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Faith and Malawian Society

Faith and Malawian Society

Tobias B. Jere

The Participation of the Church in the 2009 General Elections


Malawi as a multi-ethno-religious state has been peaceful and free to the extent that it is known as the “Warm Heart of Africa.” Ethno-religious differences were suppressed during the country’s 30 years of one-party rule under Dr Kamuzu Banda. Because the regime did not allow for emphasis on parochial identities, ethno-religious identity had little influence on politics.[1] People identified themselves only as Malawians. In 1993, Malawians voted in a referendum for a multi-party system of government. The desire to overturn the status quo autocratic government united Malawians across ethnic and religious lines. However, the presidential and parliamentary elections since then confirm underlying ethnic and religious polarisation.

Since the referendum, Malawi’s politics have been very dynamic. Its first general elections in 1994 marked a new era. Malawian society was excited to participate in the process of democratisation and development. The momentum of people’s voices from the referendum continued to guide this process. President Bakili Muluzi’s first term in office was viewed as successful. While most people did not fully understand the principles of democracy, the new system of governance offered them an opportunity to contribute to the nation’s development. However, Muluzi’s second term of office saw gross misuse of newfound freedoms and resources. The people’s enthusiasm for political participation waned.

During the second multi-party general elections in 1999, ethno-religious affiliation took centre stage and shaped the political agenda. In the run-up to these elections, ethnicity and religion featured highly in political campaigns. When a Muslim president won the polls again, some from the primarily Christian northern region of Malawi demonstrated and vented their frustration on those from the predominantly Muslim southern region.

A growing rift between ethno-religious groups influenced voting patterns in the 2004 general elections. Voters supported candidates merely because they came from their regions. In the build-up to these elections, Muluzi attempted to secure a third presidential bid. Foiled by pressure from faith communities, he settled on handpicking the next United Democratic Front (UDF) candidate, Bingu wa Mutharika. The elections went in favour of the UDF. The Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the Mgwirizano Coalition contested the results. President Bingu resigned from the UDF in February 2005 and formed his own political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Having campaigned vigorously for Bingu, UDF party members felt cheated. Many are still aggrieved to this day.

Malawi’s fourth general elections were held on 19 May 2009. The Malawi Electoral Commission confirmed seven presidential candidates and nearly one thousand aspiring members of parliament, both women and men. Candidates included party affiliates as well as independents at both presidential and parliamentary level. For the first time, Malawi had a female presidential candidate with a female running mate. The current ruling party also had a woman running mate.[2] The elections were closely contested chiefly by the three major political parties: The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Democratic Front (UDF). These elections carry the potential for possible conflicts, rooted in the recent history of political parties as analysed below.

Unresolved issues impacting the 2009 general elections

1) The Aftermath of the 2004 General Elections

The Malawi Congress Party and the Mgwirizano Coalition contested the 2004 presidential elections accusing the UDF party of rigging the electoral process to emerge the winner. The courts turned down the case on technical grounds based on the 48 hour rule. Still, the majority of the public felt that the MCP had a valid case. Contesting parties in this year’s elections are working to ensure that the elections are not rigged. This can be seen from each party’s campaign mode.

2) The Third Term Bid By Muluzi

The failure by the former president to secure a third term or open term of office compelled him to choose Bingu as presidential candidate from outside the UDF ranks. Bingu’s defection from the UDF still haunts the UDF party’s leadership and its supporters. Muluzi’s insistence to return to power is primarily to remove the incumbent president from office. The UDF aligned itself to MCP only after the Malawi Electoral Commission’s rejected Muluzi’s candidature for the UDF party, indicating that he had already served two consecutive terms of office according to section 83(iii) of the Malawi Constitution.

3) Loss of Confidence in the Judiciary

The loss of confidence in the judiciary is a major cause of concern. Only the 1994 poll results were not disputed in a court of law. Other subsequent elections have been referred to courts for attention and redress. All the results have favoured the government. Those aggrieved in the 2009 elections or future elections may not go to the courts but seek other means of redress such as refusing to recognise government, conflicting with government or pushing for a government of national unity as modeled by Kenya and Zimbabwe.

4) The lack of implementation of section 65

The failure to implement section 65 of the Malawi Constitution is a potential cause of tension between political parties and their followers. The section says:

The Speaker shall declare vacant the seat of any member of the National Assembly who was, at the time of his or her election, a member of one political party represented in the National Assembly, other than by that member alone but who has voluntarily ceased to be a member of that party or has joined another political party represented in the National Assembly, or has joined any other political party, or association or organisation whose objectives or activities are political in nature.

This section targets a number of MPs who crossed the floor by also defecting from the UDF party that sponsored them into the National Assembly to the newly formed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Dr. Bingu. The Speaker of the National Assembly has not yet acted on those who have crossed the floor.

5) Ethnicity and Regionalism

The widening ethno-religious and regional divide propelled by top political leadership remains a challenge for all Malawians. The nation is increasingly becoming a place where people identify themselves ethnically, religiously or regionally. Ethno-religious and regional alliances threaten the very foundation and fabric of a country that is supposed to remain one nation. Some church institutions have unfortunately also taken sides with certain political parties to the extent that church conflicts have become a source of conflict between political parties.[3]

The Church’s Contribution to Peaceful, Fair and Free Elections.

Overwhelming, elections have not been free and fair in most of African countries. Following this concern, the church in Malawi has been involved in a number of election-related activities.

During this year’s Lenten period, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), one of the civil society organisations accredited by the Malawi Electoral Commission to conduct civic and voter education, produced a letter called “CHOOSING LIFE, Preparation for 2009 Elections.” Its objective is to sensitise the voters on quality leadership. All the administrative districts in the country are covered through CCJP’s seven diocesan offices. The CCJP also mobilised eligible voters to register their names at the registration centres. The Malawi Electoral Commission officially recorded 5.9 million registered voters, an increased of 200,000 from the last general election. By region, the southern region registered 2,639,783 followed by the central and northern regions at 2,463,703 and 827,777 respectively.

The CCJP also monitored the 50-50 campaign programme adopted by SADC heads of state and government meeting by the Malawi Government in 1997. The objective of this campaign is to increase the participation of women in decision-making positions and politics. This assignment is coordinated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the NGO Gender Coordinating Network. The CCJP involvement ensures women’s support by civil society organisations at various leadership levels. There has been an increase in the number of women aspiring to key positions.

The CCJP strives to be non-partisan. The perceptions of different political parties on the way the CCJP conducts its activities remain a major challenge. Challenges faced by CCJP included frequent breakdowns of voter registration materials such cameras, the change of dates, delayed funding for voter and civic education, difficulty with the distribution of materials to various centres and people registering more than once.

The Church and Society Programme of the Church of Central African Presbyterian (CCAP) has produced a letter that analyses quality and visionary leadership. It has been read in different congregations to empower the voters.

The religious mother bodies - Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM), the Malawi Council of Churches (MCC), the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) and Quadriya Muslim Association of Malawi (QMAM) organised two national conferences to assess how they could prepare themselves to meaningfully contribute to the free, fair and peaceful elections.

Related to the above, different faith communities held prayer gatherings in preparation for the elections. These included the youth of the Evangelical Association of Malawi and Malawi Council of Churches.

The Centre for Social Concern in collaboration with various faith communities significantly contributed to the forthcoming elections. Through its inter-religious dialogue programme, the centre facilitated the adoption of a code of conduct by faith leaders, traditional leaders and political party leaders in the southern region of Malawi, Mangochi district. This district is one of the hot spots for religious and political conflicts. This code of conduct has been rolled out to other places such as Lilongwe district where the centre has also carried out the same reflection with leaders. (see appendix 1, Mangochi Code of Conduct)

Addendum to article

Contrary to the fears expressed during the build-up to the recent elections, the electoral process went smoothly with no reports of violence. The monitors and observers commended Malawians for their conduct during polling. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) achieved a landslide victory over other parties. President Dr. Bingu waMtharika emerged winner of a second term presidency.

The election results showed a break from the regional and ethno-religious boundaries which were the voting patterns in the past. The faith community with its increased involvement in civil and vote education played an important role in encouraging a peaceful co-existence among the adherents of different faith groups and members of different political parties. The President and his party won the majority votes in all three regions (see parliamentary seats). At the same time, many independent candidates were elected to parliament because Malawians were fed up with party politicians who did not help their constituents initiate development agendas. Malawians have spoken and these politicians have learnt a bitter lesson.

Appendix 1.


Code of Conduct for Peace building among Ethnic Groups, Faith Communities and Political Parties in Mangochi District


Our shared will and desire to contribute
to peace building efforts in Mangochi District

We, as different people in the Mangochi Interfaith Project and other organisations representing ethnic groups, faith communities and political parties would like to contribute and promote peace building efforts in order to prevent any form of violence in our district before, during and after the forthcoming elections.

As representatives of the group mentioned above, we would like to demonstrate our commitment by upholding the key values and principles of tolerance, respect for diversity and love for peace. We recognise that in upholding these values we will advance the common good of the people of Mangochi and acknowledge our responsibility to love our neighbour, family and God.

Therefore, this code of conduct does not in any way nullify any previous peace building initiatives established in goodwill prior it. However, it will focus on what people perceive as issues that often cause conflicts in the district.


1. The guiding principle for the code of conduct is INCLUSIVENESS, meaning that membership should include everyone involved in the district

2. All ethnic groups, faith communities and political parties should commit themselves to the Code of Conduct, to ensure equal and accurate representation.

3. Dialogue between ethnic groups, faith communities and political parties is encouraged at all levels to ensure the swift prevention and resolution of conflicts in the district.

4. Leaders of ethnic groups, faith communities and political parties are encouraged to lead by example in preventing any form of violence.


The procedure for the intended code of conduct to be adopted by all ethnic groups, faith communities and political parties in Mangochi will include the following groups committing themselves:


We, members of the faith community, are constantly reminded of our responsibility through our Holy Books to serve the people both as spiritual and social beings. In this respect we believe it to be necessary that, apart from offering spiritual support to them, we also support them with their social needs and aspirations. We also recognise that we are obliged to ensure that the people of Mangochi enjoy their God given rights and freedoms without any hindrance. Because of our obligation we have often commented on political, social and economic developments in our district. The objective of our involvement is to ensure that every human being is given the dignity and peace they deserve. Therefore, as faith communities of Mangochi District, we commit ourselves:

  1. To maintain a neutral stance in the implementation of our various programmes. As faith communities we should not intervene in the political affairs by way of indicating to people the preferred political parties or candidates, using words with hidden meanings. Instead, as an interfaith group we should strive to bring peace among different political parties;

  1. To avoid using inflammatory or provocative language during our sermons. Instead we should take the opportunity to constantly preach messages of love, peace and unity to members of our communities and live by what we preach. This will make people of different affiliations trust us;

  1. To not align ourselves with any political party or parties. We should avoid in all ways to promote the interests of political parties through words, actions or non-verbal communication. Further to this, we should avoid taking bribes which is one of the methods people use to entice others to promote their agendas or goals;

  1. To shed light on issues involving any political party in the district without any malice, fear or favour, and in an objective and constructive manner that will generally be seen as in the interest of district-building and democracy consolidation;

  1. To refrain from dividing the people of Mangochi on the basis of religion, tribe, region, or any other social or political factor by way of practising discrimination and preaching or acting in a manner that will promote division on the basis of these factors. We should see to it that national issues with negative elements should not influence our local scene in the district;

  1. To monitor our religious youth, always encouraging them to use dialogue and not violence when disagreements arise among ethnic groups, faith communities and political parties in Mangochi before, during and after the elections;

  1. To not get involved in a media war with Government or any political party, and to strive to resolve any differences that may arise through dialogue. As members of an interfaith grouping, we should use certain radio stations such Radio Dzimwe, Radio Islam, Radio Maria to broadcast the necessary and neutral information to our listeners. To achieve this, there is need to create deliberate programmes that will require airtime and other necessities;

  1. To encourage the media to be constantly neutral in their coverage on political news items. They should apply a faith dimension which entails that any communication should bring justice to all groups of people;

  1. To advance the involvement and participation of women in civic education on matters to do with mitigation of conflicts. This agenda reminds and highlights the fact that women and children are often the victims of violent conflict situations;

10. To ensure that the information which we have at hand is given to all among our religious congregation.

B. COMMITMENT OF ETHNIC GROUPS (traditional leaders)

We, the traditional leaders of Mangochi District play a very significant role in democratic dispensation of Malawi today. Knowing that democracy is about pluralism, today we perform our duties among people who belong to different political parties, religions, tribes and many other distinguishing factors. This makes our position today to be more challenging than before. We find ourselves caught between our loyalty towards the government of the day and our neutral status, especially in times of elections. In order to effectively serve our people impartially, to avoid bringing divisions among them and to contribute towards the consolidation of peace in Mangochi District, we humbly urge our politicians not to hold party meetings without following existing agreements. As leaders of ethnic groups we commit ourselves:

  1. To stop promoting the interests and values of any political party through words, actions or non-verbal communication, but rather to act as builders of unity, peace and reconciliation among the people;

  1. To permit all political parties to hold political party meetings or any other political event in our areas, provided that the appropriate authorities are officially notified;

  1. To stop dividing the people of our areas on the basis of religion, tribe, region, or any other social or political factors, by way of practising discrimination and preaching or acting in a manner that will promote division on the basis of these factors;

  1. To refrain from receiving any bribes including those bribes aimed at making us compromise our neutral stance as ethnic leaders of the district;

  1. To resist the temptation of being used in advancing the political interests and values of any political party.


We, the political parties recognise the outstanding role we play towards the consolidation of democracy in Mangochi District. We are obliged to provide the platform where people who share similar political views and opinions meet to advance their common interests. We are called to promote the participation of people in political activities by encouraging especially women to vote; and we conduct public meetings and civic education, thereby bringing awareness to people with regard to political issues. We see our duty in the political arena that makes us an important tool to promote tolerance and peaceful co-existence among the people of Mangochi. To ensure that we contribute to the consolidation of a tolerant political climate we commit ourselves:

  1. To encourage and preach messages of tolerance and the true meaning and importance of having different political parties. Further to this, political parties should engage in civic education on the meaning of politics as applied in the Chichewa language “Ndale”;

  1. To refrain from commenting or explaining other political parties agendas and manifestos. In this regard, all political parties shall stick to their agendas or manifestos and communicate them to their people in their own fashion without insulting or putting down other parties;

  1. To ensure that all political parties enjoy equal rights to announce the dates, places, and durations of their public meetings, rallies, marches, or any other public events, provided that they follow the existing procedures;

  1. To refrain from holding any political event at a place too close to where another party has already arranged to hold a meeting on the same date and at the same time;

  1. To refrain from preaching hate messages at community gatherings and funerals. All political parties should ensure that the message is relevant to the occasion and not taking advantage of it;

  1. To stop inciting violence in any way and, in particular, to stop using all language that is calculated or likely to incite violence or hatred at any political meeting or through the print media or pamphlets or any anonymous or open information. Instead we should engage in dialogue as a means to resolve any dispute that may ensue, and to stop using all forms of violence or intimidation as a means for resolving conflicts;

  1. To cooperate fully with the Police in investigating alleged cases of violence and in the apprehension of individuals reasonably suspected of being perpetrators of violence. It is expected that the police shall also take a neutral stance in dealing with all these cases;

  1. To prevent our members from carrying or displaying weapons when attending political meetings, rallies or such other functions. Usually the presence of such implements are often associated with inciting violence, intimidating, threatening, killing or injuring other people with different beliefs, words, writings or actions;

  1. To respect symbols, writings and slogans of other political parties which contribute to their objectives of the political welfare;

  1. To stop compelling by force, threats, bribes or promises, any person to attend, participate, contribute or join any political party against his or her will, or to resign from or make false allegations about another party or party official(s);

  1. To never interfere with any official or representative of any other political party, or with any party’s message to contact or address any individual or group of persons;

  1. To stop using public resources to promote the interests of any political party or parties;

  1. To recognise the authority of the Malawi Electoral Commission as the legal body to conduct national elections and to use proper channels in challenging its decisions if need be;

  1. To support adequate female representation within our party structures and advance their involvement and participation in civic education.


  1. We all are called to enforce the compliance of this document among ourselves and to publicly and repeatedly condemn ethno-religious and political violence in our district. To ensure this commitment within our groups, we shall design proper mechanisms on how non-compliance of this agreement can be dealt with.


1. Mangochi District Commissioner

Name ________________________ Sign _________________ Date __________

2. Representative for Muslims

Name ________________________ Sign ________________ Date ___________

3. Representative for Christians

Name ________________________ Sign ________________ Date ___________

4. Representative of all political parties in the district

Name ________________________ Sign ________________ Date __________

[1] Under Banda, one religious group, the Jehova’s Witness, was persecuted because its faith practices contravened or threatened the ruling party. The persecution of this faith group also took place in some parts of Mozambique and Zambia. In Malawi, it was mainly due to its stand against purchase of party membership cards in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

[2] The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) currently at the helm of government was formed by the incumbent President Bingu after he had left the United Democratic Front (UDF), a party that sponsored him into power during the 2004 elections. Substantially and logically it is not supposed to be called the “ruling party” because it was formed after another party had already claimed victory over the elections. It is still a hot debate on Malawi’s political landscape.

[3] The Nkhoma/Livingstonia Synod Conflict of the Church of Central African Presbyterian (CCAP) over boundary issues has been very much part of the public’s daily concern. It is believed that the Nkhoma Synod is pro-opposition and the Livingstonia is pro-government. To deal with this rivalry, allegedly the Nkhoma Synod has been drumming up support for MCP in order to indirectly get rid of the DPP government that supports the Livingstonia Synod.