As midnight approached on May 30, the eighth day following the closure of voting in Malawi’s closely contested tripartite elections, tensions were high in the country’s three major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba.
High Court Judge Kenyatta Nyirenda had to decide whether the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) was entitled to perform a manual vote recount as demanded by the incumbent President Joyce Banda and two other major opposition parties.. The MEC had also asked the Judge for an extension to allow them to do a manual recount of the 6 million votes cast from May 20-22, 2014.
Supporters of the then ruling People’s Party and other opposition parties were angry with the inflated number of voters and anomalies in the tabulation of the results. They armed themselves with machetes and petrol ready to take to the streets if the courts refused a manual vote recount. Under the country’s electoral laws, the elections body had eight days to verify and address any electoral complaints from political parties and time was running out.
When the judge made the announcement, he said that a recount would have to be performed within the commission’s eight-day counting period as per electoral law. He said he could not change it because he had no mandate to do so. In other words, the judge allowed the MEC to do a recount but within eight days. The MEC only had an hour and a half to do a recount of about 6 million votes, which was practically impossible. So with no time left to do a recount, the MEC had no choice but to announce the results. And just before midnight, Peter Mutharika, an American trained lawyer, was announced winner. He was sworn in the following day without any incidence.
But had the incumbent President Joyce Banda protested the court ruling and insisted on a manual vote recount, Malawi would have plunged into a political crisis. “I made the decision to concede defeat not because I lost the election but because I wanted peace to prevail…there was overwhelming evidence of how this election was stolen but I had to do this to save a nation,” Joyce Banda said in one of her recent interviews.
Her decision not to fight was seen by some as a selfless act that chimed with the idea, held by many in the West, that she represents a new kind of African leader. Unandi Banda, a rights activist, believes Banda’s decision prevented a bloodbath in a country which two years ago had just witnessed the massacre of 20 political protestors who were agitating for former President Bingu wa Mutharika, now deceased, to step down as president after he failed to salvage the country’s failing economy. “Joyce Banda will be remembered for this because she prevented a bloodbath…we all know that this election was so messy and therefore she had a case to protest with others,” he said.
Gift Trapence, another activist and Banda’s critic, says African leaders should learn from Joyce Banda. “This is a rare breed of politician, and those arrogant African leaders should take notice and learn from her,” he said.
It is true that Malawi’s 2014 elections were messy, with none of the major protagonists emerging with much credit. Whilst Malawi’s democratic institutions did finally come through, they took a long time to make important decisions, but still peace prevailed.