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Chiefs struggle to find role in Malawi's democracy

Chiefs welcome Bingu frm Namibia 18.8.2010
A row of senior chiefs line up to greet President Bingu wa Mutharika. Photo courtesy BNL Library.   

By Philippa Croome

Chiefs in Malawi have a lot of sway.

In rural areas, they solve customary disputes and are the connection for residents to governing district assemblies. They were outlined in the country’s 1967 Chiefs Act as gatekeepers of their residents and champions for local development. They are paid an honorarium by government, but are also expected to be separate from party politics.

In practice however, the lines between heads of state and heads of village aren’t nearly as clear. Malawi’s late dictator Kamuzu Banda was known for using chiefs to assert his power all the way down to the local level, and the tendency has carried through to multi-party democracy today.

Unandi Banda, executive director for local NGO National Elections Systems Trust (NEST) says the chiefs’ partisanship is tantamount to helping the ruling party rig the vote.

“The chiefs are influencing the thinking of their people to only consider the ruling party,” says Banda. “That kind of public talk has a bearing even on local election results.”

Although the Chiefs Act was put in place after Malawi broke from colonial rule in 1966, many of the same control mechanisms that saw much of the chiefs’ financial and decision-making autonomy removed, carried through.

It’s been 16 years since Malawi voted democracy in and yet village votes continue to be swayed with fertilizer subsidy coupons or free chitenjes (local garments) offered up by aspiring political candidates.

Whether chiefs will have a place in a functioning local government is yet to be seen, but in the meantime they are standing in the way of encouraging the open dialogue necessary for Malawi’s long-awaited local governments to take hold.

Spokesperson for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Hetherwick Ntaba has said there is no problem in the chiefs publicly endorsing a candidate—they are simply exercising their right to freedom of expression.

But Christopher Naphiyo, civic education officer for the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE), thinks otherwise.

“It all comes down to the issue of misunderstanding of what it means to serve the government of the day," he says, “and that ignorance is abused by the politicians.”

He says chiefs are receiving mixed messages from the government, which has at times failed to respect chiefs’ neutrality.

“We have had cases where certain powerful politicians have bribed some of the chiefs to say we don’t want any other candidate to come in this particular area,” he says.

When more than 200 chiefs met in Malawi before the long-awaited launch of the Nsanje Port last month, the event turned into a political endorsement for a brother to the current president Peter Mutharika. The Daily Times reported everyone from paramount chiefs (the country’s highest traditional position) on down to village headmen took turns to voice their support for the DPP frontrunner.

One chief reportedly said, “Let the DPP reign. As chiefs, we are here to be told 'this is our candidate.' And since the DPP has chosen Peter Mutharika, we accept it warmly.”

Accepting the party of the day has been a long-standing tradition for chiefs in Malawi. But still struggling to find their place between the arm of the executive and being grassroots representatives, chiefs must realize a free and fair local election could very well define their roles and see Malawi into its next stage of democracy.

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