According to Joyce Banda who lost the election at the 30 May poll, in the year the country celebrates 50 years of independence, political violence would have been raised to an unprecedented level in the normally peaceful Malawi if she had not conceded. Mabvuto Banda reports.
Supporters of former president Joyce Banda’s People’s Party, and others, had been angered by the lengthy delay in the counting and announcement of results from the southern African nation’s May 20 election. They armed themselves with petrol bombs and machetes, seemingly ready to take to the streets and die in protest.
“When I heard what was being planned, I made the decision to concede to help stop an escalation of violence because my supporters and others were arming themselves and preparing for a bloodbath … I didn’t want that to happen on my watch, I had to stop it although I knew that the vote was stolen,” said Banda in an exclusive interview with New African.
The 64-year-old Banda, southern Africa’s first woman president, conceded defeat even when two powerful opposition parties – the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Malawi Congress Party (MCP) backed her not to do so. They wanted a voting recount of the over six million votes cast across the country because of “fraudulent and rampant irregularities”.
Reports included hackers allegedly breaking in to the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) computers, and ballot tallies exceeding the number of registered voters in some constituencies. The MEC admitted that it had problems and abandoned its digital results platform, fuelling suspicions of skullduggery after a catalogue of mishaps surrounding the poll.
Both MCP, the rejuvenated party of late dictator Kamuzu Banda, who ruled the southern African nation for 30 years after independence from Britain and the UDF, a party headed by Atupele Muluzi, son to former President Bakili Muluzi, had earlier backed Joyce Banda’s decision to scrap the election.
She went ahead and called for a fresh election within 90 days. But the courts stopped that after the MEC and Mutharika got a court order and dismissed Banda’s declaration as unconstitutional.
“President Banda had no legal basis for stopping the election and that is why the High Court stopped her … no election is ever perfect and this one was no exception, but we never stole the election and therefore a recount was not warranted,” Mutharika told a news conference hours before he was declared winner.
Mutharika said police and soldiers had been sent to his residence in the capital, Lilongwe, to search for a “hacking machine” but were refused entry because they had no warrant. Before Banda made the proclamation, the MEC had released the first results, four days after the vote, showing Mutharika leading with 42%, with 30% of the vote counted from over 4,000 polling centres across the country. This was very close to the pre-election Afrobarometer poll which predicted a Mutharika win.
“We knew that Joyce Banda was losing and she was trying to intimidate me by sending the army and making claims of rigging, demanding a vote recount,” Mutharika told New African. But after a few days, the MEC made a U-turn and announced that it wanted to perform a recount because of numerous voting irregularities notified by all political parties except for the DPP. The election body sought a court order to extend the constitutionally-mandated eight-day counting period to 30 days.
This vindicated Banda’s claims that the election was fraudulent and spurred other opposition parties into action, challenging the MEC in court and pushing for a manual recount of the vote. As the country waited for the court ruling, a coalition march of pro-recount parties in the lakeside town of Mangochi on the morning of 30 May clashed with police, leaving one protester dead.
“I knew that the violence was going to escalate and spread to other towns and I had to do something even if it meant me losing the presidency … I was ready to obey the court ruling.”
Banda said Malawi’s tripartite elections had been plagued by problems right from the start, with voting materials turning up hours late and ballot papers being sent to the wrong end of the country, infuriating voters who went on the rampage, burning ballot papers in the commercial city of Blantyre.