Malawi | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Malawi’s civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 due to government harassment of the judiciary.

The rift between President Bingu wa Mutharika and former president Bakili Muluzi’s opposition United Democratic Front led to increased political tension in 2007. A Supreme Court ruling in June left the majority of the president’s supporters in the parliament vulnerable to losing their seats. The opposition then delayed passage of the budget for three months. Once it had passed, Mutharika closed the parliament without following the proper legal procedures. Meanwhile, both the media and the judiciary became targets for intimidation by the government.

Malawi gained independence from Britain in 1963. President Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled the country for nearly three decades, exercising dictatorial power through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing. Facing an economic crisis and strong domestic and international pressure, Banda accepted a referendum approving multiparty rule in 1993. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) won the presidency in a 1994 election that was generally perceived to be free and fair. He was reelected in 1999, and the Supreme Court rebuffed a court challenge by his main opponent.

Aborting a proposed move to amend the constitution and stand for a third term, Muluzi handpicked Bingu wa Mutharika, a relative political outsider, as his successor for the May 2004 presidential election. Mutharika, running on an anticorruption platform, won with 35 percent of the vote; his closest rival, John Tembo of the MCP, captured 27 percent. Contrary to expectations, the MCP won the most seats, 59 of 193, in concurrent parliamentary elections, followed by the UDF with 49. The UDF regained its majority status shortly thereafter, however, when it merged with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and recruited 23 independent legislators.

In early 2005, a dispute between Mutharika and former president Muluzi, who remained the UDF chairman, reached a crescendo. The main cause was the arrest of several powerful UDF figures as part of Mutharika’s anticorruption campaign. Mutharika resigned from the UDF and formed a new political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which many lawmakers then joined. However, impeachment charges launched that year alleged that public funds had been used to recruit legislators to the DPP, and the defections appeared to violate a constitutional clause stating that members who switch parties after elections would lose their seats. The impeachment bid dissipated in early 2006, but the parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee took initial steps toward a renewed effort in February 2007. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional clause on party defections in June 2007, putting the seats of up to 60 lawmakers in jeopardy.

When the court ruling came down, the opposition insisted that the legislature drop its budget deliberations and consider petitions to have the seats of 41 progovernment members declared vacant. The ensuing three-month deadlock ended under pressure from aid donors and elements of civil society, with the opposition agreeing to deal with the budget before the party-defections issue. However, just after the budget passed in late September, Mutharika closed the parliament without consulting the speaker, apparently in violation of the constitution.

Separately, the government continued to pursue corruption investigations against Muluzi. Mutharika has also made unspecified threats against Muluzi on several occasions, and allegedly ordered an officer to “shake up” the former president. For his part, Muluzi has publicly ridiculed Mutharika and declared his intention to run in the 2009 presidential election. Vice President Cassim Chilumpha, who had refused to abandon the UDF along with Mutharika, went on trial for treason in February 2007. He had previously been charged with corruption, and in April 2006, he was arrested for an alleged assassination plot against the president. His trial was ongoing at year’s end.

Relations with donors, who account for 80 percent of Malawi’s development budget, have improved since Mutharika took power, and they openly criticized the opposition during the 2007 budget standoff. In 2006, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed that Malawi had made sufficient progress to reach the “completion point” under the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. As a result, Malawi is receiving $3.1 billion in total nominal debt relief. Dramatic improvements in agricultural output helped the country achieve substantial growth rates of an estimated 7.9 percent and 5.7 percent in 2006 and 2007.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Malawi is an electoral democracy. The president is directly elected to five-year terms and exercises considerable executive authority. The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 193 members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms.

Elections are generally free from overt manipulation, but recent elections have been marked by irregularities. The electoral commission has displayed bias toward the UDF, though it is now headed by the well-regarded Justice Anastazia Msosa. Efforts by President Bingu wa Mutharika to appoint additional commissioners in February 2007 ran afoul of opposition parties, which claimed that he did not consult with them as required by law. One additional concern was a January 2007 government decision to postpone, until 2009, local elections that had originally been scheduled for 2005.

The major opposition party is now the UDF, which cooperates with the MCP. Political divisions are generally based on ethnoregional loyalties and personality rather than policy. Political violence by police or party thugs has occasionally flared during election periods. In January 2007, police arrested two UDF officials and charged them with sedition after the airing of a leaked recording in which the president purportedly called for unspecified action against former president Bakili Muluzi. In April, the government sent military forces to disrupt a UDF rally. A court injunction barring the police from halting the rally was apparently ignored.

Mutharika has made fighting corruption a top priority. The opposition has charged that the effort is directed primarily at his opponents, though some within government have also been targeted. In 2006, Education Minister Yusuf Mwawa was convicted of using ministry funds to pay for his wedding. In September 2007, Information Minister Patricia Kaliati was suspended and investigated for corrupt activities, while a month later the head of Malawi’s power-generating company was arrested on graft charges. Also in September, the acting head of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), Tumalisye Ndovie, was suspended and accused of drawing two salaries. Mutharika had fired the head of the ACB in August 2006, and his replacement appointee was never approved by the relevant opposition-controlled parliamentary committee. The World Bank and IMF, while authorizing debt relief for Malawi in 2006, said it had failed to make significant progress on corruption. Malawi was ranked 118 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed. Despite occasional restrictions, Malawi’s dozen or so newspapers present a diversity of opinion. The state controls the majority of broadcast media, and while their progovernment bias eased after Mutharika took office, other press freedom problems emerged in 2007. The broadcasting regulator threatened a private radio station with punitive action after it aired an unfavorable recording of the president in January. In April, the information minister directed the regulator to bar all private radio stations from airing live broadcasts without government permission. The targets of the action were three stations that had been covering pro-Muluzi rallies. Then, in October, the same regulator ordered off the air a private TV station owned by former president Muluzi. Meanwhile, charging that they were broadcasting propaganda, the opposition-controlled parliament denied funding for the state-owned outlets.

Journalists are still subject to harassment and detention, although there were no confirmed reports of specific actions against journalists in 2007. 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 upholds freedoms of association and assembly, but the April 2007 breakup of an opposition rally by the military represented a serious setback. Many nongovernmental organizations—including the constitutionally mandated Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC)—operate without interference. The right to organize labor unions 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 formally employed, union membership is low; however, collective bargaining is practiced.

The generally independent judiciary has become embroiled in political disputes and faces government hostility. The Muluzi administration sought to influence Supreme Court judges through patronage and private contacts. Mutharika has generally avoided such techniques, but he repeatedly criticized the judiciary after antigovernment decisions in 2007. Far more troubling, police in August raided the home of a High Court judge on the basis of a corruption probe; only hours earlier, the judge had ruled in favor of opposition efforts to debate the party-defections issue in the legislature.

Due process is not always respected by the overburdened court system, which lacks resources, personnel, and training. Police brutality is reportedly common, as are arbitrary arrests and detentions. However, the government has enlisted civil society and foreign donors to help combat abuses and corruption among police. Appalling prison conditions lead to many deaths, mostly from HIV/AIDS.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language or culture, and it is not a major problem.

Since coming to power, Mutharika has targeted informal settlements and the informal economy, at times ordering residents and vendors to vacate illegally occupied land without compensation.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices perpetuate discrimination against women in education, employment, and business. Traditional rural structures deny women inheritance and property rights. Violence against women is common, though in recent years there have been 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, in which young girls are sold by their parents or grandparents to pay off debts or secure loans. Trafficking in women and children is a problem, and penalties for the few successfully prosecuted traffickers have been criticized as too lenient.