: Mnangagwa and Tax?
Sure, observing elections is crucial to any polling process, but monitoring regular compliance with SADC protocols and imposing punitive measures on defaulting member states are certainly more imperative.
No doubt SADC has to ensure that elections in southern Africa are not constantly tarnished by the same common problems. In May 2019, SADC noted that Malawi Broadcasting Corporation did not “provide neutral and equal news coverage for all political parties and candidates, as required by the law”.
And although member states are obliged to promote a “balanced dissemination of information”, many government-owned media organisations clearly do not. Yet, why is SADC failing to enforce strict adherence to the 2012 SADC Guidelines on Media Coverage of Elections?
And why have member states not been sanctioned for hardly fulfilling stipulated responsibilities towards SADC’s wholesale political objectives? Indeed, why is it always intent on preserving the political status quo?
Malawi is poised to hold a presidential election which will hopefully express the true, unblemished will of the people. While this would certainly be a novel development for the small southern African nation, it is a shame that SADC remains devoted to abandoning the democratic principles and very people it purportedly represents.
Tafi Mhaka is a Johannesburg-based writer and commentator. His debut novel,
Mutserendende: The African in Us, will be published in 2020.