Malawi | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2013

2013 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Malawi received an upward trend arrow due to the peaceful and constitutional transfer of power to new president Joyce Banda and improvements in civil liberties including academic freedom and freedom of assembly.


President Bingu wa Mutharika died suddenly in April 2012, and, after a brief power struggle, Vice President Joyce Banda took over as Malawi’s leader. Under Banda, many of the oppressive policies implemented in the latter stages of Mutharika’s rule were quickly lifted, and the government appeared to be on a path of greater transparency and respect for human rights. Banda’s reforms resulted in improved relations with the international donor community, which had suffered greatly at the end of Mutharika’s tenure.

Following Malawi’s 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 1993 referendum that approved multiparty rule. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) won the 1994 presidential election, which was generally perceived as free and fair. He was reelected in 1999.

Muluzi handpicked Bingu wa Mutharika, a relative political outsider, as his successor ahead of the 2004 presidential election. Mutharika defeated his MCP opponent, but the MCP took a plurality of seats in concurrent parliamentary elections. In early 2005, a rift between Mutharika and Muluzi, who remained the UDF chairman, worsened after several powerful UDF figures were arrested as part of Mutharika’s new anticorruption campaign. Mutharika resigned from the UDF and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which many lawmakers subsequently joined.

In the run-up to the May 2009 presidential contest, Muluzi and the UDF formed an alliance with the head of the MCP, John Tembo, and backed his candidacy. Mutharika ran a highly effective campaign and defeated Tembo with approximately 66 percent of the vote. Mutharika’s running mate Joyce Banda, a grassroots women’s rights activist, became Malawi’s first female vice president. In concurrent parliamentary elections, Mutharika’s DPP won 112 seats in the 193-seat legislature; the MCP took 26, and the UDF captured 17. According to international and domestic election observers, the polls were more free and competitive than in previous years. However, incumbents enjoyed a clear advantage due to the use of state resources during the campaign period and clear bias in the government-controlled media.

In late 2010, Mutharika attempted to dismiss Banda as vice president. This sparked a crisis, as the vice president is an elected position that cannot be removed by the president. Although Mutharika claimed he had attempted to fire Banda for missing cabinet meetings, opponents asserted that the president was trying to clear the way for his brother and heir apparent, Peter Mutharika, to assume the vice presidency. Banda refused to resign, and was supported by the courts. Also in December 2010, the DPP fired Banda as its vice president and expelled her for allegedly acting against the party’s interests, and she was subsequently sidelined from cabinet meetings and other official government activities. In response, Banda created her own party, the People’s Party (PP).

With Mutharika and his party enjoying dominance in the legislature, the president grew increasingly autocratic and repressive. In July, discontent over economic turmoil and increasingly authoritarian governance led to public protests. Police shot unarmed demonstrators, killing 18 people in Lilongwe; the government forces insisted that the protesters had been looting. In August 2011, the president dismissed his cabinet, and in September, he appointed a new cabinet that included his wife and brother. International donors, after years of applauding Mutharika’s economic management, responded swiftly to the crackdown. In July, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) suspended its sole project in Malawi, a $351 million investment in the energy sector. The British government, Malawi’s largest donor, suspended all aid, as did the World Bank, European Union, Norway, Germany, and the African Development Bank.

Mutharika’s crackdown continued in March 2012 with a public threat to fine or arrest journalists and civil society actors who “insult” the president, as well as the arrest of John Kapito, chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, on the charge of “printing and distributing seditious materials.”

On April 5, 2012, Mutharika died suddenly of a heart attack. According to the constitution, Banda was his lawful successor. However, his death was not officially announced for two days, as DPP leaders held meetings in an apparent attempt to find a way to install Peter Mutharika as president instead. Nevertheless, prominent figures in Malawian society, including the chief justice and army and civil society leaders, as well as the international community quickly made clear that they stood firmly behind Banda. On April 7, Banda was formally sworn in as Malawi’s president and Africa’s second female head of state. Her new administration has gained widespread international support for its efforts to reduce government waste and fight corruption, and for its respect for human rights and media and academic freedom. In June, the MCC lifted the suspension of its compact with Malawi, and other donors followed suit.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Malawi is an electoral democracy. The president is directly elected for 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. The 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, though characterized by an uneven playing field in favor of incumbents, were the most fair and competitive since the first multiparty elections in 1994. The successful handover of power to Vice President Joyce Banda in the aftermath of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s death in April 2012 was seen as a positive step in the wake of apparent moves by Mutharika’s allies to subvert the constitution.

While opposition groups had questioned the impartiality and legitimacy of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) in previous years, key observers concluded that it operated with sufficient transparency during the 2009 elections. In apparent contravention of a court order, Mutharika had suspended and closed the MEC in December 2010 after an audit report revealed that large sums of money allocated to run the 2009 elections were unaccounted for. This once again delayed local elections, which had already been postponed to April 2011 and are now scheduled to run concurrently with presidential and legislative elections in 2014. In May 2012, Banda, in consultation with several political parties, appointed 10 new MEC commissioners, and she named a new chairperson in October.

The main political parties are the DPP, the MCP, and the UDF. Despite being the country’s newest major party, many observers believe that Banda’s PP has a strong chance to make substantial gains in the 2014 elections.

While Mutharika had pledged to fight corruption, opposition and civil society groups charged that his campaign tended to be directed primarily at his political opponents. The new National Anti-Corruption Strategy launched in 2009 included a plan to establish “integrity committees” in public institutions. However, a February 2010 report by Global Integrity indicated that the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) has largely focused on low-level civil servants while avoiding high-ranking officials under political pressure. Upon claiming the presidency, Banda made tackling corruption and waste a top priority. In a symbolic move, Banda in June 2012 promised to sell the presidential jet in an effort to pay down the national debt. Moreover, she announced in October that both she and Vice President Khumbo Kachali would take voluntary 30 percent pay cuts as part of a national austerity plan. Some nongovernmental organizations expressed concern, however, that Banda could be using the anticorruption laws to target political opponents, such as former ACB chief Alex Nampota, who was fired in May and arrested for abuse of office in June. In November, High Court Justice Rezine Mzikamanda was named the new ACB director.

Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed, and although Mutharika cracked down on the media in 2011 and early 2012, the situation improved markedly under the Banda administration. In January 2011, Mutharika had promulgated a harsh new law granting the information minister power to ban publications deemed contrary to the public interest. After Banda took power, the National Assembly repealed the law in May 2012. Harassment and arrests of journalists—which had spiked in 2011, as journalists were beaten and detained during the July protests, and radio stations were closed—declined significantly after Banda took office. Malawi’s eight independent newspapers present a diversity of opinion, and there are approximately 20 radio stations and 4 television stations in the country. However, the government-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and TV Malawi—historically the dominant outlets—display a significant bias in favor of the government.

Religious freedom is generally respected. Academic freedom was considered to be under attack during the Mutharika administration. In February 2011, a lecturer at Chancellor College was questioned by police after comparing Malawi with Tunisia and Egypt, which were undergoing profound political upheaval at the time; this prompted protests by other lecturers. Mutharika intervened and closed the university via his role as its chancellor. Banda has made assuring academic freedom a priority, particularly through her appointment of Loti Dzonzi as the new police inspector general, who visited Chancellor College and pledged to respect academic freedom.

Freedoms of assembly and association came under pressure under Mutharika, especially in light of the crackdown on the 2011 protests. Civil society activists faced harassment, intimidation, death threats, and violent treatment from government forces and the DPP’s militia, known as the Cadets. However, following Banda’s installation, the climate for civil society and opposition groups has improved notably. 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 and collective bargaining is practiced, but workers face harassment and occasional violence during strikes. Since only a small percentage of the workforce is formally employed, union membership is low.

During Mutharika’s first term, the generally independent judiciary became involved in political disputes and faced government hostility; the courts have rendered several significant decisions against the government in recent years. However, due process is not always respected by the overburdened court system, which lacks resources, personnel, and training. Banda appointed several new High Court judges in October 2012, though the impact of these appointments remains to be seen. Police brutality is reportedly common, as are arbitrary arrests and detentions. One of Banda’s first actions was the replacement of the police inspector general, Peter Mukhito, with Dzonzi, a noted advocate of human rights who pledged to tackle corruption in the force. Prison conditions are appalling, with many inmates dying from AIDS and other diseases.

Consensual sexual activity between same-sex couples is illegal and is punishable with up to 14 years in prison. However, Banda upon taking office announced her intention to repeal these colonial-era laws, and in November, Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara said the laws would be suspended while their constitutionality was examined. Malawi had faced international condemnation in 2009 when a gay couple who became engaged through a traditional ceremony was charged with gross public indecency. In May 2010, the couple was found guilty of engaging in unnatural acts, among other violations, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. For her part, Banda has been an outspoken proponent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, particularly in regards to HIV prevention.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices perpetuate discrimination against women in education, employment, business, and inheritance and property rights. Violence against women and children remains a serious concern, though in recent years there has been greater media attention on and criminal penalties for abuse and rape. Forced marriages and the secret initiation of girls into their future adult roles through forced sex with older men remain widespread. The practice of kupimbira, in which young girls are sold by families to pay off debts, still exists in some areas. However, women recorded significant gains in the 2009 elections, winning 22 percent of the seats. Banda’s rise as the country’s first female president also raised hopes for improved gender equality.

Trafficking in women and children, both locally and to locations abroad, is a problem. Penalties for the few successfully prosecuted traffickers have been criticized as too lenient. A 2010 Child Care, Protection, and Justice Bill details the responsibilities of parents for raising and protecting their children and outlines the duties of local authorities to protect children from harmful, exploitative, or undesirable practices.