Malawi | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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In Malawi, 2005 was marked by political instability and brinkmanship, including the resignation of the recently elected President Bingu wa Mutharika from the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) party, his formation of a new alliance, and a chaotic attempt to impeach him. The government's anticorruption drive continued to provoke controversy during the year. Meanwhile, Malawi faced significant food shortages and the prospect of large-scale hunger after the worst harvest in a decade.

After the country gained independence from Britain in 1963, President (later President-for-Life) Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled Malawi for nearly three decades. Banda exercised dictatorial and often eccentric rule through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing, the Malawi Young Pioneers. Facing an economic crisis and strong domestic and international pressure, Banda accepted a popular referendum approving multiparty rule in 1993. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) won the presidency in a 1994 election beset by irregularities but seen as largely free and fair. The army's violent dispersal of the Young Pioneers in December 1993 had helped to clear the way for the polls.

In the June 1999 presidential poll, Muluzi won 51 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for leading opposition candidate Gwanda Chakuamba of the MCP and the Alliance for Democracy (MCP-AFORD). Three presidential contenders- including Chakuamba-sued the electoral commission, contending that Muluzi failed to win votes from more than half of the eligible electorate; the Supreme Court upheld the results of the election. In polls for the National Assembly in 1999, the ruling UDF managed to retain a narrow majority. Violence erupted in the opposition strongholds of northern Malawi after the 1999 election results indicated wins for the UDF; supporters of MCP-AFORD attacked mosques, shops, and homes of suspected UDF supporters.

An unpopular campaign to amend the constitution to allow Muluzi to run for a third term was effectively ended when Muluzi handpicked Bingu wa Mutharika, a relative political outsider, as his successor for the May 2004 elections. Mutharika went on to win the presidency on an anticorruption platform with 35 percent of the vote; his closest rival, John Tembo of the MCP, won 27 percent. Contrary to expectations, the MCP won the most seats-59-in the 193-seat parliament, while the UDF finished second with 49. A seven-party coalition (Mgwirizano) and independent candidates won the remaining seats. Observers said the polls were tainted by registration problems, inappropriate use of state resources, and biased campaign coverage by the state-run broadcast media. A parliamentary inquiry into voting irregularities led to the resignation in August of the chairman of the Malawi Electoral Commission, Justice James Kalaile. In July, the UDF regained its majority status in parliament when 23 independent legislators defected to the ruling party; the UDF had previously merged with one of its fiercest rivals, the National Democratic Alliance, which agreed to drop legal challenges to the vote.

Political maneuvering was even more pronounced in 2005, exacerbated by a bitter and very public dispute between Mutharika and Muluzi, who remains the UDF chairman. The main cause of the dispute has been the investigation and arrest of several powerful UDF figures-including Muluzi-in Mutharika's aggressive anticorruption campaign. In January, four senior UDF politicians allied with Muluzi were arrested on charges of treason after Mutharika accused them of plotting to kill him- they had brought guns and knives to an ostensibly conciliatory meeting. The four were released a few days later. The following month, Mutharika resigned from the UDF and formed a new political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), widening the rift with Muluzi and depriving the UDF of a parliamentary majority.

In June, the UDF lodged a motion in the National Assembly to impeach Mutharika for violating the constitution and misusing government funds; the motion provoked protests in Malawi's major cities and towns. During a debate on the issue, the parliament's Speaker suffered a severe stroke and died four days later in South Africa; his death led to an adjournment. The political impasse threatened the passage of the national budget crucial to the distribution of foreign aid, sparking widespread concern among civil society groups and international donors. Mediation by the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), an alliance of religious groups, and former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda facilitated the passage of the budget in July.

A cabinet reshuffle in August and the September arrest of Mutharika's former agricultural minister and opposition leader, Gwanda Chakuamba, re-ignited the impeachment effort in parliament. In October, 80 members of the National Assembly, led by the UDF, officially accused Mutharika of violating the constitution and misusing state resources in creating the DPP and ordered him to appear before the body. The motion was delayed by both the High Court and the Constitutional Court later in October. Almost simultaneously, Muluzi was summoned before Malawi's Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to answer questions about the fate of millions of dollars of aid money received during his presidency. The High Court later ruled that Muluzi did not have to appear before the ACB. Nevertheless, police and ACB agents raided Muluzi's homes in Blantyre and Kapoloma, prompting accusations of political harassment from the former president.

Approximately 80 percent of Malawi's labor force is employed in the agricultural sector, and the economy is dependent on tobacco, which accounts for more than half of export revenues. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite. In 2005, persistent drought caused Malawi its worst harvest in a decade, including a 24 percent drop in maize production. According to the United Nations, at least 4.2 million Malawians were to be in urgent need of food aid during the region's dry season, from November 2005 through February 2006. In October, the impending food shortages moved President Mutharika to declare a national disaster. By the end of November, a UN appeal for $88 million in food aid had received only $28 million, a condition that prompted dire warnings from the U.K.-based aid group Oxfam.

Foreign donors account for 80 percent of Malawi's development budget. While past accusations of corruption and mismanagement had dried up donor support and led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to freeze fund distributions in 2000, Malawi has recently been lauded for its efforts to curtail corruption and public spending. In 2005, the IMF praised the country's performance under the fund's staff-moni-tored program and agreed to help with impending food shortages. In May and June, Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell launched an ambitious campaign to raise aid money for Malawi among his constituents, and in July, the British government released 20 million pounds (about US$35 million) in budget support for Malawi, citing its economic progress.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Malawi can change their government democratically. However, there were significant irregularities in the 2004 presidential elections. The president is directly elected to a five-year term and exercises considerable executive authority. The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 193 seats; members are elected by popular vote to five-year terms. Suffrage is universal except for serving members of the military.

The country's electoral commission has on several occasions shown bias in favor of the ruling UDF party, and there have been consistent problems with voter registration. Opposition parties are allowed to function freely, though political violence does occur, and the opposition has repeatedly charged that the government uses bribery and intimidation to exploit opposition party divisions and encourage defections. The major opposition party is the MCP. There are few ideological differences among the major political parties. For the most part, Malawian politics are based on personality rather than policy, leading to frequently shifting alliances and parliamentary floor crossings.

Vowing "zero tolerance" of corruption, President Bingu wa Mutharika has moved to fulfill campaign promises to crack down on state corruption, and the ACB made several arrests and indictments of former high-level government officials during the year. In December 2004, the mayor of Blantyre, the commercial capital of the country, was arrested in connection with the disappearance of about $3,800 in city funds. In May 2005, Education Minister Yusuf Mwawa was detained for allegedly using public funds for his wedding reception. And in September, agriculture minister and leading opposition presidential candidate Gwanda Chakuamba was sacked as a result of allegations that he purchased a luxury car with World Bank funds.

At least 11 senior members of the Muluzi administration are being investigated by the Office of Public Prosecutions concerning $93 million that reportedly vanished during Muluzi's decade-long tenure. In November, Vice-President Cassim Chilumpha was accused of corruption during his time as a minister in the Muluzi government, and Muluzi himself was the subject of a corruption investigation the previous month. Given Mutharika's defection from the UDF and the ongoing effort to impeach him, many UDF loyalists have accused the president of conducting a political witch-hunt. Nonetheless, Mutharika himself has come under fire for wasting state resources on luxury items, including a $545,000 limousine and-allegedly- $800,000 worth of official portraiture. Mutharika's decision to move into the opulent presidential palace originally built by former president Hastings Kamuzu Banda also provoked outrage. In September, the president announced his intention to distribute loans to the country's poor from the Malawi Rural Development Fund, despite parliament's earlier suspension of the program stemming from allegations of political favoritism. Malawi was ranked 97 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of speech and of the press is legally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. Despite occasional restrictions and harassment, a broad spectrum of opinion is presented in Malawi's two dozen newspapers. Nevertheless, the state controls the majority of broadcast media. Television Malawi is the country's only television station, while the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation's two radio stations dominate the market. The government and the ruling UDF restrict opposition access to state-controlled media and became increasing intolerant of coverage of opposition activities during Muluzi's bid for a third term and the run-up to the May 2004 elections. However, the situation improved afterward, with the new information minister calling for dissenting views in state-controlled media. Journalists are still subject to harassment and detentions. In January 2005, Daily Times reporter Collins Mitka was beaten by AFORD supporters while covering an AFORD press conference. In March, two journalists-The Nation's Mabvuto Banda and Raphael Tenthani of the BBC- were arrested after writing articles reporting that Mutharika was not sleeping at the presidential State House because it was haunted by ghosts; both were released on bail shortly afterward. There are no restrictions on access to the internet, although it is not widely used.

Religious freedom is usually respected, and the government does not restrict academic freedom.

The government generally respects freedom of association and assembly. Many human rights organizations-including the constitutionally mandated Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC)-and other nongovernmental organizations operate openly and without interference. The right to organize and to strike is legally protected, with notice and mediation requirements for workers in essential services. Unions are active but face harassment and occasional violence during strikes. As only a small percentage of the workforce is employed in the formal sector, union membership is low; however, collective bargaining is practiced.

The judiciary has demonstrated independence in its decisions, but due process is not always respected by an overburdened court system that lacks resources, personnel, and training. Resource mismanagement is also a problem. Police brutality and use of excessive force is reportedly common, as are arbitrary arrests and detentions. However, the government has enlisted civil society and foreign donors in helping to combat human rights abuses and corruption among police. Appalling prison conditions lead to many deaths every year, mostly from HIV/AIDS. Overcrowding and poor health conditions are serious problems; in March, a government decision to reopen the notorious Mikuyu prison (where political prisoners were held during the brutal Banda regime) in order to relieve prison crowding sparked substantial controversy. Lengthy pretrial detention is a serious problem and contributes to overcrowding.

There are no laws limiting the participation of ethnic minorities in the political process. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language or culture, and such discrimination is not a major problem.

In August, authorities ordered residents of informal settlements in Lilongwe to vacate their homes or risk forceful removal. The government contended that the homes were built illegally on land earmarked for industrial development and ruled that affected residents would not be compensated. Some residents claimed to have received permission to occupy the land from local chiefs and/or officials of the city or the Malawi Housing Corporation.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices maintain de facto discrimination against women in education, employment, and business. Traditional rural structures deny women inheritance and property rights, and violence against women is common, though recent years have seen greater media attention on, and criminal penalties for, abuse and rape. In 2003, the MHRC issued a report documenting the revival of the customary practice of kupimbira, where young girls are sold by their parents or grandparents to pay off debts or secure loans of cattle or money. Women employees recently won the right to maternity leave. In March 2005, Mary Nangwale was appointed the first woman to serve as inspector-general of the police; however, her appointment was rejected by parliament on political grounds. Trafficking in women and children is a problem, and government penalties for traffickers have been criticized as far too lenient.