By Wisdom Ngwira – Mana.
For many years to come, February 3, 2020, will be remembered as a special historic day for the country’s political landscape.
It is on this day when the High Court of Malawi sitting as a Constitutional Court in the Presidential nullification petition delivered its verdict.
Two of the May 21, 2019 presidential candidates sought nullification of the election results citing massive irregularities in the poll in which President Prof. Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was declared winner.
Stemming from probably the country’s most tightly contested Presidential election, where for the first time in the country’s history, a sitting President, Mutharika) was being challenged by his own Vice President, Saulos Chilima.
Chilima had just partied ways with his boss’s party, the DPP and formed his own party the United Transformation Movement on June 20 2018. This always signaled what a fierce election the country was bracing to have.
Prior to presentation of presidential nomination papers, the country’s former President, Joyce Banda was poised to contest against incumbent President, Mutharika, but had to withdraw at the eleventh hour to render support to main opposition Malawi Congress Party(MCP) Presidential Candidate, Lazarus Chakwera.
The support from Former President Banda gave MCP renewed hope that this could be their year after failing to grab the presidency in five elections, since their ouster in the country’s first ever 1994 multiparty general elections.
Mutharika, Chilima and Chakwera were the three front runners which set up a fiercely contested election with a possibility of putting the nation on fire if not properly run.
Defusing the tension ahead of the 2019 poll
With battle lines drawn by the three front runners, tension was evident in the country. Each of them oozed confidence that they would carry the day. Electoral, governance and other leaders raised warning shots that the situation if no properly managed would degenerate into chaos.
The country’s influential quasi-religious body, Public Affairs Committee (PAC) immediately called all the Presidential Candidates to slow down on their continued assurance of party supporters that they would at any cost triumph in the poll.
The then PAC Chairperson, Felix Chingota announced the body’s willingness to engage all the three leading presidential candidates to defuse the growing political tension.
“In times of this, we need as leaders to try at all cost prepare our supporters to accept any poll results whether you win or lose as you might be aware that in any electoral competition, there is always bound to be one winner and others who will not do well,” he was quoted as saying.
But despite the PAC engagements with the parties and their candidates, the presidential hopefuls went on to claim an imminent triumph for their party. The political tension was elated.
Results announcement and post-election demonstrations
Malawi Electoral Commission(MEC) declared DPP candidate, Mutharika winner of the 2019 election with an official tally of 38.5 per cent lead against MCP’s, Chakwera on position two with 35 per cent while Chilima came a distant third with 20 per cent.
The declaration by MEC Chairperson. Justice Jane Ansah that Mutharika had won quickly moved Chilima and Chakwera to seek redress on Mutharika’s legality.
Chilima was the first to file a petition at the High Court seeking nullification of the results on May 21, 2019 elections followed by Chakwera who filed for a petition to have a recount.
Chief justice Charles Mkandawire then merged the two petitions into one case. This was the start of a nine month battle.
Just as this was happening, influential Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), started to mobilize Malawians to go onto the streets to demand the immediate resignation of MEC Chairperson.
A spate of protests which usually turned violent were held, but Ansah stood her ground not to resign till she gets the judgment from the five judge panel.
Despite various attempts from many fronts to resolve the HRDC/Ansah standstill, it looked all key stakeholders were not willing to compromise. PAC and former Head of State, Bakili Muluzi tried in vain to mediate the impasse. On more than two attempts, Muluzi and PAC met the warring fronts but no plausible solution was met.
As we entered 2020, it was just a question of “let’s just wait and see” what judgment will come from the court.
An election that never was
At around 9:00 am, on February 3, 2020 Malawi waited for the judgment with abated breath as the High Court Registrar, Agnes Patemba had earlier communicated that ruling in this high profile case was to be delivered on this day and time.
The setting was the Lilongwe High Court and a limited number of people was allowed to enter the courtroom as a security measure.
The judgment summary reading which took about eleven hours was concluded at around 7:50 pm. The five judge panel faulted MEC for failing to carry out its constitutional duties, negligence and abdication of the same.
Chair for the five judges, Judge Healy Potani finally ruled that President Mutharika was not duly elected and that a fresh election be heard within 150 days.
Judge Potani read in part “We are satisfied that the complainant alleging undue return has been made out both qualitatively and quantitatively.”
The five panel judge sitting as a constitutional court then ruled that on May 21, 2019, no legitimate election was held, hence the need to have a fresh one.
Rebuilding the nation after the aborted election
In the wake of the high court’s decision, many commentators propose the nation need to reconcile and join hands in rebuilding broken ties orchestrated by the aborted election.
In separate interviews after the court verdict, lawyer, Justin Dzonzi, University of Malawi’s Chancellor College Political Analyst, Ernest Thindwa and Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM), General Secretary, Rev. Francis Mkandawire all said the judgment means a victory for the nation as well as an opportunity to reconcile.
“I think this judgment has a big meaning to Malawi, it demonstrates the country’s renewed hope that this is a country that can uphold the rule of law. It speaks of a nation that is ready to hear grievances from some quarters that feel aggrieved,” he said.
Dzonzi explained that Malawi is a nation that has laws and that if they are broken, the country can on herself resolve any differences peacefully without any bloodshed.
“In short, Malawians should be the overall victors from this judgment as it means they have a system that upholds the rule of laws,” he said
Dzonzi disclosed that the ruling shows that the country’s democracy has been fostered, hence a sign of triumph for all Malawians.
“What has happened is that democracy has been fostered because whenever there is an election, the expectation is that what the majority of people want should be done. What the court has done is to ensure what the needs of Malawians are.
Thindwa believes the judgment is a testimony for all Malawians to trust the country’s courts.
“This time around, the courts have risen to the occasion and has done what is expected of them. You may recall that in 1999 there were electoral disputes, but in the end, those who complained were not accorded the opportunity to be heard.
This Judgment should offer all of well-meaning Malawians an opportunity to reconcile political differences and work together for the general good of the nation,” he added.
On the faith front, PAC Chairperson, Fr. Patrick Thawale hailed the historic ruling as an opportunity for all Malawians to rethink of rebuilding the nation after months of widespread demonstrations.
“We have been saying this from day one that whenever judgment is delivered, we should celebrate peacefully if our party has won without provoking the other side, while to those who have not done well in the case should simply concede and if not satisfied seek further judicial redress for the good of our nation,” he said.
The quasi-religious body’s Chairperson reveals that as a body, they plan to sit down and engage all relevant stakeholders in the poll to map the way forward with for the need to bring all broken hearts and work for the nation.