By Elizabeth J. Walt & John Dabney
The power to surrender power
When President Joyce Banda spoke at Nelson Mandela’s funeral this past December, she reflected on what she believed to be the most important thing that she had learned from Madiba, “leadership is about falling in love with the people and the people falling in love with you. It is about serving the people with selflessness, with sacrifice and with the need to put the common good ahead of personal interests.” As she spoke she undoubtedly had no idea the immense demand for self-sacrificial leadership that awaited her in Malawi’s upcoming May 2014 elections.
Following the close of the polls on May 20, there was an overwhelming flood of reports concerning irregularities and what appeared to be rigging. This led to widespread public outcry in agreement that the independent Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) stop their counting of tally sheets due to abnormalities in the system and revert to the manual recount. The MEC’s own admission of irregularities included but were not limited to arrest of presiding officers who were caught in the act of rigging, people voting up to three times, serious anomalies where some candidates won more votes than the number of registered voters, discarded and tampered ballots, communication devices of some monitors being blocked, failure to pay staff and failure to deliver voting materials.
Despite these and many other causes for concern, the MEC continued to report the results from the initial count. President Banda and two of the other main contenders Atupele Muluzi of United Democratic Front (UDF) and Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) all made multiple appeals to the MEC and filed various injunctions with the courts to move to a manual recount since the tally sheets had been tampered with, but MEC would not budge.
Close to 300 complaints were filed with the MEC. Not surprisingly, the only major party not in favor a manual recount was Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the main party suspected of rigging these 2014 elections.
In the midst of the public protest, President Banda looked to see what she could do under the circumstances to help bring peace and order to these chaotic, mismanaged, and allegedly rigged elections.
After consultation, President Banda used her power under Section 88 (2) of the Malawi Constitution to call for an annulment of last week’s elections and that there be a revote in 90 days, “I am nullifying the elections, using the powers invested in me by the Malawi constitution.”
The people of Malawi as well as the international community easily caught this part of her press release and quickly flooded the wires with headlines and taglines labelling her as a typical African leader incapable of relinquishing power. Twitter and Facebook were dominated with comments about her being autocratic and dictatorial. Other leaders on the continent voiced their opinion that she should accept defeat and concede the election. Unfortunately, everyone missed the punch line of her statement; “I want to give Malawians an opportunity to choose a candidate of their choice in a free and fair manner. When elections are to be held again, I will be stepping aside.”
Possibly her commitment not to run in the redo-election was overlooked because it was simply unfathomable. Her commitment to the people of Malawi and their right to choose their own leader in a free and fair election out-weighed all else. In response to her statement, The MEC agreed to listen to the people’s desire for a manual recount in order to avoid the expense and overwhelming task of holding the elections again.
Many have discredited her statement saying that she did not have the constitutional power to annul the elections. Nonetheless, it was a powerful and self-sacrificing move regardless of whether it would have held up in the Malawi courts. It was shocking to see how the media was consumed with her decision to annul the elections but failed entirely to highlight the fact that she would be stepping out of the race.
The saga of Malawi’s 2014 presidential elections continued to unravel as injunction upon counter injunction piled up in the courts. In the late night hours of May 30, the MEC ramrodded an announcement through a loophole in the legal system and crowned DPP’s Peter Mutharika as the winner despite the public’s outcry for a manual recount or a revote. This was done notwithstanding the fact that seven of the ten MEC commissioners said that a manual recount was necessary due to anomalies. The MEC Chair, who had himself said a recount was necessary a few days prior, forced the announcement at 11pm Friday and Mutharika was inaugurated by 9am Saturday morning. These results were tabulated from the tampered with tally sheets that had been all but thrown out by the MEC only days before.
The morning following the announcement, President Banda conceded defeat in a public announcement and congratulated Prof. Mutharika on his victory. She urged all Malawians to throw their weight behind the newly elected President for the sake of the future. After her statement, Joyce Banda left statehouse with the same dignity and grace that she had brought with her when she was sworn in only two years prior. And so ends a chapter for Joyce Banda, but it is only the beginning of her legacy. Regretfully, her story has been worse than neglected; it has been forged.
Elizabeth J. Walt & John Dabney have been working in the office of Joyce Banda.