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The past two weeks have thrown Malawi into heated debates on the true meaning of democracy. One key issue is whether the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) MPs who visited President Joyce Banda to express their support at her home on 7 April, well before she took office as Malawi’s new President, abused their role to gain power and favours from ‘the President to be’. She had, since being dismissed from the DPP, formed the People’s Party (PP). The fact that they didn’t consult their constituents before shifting camps has raised questions around their integrity, accountability and transparency. This view was further entrenched by a second meeting, on 9 April at President Banda’s official residence in Lilongwe, when the members of the Hope Alliance (MPs fighting for change within the DPP) paid a courtesy call to the new President to express their solidarity with her leadership. This was described in some media circles as an exodus from the DPP to the PP.

The Malawi Economic Justice Network was swift to mount its own response to the MPs’ actions. As the National Coordination body for the Mwananchi Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) Programme ‘Liu Lathu’, the Network organised a live radio debate in partnership with Zodiak Broadcasting Station for citizens at the Crossroads Hotel in Lilongwe last Friday. Citizens from all walks of life put questions to the panel, consisting of a DPP MP, the Honourable Godfrey Kamanya, and representatives of civil society and the general public, as well as panellists from two other districts who took part via telephone. The entire debate, entitled ‘Questioning the integrity, transparency and accountability of our representatives: were DPP MPs right to approach Joyce Banda at her residence to express their support?’, was broadcast live on Zodiak radio, and ran on Facebook and other social media networks.

Those of us who could not be in the room were glued to the radio for two hours of tough questioning. Kamanya maintained that MPs had the right to approach the ‘President to be’ to express their support for her ‘government in waiting’. On the whole, he said, the DPP MPs were opposed to the flouting of the constitution by the DPP group of ministers and MPs, which might have led to civil unrest.   

According to the ordinary citizens who took part in this debate, however, the actions of the MPs had demonstrated a lack of integrity, accountability and transparency.

Participants were particularly angry that the DPP MPs did not consult the constituents who elected them, and condemned the timing. It is a taboo in Malawian culture (and indeed in many African cultures) to discuss a new spouse or leader before burying the one who has died: it shows a lack of respect, which is a key aspect of ‘Umunthu’ (the acceptable presentation of a socially responsible and respected citizen) and can be interpreted as ‘courting’ a new person prematurely, even contributing to the death of the person who has died.

The issue here is about the accountability of public-office holders, with accountability already embedded in Malawian culture around what is appropriate: a tradition that can contribute to – rather than being inferior to – the good-governance agenda.   

The MPs have argued that they approached the President on behalf of their constituents, saying that they wanted to uphold the Constitution and did not want to see the country slide into a war in which many ordinary citizens would die. According to this argument, MPs have the interests of their constituents in mind, even if they don’t go and consult them. However, most of the citizens who took part in the debate last Friday (and others that posted comments online), believe that the lack of consultation by MPs showed that they were acting in their own interests to position themselves in a new ruling party.

This highlights a real challenge in representation in Malawi and beyond: what constitutes ‘good enough’ consultation and what form should it take if there is no opportunity for face-to-face meetings? Is it realistic to expect MPs not to use their judgement as part of their representation role? While this may vary from one country to another, citizens generally want to see more of their MPs between elections. The main problem in the Malawi case seems to be the constitutional implications of what the DPP MPs did in presenting themselves to the President-to-be.

Their desire for power or money might be only part of the picture, according to last Friday’s debate and to similar activities in the Mwananchi programme. We often find that there are indeed many MPs who are motivated by money or power, but there are those who try their best in a context where doing something different makes them unpopular, poor or sees them thrown out of  their party.  

The debate highlighted these constraints. Kamanya, for example, referred to the party ‘caucuses’ before  parliamentary debates where party bigwigs whip every supposedly loyal MP into shape and then watch who obeys and who does not.

Unless the quality of debate in these caucuses improves, MPs are just pawns to be moved about by the bigwigs on a political chessboard.

The question is, how can citizens demand that their MPs are accountable? Some MPs, often under pressure from their constituencies or personal conviction, fight underground battles that never come to the surface or make a difference. Where there is no separation between the three arms of government (Executive, Legislature and Judiciary), the party big men come under the direct influence of the President and then they impose themselves on the rest of the MPs in the party.   

If citizens have to be the ‘honourables’ (as they are often called around election time, and during the Malawi debate by the Honourable Kamanya) more needs to be done to transform institutions and the capacities of citizens to ensure that their voice has some influence on government responses and accountability.

For instance, the Constitution of Malawi, as stressed in last Friday’s debate, is meant to provide clarity on the rules of engagement as well as separation of the powers of government. However, constitutions are rarely, i
f ever, translated into everyday language that has meaning in the lives of ordinary citizens, as learnt by the Mwananchi programme.

This, in my view, is one way to rebalance the emphasis on demand and supply sides of accountability, as discussed at the GTF public event organised on 21 March at ODI. All this needs to happen in the context of understanding different cultures and traditions and their implications for accountability.

Originally published by ODI as part of the ODI Blog Posts series.