Malawi’s multiparty referendum, 20 years on


20 years ago, almost to the day, the then Life President of Malawi, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, announced that Malawians would vote in a referendum to decide the question whether Malawi would remain a one-party state or adopt a multiparty system of government. It was not that Dr Banda had suddenly become a democrat after decades of lording it over Malawians as a dictator. The driver for the announcement was mainly the pressure for change that had built up in the course of the year.

1992 had been a torrid year for Dr Banda and apologists of the one-party state, both local and foreign. Earlier in the year, Roman Catholic bishops had published a pastoral letter titled Living in Our Faith. The letter was openly critical of the governance situation in Malawi, especially the government’s violation of various social and economic, as well as, civil and political rights and freedoms. Predictably, the Bishops were detained and subjected to a lengthy interrogation by the police before being released without charge.

A few days later, Chancellor College students held demonstrations in solidarity with the bishops, during which they had clashed with police resulting in injuries and arrests. From then on, events seemed to snowball quite rapidly into a national outbreak of emergence of pro-democracy pressure groups; wildcat strikes; and clandestine distribution of anti-government leaflets. There were also public demands for democracy and human rights by such groups as the Malawi Law Society. To crown it all, most of Malawi’s donors met in April in Paris and decided to suspend aid to Malawi until it introduced democratic reforms.

So, when Dr Banda announced a referendum it was not out of a sudden attack of democracy on his part, but his reluctant acceptance of the obvious, namely that that the one-party dictatorship game was up.

Why do I bring all this up now?

One reason is that it is important to ensure that important dates in our history do not pass unnoticed. The date of the announcement of the referendum, 18 October, is one such date. It is significant in that the announcement of the referendum was the first formal step towards the re-establishment of the multiparty system of government which we have today. I say ‘re-establishment’ because Malawi had been a multiparty system since the attainment of independence in 1964, until the Malawi Congress Party took advantage of its numerical advantage in Parliament to entrench itself as the only legally sanctioned party in Malawi.

The other reason for drawing attention to the referendum of 1992 is to pay tribute to all those unsung heroes whose actions made it inevitable for Dr Banda to announce the referendum. Those who were not around at the time, either because they were unborn or because they were ensconced in the safety of foreign lands, may not fully appreciate the price that was paid by those who dared to rise against the one-party state. Reminding the nation of the referendum serves to ensure that the contributions of those who took the risks associated with open opposition to the one-party state do not disappear into the dustbin of history. The contributions must be acknowledged in this public way and not be relegated to boring fireside stories told by ageing revolutionaries to their children and grandchildren.

But perhaps the most important reason for highlighting the referendum of 1992 is to call for reflection of not only how far we have travelled down Democracy Boulevard, but also how much further we have to journey before we can honestly say that Malawi is a truly liberal democratic state.

We owe it to the bishops, the Chanco students, the pressure group members, the striking workers and all those selfless Malawians who were willing to put their lives and livelihoods on the line because they believed that a better Malawi was possible.

We have definitely come a long way since old man Banda made the announcement. We have not only a multiplicity of parties, but also a legal and policy environment in which parties may operate with relative ease. So can we then declare the journey to be over? Not by a long shot.

Remember that in the referendum, people voted not only for “multiparty”, but multiparty “democracy”. While the “multiparty” bit was easy, the “democracy” half of the equation seems to be as elusive as the Holy Grail.

Through successive regimes since 1994, ruling elites appear to be unwilling and unable to facilitate genuine participation of people in governance. On the contrary, egged on by sycophantic rent-seekers, ruling elites have tended towards centralization of power, illegal privatisation of the state, pillage and waste of public resources, rolling back of constitutional requirements for accountability and transparency, and similar behaviour that contradict liberal democracy.

When one considers the lack of progress made on this democracy road trip, one could be excused from sighing and asking “was it worth the risks we took”? My answer is “yes” because the alternative was worse. Ask those who lived under a one-party dictatorship, with a Life President and virtually no guarantees of human rights.

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