After a great moment of hope in February when the Constitutional Court ordered a re-run of a Presidential election that it found to be deeply flawed, Malawi has found itself in a hard place politically. Parliament enacted laws to enable the country to re-run the election on a constitutional basis, in line with the findings of the court. The President, however, despite his obvious legitimacy problem, has declined to give Presidential assent to the legislation. Parliament also held a public hearing to question members of the Malawi Electoral Commission in light of the lack of competence that had come to light in the court case. The result was clear confirmation of incompetence and a vindication of the lack of confidence in the Electoral Commission that has been strongly expressed by large sections of the Malawi public.
With large sections of the population investing their hopes in a re-run of the election, Malawi finds itself with a President who is using every available device to frustrate the process. The election, for now, remains in the hands of a completely discredited Electoral Commission. However, they have refused to stand down and the President has refused to assent to Parliament’s recommendation that they be dismissed. Hence the country finds itself in a hard place politically.
And there is also a rock. Coronavirus is on the horizon. Though Malawi is one of the few countries yet to have a confirmed case, already the global spread of the virus is affecting the country. The negative economic impact is already apparent. Since last week all schools and universities are closed. Public health measures, such as widespread provision of hand-washing facilities and the banning of large gatherings, have already taken effect. In many ways it is commendable that Malawi is taking preventative measures prior to the onset of the epidemic so that her people are better protected if the virus does arrive. With cases slowly increasing in surrounding countries it is possible that firmer measures will soon be needed.
Coronavirus, of course, means a crisis for any country where it begins to spread. But for Malawi it is a double crisis since the epidemic has appeared on the horizon just as the political drama is building up to its denouement. The temptation for an unpopular government is to cynically play one crisis against the other – to use the special measures required to combat the virus to pursue its own self-interested political objectives. The test for the government is whether it can find a higher moral purpose to guide its actions at such a critical moment. The test for the people is whether they can combine their passion for justice in national political life with the respect for constitutional order for which Malawi has long been renowned – and at the same time take the steps needed to protect the country from the coronavirus.
A generation ago, amidst an earlier political crisis in Malawi, together with my late colleague Matembo Nzunda, I published a collection of essays entitled Church, Law and Political Transition in Malawi 1992-94. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is just about to be reprinted. In the 1990s Malawi had to navigate political change while handling the onset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As the country finds itself once again between a rock and a hard place, I hope the book might bring light from the past to guide the future.