Is Malawi an ‘African exception’?

A recent Malawi court ruling to cancel elections has excited Africa observers. But is it really a big precedent?

Opposition supporters celebrate after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi on February 4, 2020 [Reuters/Eldson Chagara]

The past 10 months have been momentous for Malawi. After a series of protests against what many have perceived as a flawed presidential election, on February 3 the constitutional court annulled the results of the May 2019 vote due to “serious irregularities” and ordered another election to be held within 150 days.

Peter Mutharika, the incumbent president, rejected the ruling, calling it a “serious miscarriage of justice”. There will be a hearing of an appeal case by the Supreme Court from April 15, but the fresh elections will go ahead, regardless of the outcome of the appeal case. Currently, no date has been set as Mutharika refuses to sign into law a new electoral bill which was prepared based on the court’s ruling.

Meanwhile, the parliament has ruled the members Malawi Electoral Commission, who oversaw the May 2019 vote, incompetent and recommended their dismissal.

The defiance of Malawi’s institutions and their insistence on protecting democratic procedure in the country have surprised many observers.

Amid growing dictatorial tendencies among countries in southern Africa and a continuing trend among African presidents to ignore constitutions and seek to abolish barriers to re-election, Malawi seems to stand out.

So has Malawi become an “African exception” as some observers have claimed? And what is behind its current political crisis?

A lot has been written about Malawi in the aftermath of the historic court ruling, including inevitable comparisons with other African countries. Indeed, Malawi’s case may seem unique, as the judiciary and the military have resisted executive pressure and handled the issues of public interest fairly. But for the Malawian context, it is not unprecedented.

Since Kamuzu Banda, the dictator who ruled Malawi for 30 years, accepted defeat in the 1994 general elections, the country has witnessed four transitions of power, including in 2012 when President Bingu wa Mutharika, Peter’s brother, died in office and his vice president, Joyce Banda, took over.

Malawi has also managed to overcome attempts by presidents to cling on to power against the rule of law. In 2002, President Bakili Muluzi tried to amend the constitution so he could run for a third term, but the parliament rejected his proposal.

Banda’s takeover of the presidency was also not smooth. A group of ruling party members, including Peter Mutharika, tried to block her from being sworn with the help of a number of lawyers and prosecutors, but the plot did not work.

In 2014, Banda herself tried to cancel an election after she lost to Mutharika, but her actions were deemed unconstitutional. After the High Court ordered the electoral commission to release the results, Banda conceded defeat.

Indeed, over the past quarter of a century, Malawian institutions have withstood quite a few attacks by the executive power. Members of the judiciary and the military have carried out their duties with professionalism and commitment to the constitutional order in the country, despite the threat of being dismissed by the presidency.

They have also protected each other. In the days running up to the court ruling on February 3, it was heavily armed military personnel that provided security for the five judges.

For these reasons, it is no surprise that the judiciary and the army have stood their ground over the past few months.

Likewise, the military has been protecting protesters during their demonstrations from the excesses of the police force, defying the common stereotype of African military crushing protesters and propping up unpopular leaders.

On March 18, Mutharika sacked and replaced the military commander, Vincent Nundwe, which may suggest that the president was not pleased with his decision to protect demonstrators.

But throughout the past two and a half decades, there were also moments when it seemed to some observers that Malawi’s democracy was on the verge collapse. In 2001, just five years after the first free elections in the country, the online outlet Malawi Digest declared the “demise of democracy” in the country, describing various transgressions by the Malawian parliament, including cancelling constitutional clauses without due processes and rejecting court rulings.

Ten years later, Amnesty International published a report titled Malawi’s Democracy Continues to Unravel. The document listed various violations by the Bingu wa Mutharika presidency, including the killing of protesters, restrictions of human rights and attacks on rights groups and activists. The report also mentioned the British ambassador being expelled for calling the president “autocratic”.

Today, the media is celebrating the country as an “African exception” and the court ruling as an “historic moment”. But the truth is, there is nothing extraordinary about what has been happening in Malawi given its recent past. And it is not the only African country where courts have defied the executive.

Furthermore, what Malawi’s experience demonstrates is that democratic development is far from a straight path. Therefore, trying to frame it within a pattern or exceptionalise it is futile. In other words, there is no such thing as “African model” or “African exception”. Each country in Africa, as well as the rest of the world, is walking its own path, influenced by local histories, socioeconomic realities and geopolitical dynamics. Africa is not a country, after all.

At this point, it is still not clear whether there is a reason for celebration in Malawi. The president continues to defy the court order, and the imminent COVID-19 outbreak will likely derail the process to prepare a new election.

Protests cannot continue as the presidency has declared a state of national disaster and banned all gatherings of more than 100 people, even though the country is yet to record any cases. Mutharika, who is 79 years old, was last seen in public on March 8 and now seems to have withdrawn from public appearances, possibly out of concern of his own health.

Before the outbreak, there was a strong feeling of a general clean-up and that Malawi was headed in the right direction. Hopefully, it will stay on track even after the epidemic passes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.