Freedom in the World

Malawi

Malawi

Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.5

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3
Overview: 


In her first full year in office, President Joyce Banda of the People’s Party (PP)—who succeeded President Bingu wa Mutharika following his sudden death in April 2012—struggled to maintain domestic support and implement reforms to revive Malawi’s fragile economy. Upon taking office, Banda won praise from the international community for her initial efforts to restore respect for human rights and press freedom in the wake of Mutharika’s increasingly repressive rule, and to implement economic reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donors as a condition for restoring aid that had been cut off under Mutharika. These reforms included a 49 percent devaluation of the kwacha in May 2012. In return, the IMF in June 2012 agreed to restart a three-year, $157 million loan; other international donors also restored aid. Malawi—ranked 170 out of 187 countries and territories on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index—relies on foreign donors for about 40 percent of its total budget.

The kwacha devaluation resulted in inflation, damaging Banda’s domestic standing. By January 2013, popular outrage over the skyrocketing price of items such as maize, sugar, salt, and fuel led to protests and strikes by civil servants in several major cities. The strikes lasted until February, when Banda gave in to workers’ demands for a substantial wage increase.

In March 2013, a commission of inquiry into the events surrounding Mutharika’s death released a report finding that several high-ranking government officials had attempted to unconstitutionally transfer power to the president’s brother, Peter Mutharika, rather than to Banda, the vice president, who had fallen out with the president and the then-ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2010. Soon after the commission released its report, 12 former officials of Mutharika’s government were arrested and charged with treason. In June, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) set a May 2014 date for the country’s tripartite elections, in which long-delayed local elections would be held alongside presidential and parliamentary polls.

In October, a major corruption scandal known as Cashgate came to light, in which it was revealed that more than $250 million had been stolen from the government by mid-level officials and civil servants. This prompted international donors to suspend millions of dollars of crucial budget support, undermining Banda’s efforts to revive the economy and potentially damaging her prospects in the 2014 election.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 26 / 40 [Key]


A. Electoral Process: 8 / 12

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. In the 2009 presidential election, Mutharika defeated John Tembo, the head of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), with approximately 66 percent of the vote. Mutharika’s running mate, 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 legislature; the MCP took 26, and the United Democratic Front (UDF) captured 17. According to international and domestic observers, the polls were the most free and competitive since the first multiparty elections in 1994. 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 unsuccessfully 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. Banda refused to resign, and was supported by the courts. In December 2010, the DPP expelled Banda, who created her own party, the PP. Since Banda came to power, the PP has gained strength in the National Assembly, winning support from opposition defectors and holding about 80 seats as of June 2013. Some opposition members have called for section 65 of the constitution—which requires the speaker of the National Assembly to declare vacant the seat of any legislator who switched parties—to be applied, though no such action had been taken as of the end of the year.

While opposition groups had questioned the impartiality and legitimacy of the MEC in previous years, key observers concluded that it operated with sufficient transparency during the 2009 elections. In 2012, Banda, in consultation with several political parties, appointed 10 new MEC commissioners and a new chairperson. In June 2013, the MEC announced that all eligible voters would be required to re-register between July and January 2014.

 

B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 11 / 16

The main political parties are the PP, the DPP, the MCP, and the UDF. New political parties are allowed to register unhindered. There were reports of intimidation of the opposition when the DPP was in power under Mutharika, though this has reportedly lessened under the leadership of Banda and the PP. By August 2013, the four main parties had held their conventions and selected their 2014 presidential candidates: Banda for the PP, Peter Mutharika for the DPP, Atupele Muluzi—son of former president Bakili Muluzi—for the UDF, and Reverend Lazarus Chakwera of the MCP, which had ruled Malawi for nearly three decades after independence in 1963.

 

C. Functioning of Government: 7 / 12

Upon claiming the presidency, Banda made tackling corruption and waste a top priority. In October 2012, she announced that both she and Vice President Khumbo Kachali would take voluntary 30 percent pay cuts as part of a national austerity plan, and in September 2013, the Treasury announced that it would use the $15 million earned from selling the presidential jet—purchased by President Mutharika—to buy locally grown maize to feed Malawi’s poor. Corruption remains endemic, however, with an estimated 30 percent of Malawi’s annual budget lost to fraud.

Banda’s administration was rocked by a corruption scandal sparked by the near-fatal shooting in September 2013 of Paul Mphwiyo, the budget director in the Finance Ministry who was reportedly conducting several corruption investigations. The shooting unearthed revelations of widespread government fraud and corruption, with some cases involving millions of kwacha in state funds discovered in the homes and cars junior officials and civil servants. As much as $250 million was believed to have gone missing since 2006. The fraud revelations led to a strike in early October by public health workers, who were protesting delays in the payment of their September salaries. Public hospitals also suffered from shortages of essential drugs and equipment. In late October, Kachali said the fraud was made possible by loopholes in the Integrated Finance Management Information System, a central payment system that the government began using in 2005.

The revelations caused public outrage and prompted calls for Banda and Finance Minister Ken Lipenga to resign. In response, Banda fired her entire cabinet on October 10, and announced the creation of a special unit to audit all government departments. Days later, she appointed a new cabinet, retaining 27 of the 32 members but replacing the Lipenga and Justice Minister Ralph Kasambara. Kasambara was later arrested in connection with Mphwiyo’s shooting, and scores more were detained on fraud and corruption charges, although these were mainly lower-level officials. In November, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Norway—members of a coalition called the Common Approach to Budgetary Support—withheld their portions of a $120 quarterly aid package to Malawi, due to a lack of confidence in the government’s financial management system.

In November, the National Assembly passed a bill requiring high-level public officials to declare their assets and other financial interests (the constitution already requires the president and vice president to declare their assets to the speaker of the National Assembly when they are elected). However, Malawi lacked a Freedom of Information law, making it difficult for the public to obtain such information in practice.

Malawi was ranked 91 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in the Transparency International (TI) 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.

 

Civil Liberties: 34 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 11 / 16

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. The National Assembly in May 2012 repealed a Mutharika-era law granting the information minister power to ban publications deemed contrary to the public interest, and harassment and arrests of journalists declined after Banda took power. However, Banda in May 2013 refused calls from regional press freedom activists to become the third African head of state to endorse the Declaration of Table Mountain, which calls on African governments to abolish criminal defamation laws. (Libel is both a criminal and civil offense in Malawi.) Days earlier she had noted her displeasure with the press’s criticism of her administration. There were incidents during the year in which government operatives harassed or assaulted journalists. In June, parliament’s chief security officer was arrested for assaulting journalist Thoko Chikondi while she was photographing consumer rights advocate John Kapito in the parliament building. In August, a cabinet minister’s bodyguards assaulted Zodiak Broadcasting Station journalist Raphael Mlozoa, after Mlozoa allegedly published false news about the minister.

In the past, the government-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and TV Malawi—historically the dominant outlets—displayed a significant bias in favor of the government. However, under Banda the MBC has made some progress in transforming into a true public broadcaster, giving air time to diverse viewpoints—including opposition figures—on its talk shows and news programs.

Religious and academic freedom are generally respected.

 

E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 7 / 12

The climate for civil society and opposition groups has improved notably under Banda, after being weakened under Mutharika. 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.

In January 2013, thousands of people peacefully demonstrated in major cities across Malawi to protest what they alleged were IMF-imposed economic reforms, after inflation topped 33 percent. Led by Kapito’s lobby group Consumers Association of Malawi, they demanded a reversal of the kwacha devaluation, wage increases, and that Banda reduce her travel expenditures. In February, nearly all of the country’s approximately 120,000 civil servants—including teachers and doctors—went on strike, demanding a 65 percent pay increase to address the rising cost of living. They were joined at one point by public school students, who marched on a private school run by the Joyce Banda Foundation. In February, Banda’s government agreed to a 61 percent wage increase for the lowest-paid government workers. Labor relations remain fraught, however, as evidenced by the October health sector strike and repeated threats of labor action in other sectors through the end of the year.

 

F. Rule of Law: 9 / 16

Judicial independence is generally respected. However, the overburdened and inefficient court system lacks resources, personnel, and training. Banda appointed several new High Court judges in October 2012.

In early March 2013, a commission in inquiry—led by a respected former Supreme Court judge—released its report into the events surrounding Mutharika’s death and attempts by his supporters to unconstitutionally take power. The report found that several high-ranking officials in the government had attempted to cover up the president’s death until they could figure out a way to transfer power to Peter Mutharika rather than to Banda. However, the commander of the Malawian Defence Force, General Henry Odillo, refused to go along with the scheme, arguing that it was unconstitutional, and his support was key in Banda’s eventual assumption of power.

Soon after the commission released its report, 12 officials of Mutharika’s government—including Peter Mutharika and current Economic Planning Minister Goodall Gondwe—were arrested and charged with treason. (Gondwe resigned two days after his arrest.) The arrests sparked protests by DPP supporters in Lilongwe and Blantyre, and riot police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. The alleged plotters were released on bail days after their arrest; soon after, the high court judge who granted their bail, Ivy Kamanga, received death threats, allegedly from high-ranking members of Banda’s government. The treason trial was adjourned in early April, but resumed in November with nine of the defendants pleading not guilty.

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 Loti Dzonzi, a noted human rights advocate who pledged to tackle corruption in the force. However, TI’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, released in July, found that 95 percent of respondents believed that the police were corrupt or extremely corrupt. Prison conditions are dire, characterized by overcrowding and extremely poor health conditions; many inmates—some of whom are forced to wait up to three years to face trial—die from AIDS and other diseases. Abuse of younger inmates is commonplace.

Consensual sexual activity between same-sex couples is illegal and is punishable with up to 14 years in prison. Upon taking office, Banda had announced her intention to repeal these colonial-era laws, and in November 2012, then justice minister Kasambara said the laws would be suspended while their constitutionality was examined. While Kasambara soon backtracked on that statement and the laws remained in place as of the end of 2013, there was some evidence that the Banda government was giving increased support to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) advocates.

 

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 7 / 16

Property rights do not receive adequate protection, and starting a business can be a cumbersome process, with licensing costing more than 10 times the average annual income and taking more than 200 days. Business is also impeded by corruption in the various customs, tax, and procurement agencies.

Women recorded significant gains in the 2009 elections, winning 22 percent of the seats. 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 marriage, early marriage, and “wife inheritance,” in which widows are passed on to a male relative, are still practiced in some areas. However, the Banda administration has made efforts to address these problems. In February 2013, the National Assembly passed the Gender Equality Bill, which brought the country’s law into line with the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In a March report to the United Nations, Gender Minister Anita Kalinde said the government had set up support centers across the country for victims of domestic violence, and that the number of reported cases of violence against women had increased significantly.

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, and the government’s efforts to protect victims and prevent trafficking have been criticized by the U.S. State Department. A 2010 Child Care, Protection, and Justice Bill detailed 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.

 

Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology