afrol News, 30 May - Concerns for the future of Malawi's fledgling democracy were expressed yesterday by the International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession. The concern origins in the ruling party's attempts to change the country's constitution to allow a third term for President Bakili Muluzi.
Following the return of an international fact-finding mission, IBA Director Mark Ellis said: "In the face of widespread food shortages and poverty there is now a danger that the country could lose its grip on democracy."
The delegation, comprising international jurists, has called for an urgent discussion on constitutional reform within the Southern African state and, in particular, on an amendment to extend the Presidential office to three terms or beyond.
Malawi's ruling United Democratic Party (UDF) swept to power in 1994 after the country's first multi-party elections. This followed 30 years of austere and repressive one-party rule under Hastings Banda. In common with many other countries, Malawi's Constitution now limits the President to two terms in office. The next presidential and parliamentary elections are due in 2004.
Ellis added: "There is now a danger that the spirit of the Constitution could be undermined and there could be a return to the past if calls for a Presidential third term are carried through. It is important that the implications of this are debated freely in civil society and in the context of wider constitutional reforms."
IBA had sent a five-person, high-level delegation to Malawi "to examine the independence of the judiciary and the administration of justice with a view to providing technical assistance to the legal community." It will be publishing a detailed report of its findings at a later occasion.
Malawi has been the recipient of significant international aid until recently. However, the IMF failed to disburse any funding under Malawis poverty reduction and growth facility in 2001 and 2002 owing to concerns over transparency, corruption and good governance.
Other donors have also raised concerns, including the Danish Government which decided to withdraw its development aid to Malawi on allegations of corruption and political intolerance in the country. Denmark, until recently one of Malawi's major contributors, closed its aid centre in the capital, Lilongwe, after an audit uncovered evidence that Malawian officials were misusing Danish funds. A similar problem occurred in respect of British aid to Malawi. Some US$ 2.5 million of the 2000 contribution was allegedly used to buy 39 S-class Mercedes-Benz cars for Malawian government ministers.
Also within Malawi, the UDF government and President Muluzi are increasingly being critisised. The independent press has spoken up against UDF's third term bid for Muluzi while state-owned media report of a massive support of the idea. However, civil society is mobilising against the UDF campaign and all mayor religious leaders and NGOs in the country are demanding respect to the constitution as it is.
The UDF has however answered these move by introducing a growing repression. UDF vigilantes, known as 'Young Democrats', are increasingly suppressing the opposition to a presidential third term. There is also increasing evidence that the media is being intimidated and the independence of the judiciary is under threat. The threat to judicial independence follows last year's impeachment of three High Court judges by the UDF for alleged incompetence and for purportedly sympathising with the opposition.
Sources: Based on IBA and afrol archives