Law and democracy are two crucial elements of governance that most African nations have for a generation been consolidating, but of which not all have achieved.
But here in Malawi, a rigged general election in February was overturned by the Constitutional Court, and the country returned to the polls in June – ousting long term President Peter Mutharika and electing in his place opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera, a renowned theologian and church leader.
Sadly, the world is littered with examples of decisive victories at the ballot box – followed by disappointment in delivery.
Yet both the cause of Chakwera’s win and his immediate moves against ingrained corruption and structural issues – long a drag on Malawi’s economic prospects – have been both startling and refreshing.
‘Clear the rubble’
Chakwera’s desire to “clear the rubble” – as he puts it – has, in a few short months, already led to serial investigations into past governments’ dubious deals, and suspicious contracts being suspended. His party, administration and state institutions have stood firmly behind him on these actions.
His ability to move with speed has been reinforced by the independence of the judiciary – as was demonstrated by its overturning of the first election result and its capacity to bring fair and honest cases before the courts.
Many new leaders have pushed ahead on anti-corruption and clean government campaigns – only to be frustrated time and again by courts packed with their predecessors’ questionable judges and compromised lawyers.
Fortunately for Malawi, the courts have proven their worth by ruling on the corruption cases put before them.
Mining sector potential
Chakwera has gone further, addressing governance and regulatory issues that have kept investor confidence at bay since independence. He began with the mining sector: one that has underperformed for a generation, yet one that represents a crucial key for unlocking Malawi’s wider potential.
In a web conference last month organised by Invest Africa US, President Chakwera laid out his vision for the mining industry, noting his goal to raise the contribution of extractives from the current 1% of GDP to close to 30%.
A recent geological survey has revealed that this is possible – and Malawi is far richer in mineral resources than previously thought along with significant deposits of uranium, bauxite, iron ore, alluvial gold, coal, graphite, gemstones and rare earth metals.
Chakwera’s first step is professional and official licensing – combined with a crackdown on uncontrolled practices decades-long of turning the other way while foreign licence owners export minerals illegally under the guise of sending “samples”.
He pointed to international reports that show how Malawi exports around $85m in gold to the Middle East every year – but no-one is able to say who is exporting the gold or where it is mined.
In response to this ailing industry, the Chakwera administration has swiftly established a Ministry of Mines – a government body that did not previously exist in Malawi – as an important first step to boost investment and combat illegal mining.
All current licences today are being reviewed and those that are inactive are being cancelled. Chakwera is slowly moving towards the government of Botswana’s best practice model where a parastatal company works as an equal partner with recognised, international private sector mining businesses.
He is also moving rapidly to encourage agribusiness development. Malawi is one of the world’s most least developed agricultural economies with over 80% of the rapidly growing population engaged in subsistence farming.
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Again, Chakwera has strong grounds on which to encourage its growth, with the substantiated rule of law and judicial independence demonstrated during the election enabling him to reach out, realistically, to others with the funds and expertise to rapidly develop this sector.
He has already begun to encourage South African farmers who are under pressure from rising incidents of farm invasions and rule of law in their own country, to look north and consider Malawi.
Real challenge for Chakwera
Yet perhaps the real challenge Chakwera and his new administration face now is looking ahead to the long: how to build a new Malawi that is void of the past and ingrained abuses of power.
In his acceptance speech, the President called for an end to tribal nepotism and corruption. But then so have many when first elected. Yet he also outlined how he would, immediately, be legislating to reduce the scope of his own presidential powers – as well as instituting by law greater transparency and parliamentary accountability and scrutiny for the executive.
Few can deny that Chakwera has made the most rapid and successful of starts. It’s important now that investors and the international community back him up – and ensure that he has the resources to finish the job.
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