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What to celebrate during Malawi’s 60th birthday

Lessons in resistance and resilience.

- July 5, 2024
Arch monument celebrating Malawi's independence in 1964.
Arch celebrating Malawi’s 1964 independence (cc) Wandumi, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tomorrow – July 6 – marks 60 years of Malawi’s independence from Britain. What can the world learn from its six decades of self-rule?  Certainly, there’s a mix of setbacks and accomplishments over that long period. But as I shared in an episode of our podcast, Malawi’s recent experiences offer important lessons for people resisting democratic backsliding – the gradual decline or weakening of democratic institutions, and shift towards authoritarianism.

Just four years ago The Economist named Malawi “Country of the Year” for its achievements in protecting democracy as most other countries around the world experienced democratic backsliding. This recognition was especially significant given Malawi’s challenging circumstances, especially its long-struggling economy. By World Bank estimates, 72% of Malawians are living in poverty in 2024.

Malawi’s dire economic situation is part of the reason why we see democratic resilience there. Malawians cannot simply wait until the next election (held every five years) to voice their concerns. Economic difficulties spur protests, as citizens demand better governance and accountability from their leaders, something political scientist Zachariah Mampilly calls “protest democracy.” In a recent essay in the Journal of Democracy, I argue that popular mobilizations against overzealous presidents (supported by independent high courts) have been important in resisting democratic backsliding in Malawi.

Malawi’s democratic journey 

The first president Hastings Kamuzu Banda – and his brand of personalist authoritarianism – ruled Malawi’s first 30 years of independence. Shortly after assuming power, he outlawed political parties other than his own, and named himself president-for-life in 1971. Religious leaders and students began challenging the abuses of Banda’s dictatorship in the early 1990s and a referendum to return to multiparty competition passed overwhelmingly in 1993. Banda lost the 1994 presidential election. 

(For those who may celebrate Banda today, recalling his achievements but not his atrocities, I recommend Jack Mapanje’s prison memoir And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, which serves as just one illustration of the depths of Banda’s repressive rule.)

Malawi experienced a “new dawn” with a return to multiparty competition in 1994. Since then, Malawi has seen the defeat of three incumbent presidents – Hastings Kamuzu Banda in 1994, Joyce Banda (no relation) in 2014, and Peter Mutharika in 2020. These transitions demonstrate Malawi’s ability to uphold democratic norms despite inherent challenges.

But three of Malawi’s five presidents since 1994 – Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika, and Peter Mutharika – have sought to strengthen their positions by undermining democratic checks and balances. Political scientist Nancy Bermeo named this “executive aggrandizement,” a practice that involves seeking institutional changes designed to hamper the opposition’s ability to effectively challenge the sitting president.

Further moves to boost presidential power

Bakili Muluzi’s tenure saw several efforts to increase presidential power, such as proposing the appointment of members of parliament by the president and attempting to remove High Court judges. His most controversial move was an attempt to abolish presidential term limits in 2002, which ultimately failed but left the political landscape deeply divided.

Bingu wa Mutharika, who succeeded Muluzi, also sought to consolidate power, particularly during his second term. His government restricted civil liberties, attacked critics, and attempted to limit the judiciary’s powers. Mutharika’s administration faced massive protests in 2011, driven by economic woes and public discontent. The government responded with brutal repression, leaving at least 20 Malawians dead. 

Peter Mutharika, Bingu’s younger brother, continued this trend, though to a lesser extent. Malawi’s civil society and the courts resisted his attempts to weaken the judiciary and curtail freedoms in the name of public health when the covid-19 pandemic emerged. His controversial 2019 reelection, marred by allegations of vote-rigging, led to mass protests and a landmark court decision that annulled the election and mandated a rerun, which he lost.

A strong judiciary and civil society bolster Malawi’s democratic resilience 

When Malawian presidents sought to increase their power, the courts and civil society mobilized to counteract these moves. Malawi’s 1994 Constitution enshrines civil rights and liberties and protections for judicial independence.  Civil society-led (and economic strife-induced) protests and judicial independence have been the primary defenses against democratic backsliding. 

Political scientists Lise Rakner and Peter VonDoepp have documented the strength of Malawi’s civil society – human rights groups, religious organizations and leaders, university students, and others outside the government – against presidential overreach. And massive demonstrations highlight the active role Malawians take in holding their government accountable. In 2011, soaring food prices and shortages of essential goods led to widespread protests in major cities. Following the 2019 presidential election, irregularities prompted civil society organizations and opposition parties to challenge the results. Malawians took to the streets again in 2020, protesting President Peter Mutharika’s proposed pandemic lockdown. 

VonDoepp’s earlier research pointed to the important role that Malawi’s judiciary played in acting as a bulwark in ruling against unconstitutional actions and upholding democratic principles. When Muluzi banned popular protests related to his seeking a third term in office, a High Court judge ruled the ban unconstitutional. More recently, the Constitutional Court annulled the 2019 election and ordered a fresh presidential election – underscoring the judiciary’s role in preserving democratic integrity.

What Malawi teaches us

While presidents have often sought to consolidate their power, Malawi’s civil society and judiciary show it’s possible to preserve democratic principles. Malawi’s journey offers valuable lessons for other countries facing similar challenges. As my own country recently commemorated its independence day, with more threats to democracy on the horizon, I think about what Malawi has taught me about resistance and resilience.