Freedom in the World 2000 - 2001


President Bakili Muluzi threatened in October to arrest opposition leaders if they continued their call for a national strike and civil disobedience to force him to act on the reports of high-level corruption in his government. But by November he had given in to the local and international pressure and sacked his cabinet after receiving a report by the Anti-Corruption Bureau on graft involving government ministers. Widespread corruption has been threatening to undermine Malawi’s democracy and further damage an ailing economy. The supreme court in October 2000 upheld the results of the June 1999 presidential election, ending a 16-month dispute over the vote’s outcome.

President (later President-for-Life) Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled Malawi for nearly three decades after the country gained independence from Britain in 1963. Banda exercised dictatorial and often eccentric rule through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing, the Malawi Young Pioneers. Facing a domestic economic crisis and strong international pressure, he accepted a referendum approving multiparty rule in 1993. Muluzi won the presidency in an election in 1994 beset by irregularities, but seen as largely free and fair. The army’s violent December 1993 dispersal of the Young Pioneers helped clear the way for the polls.

Violence erupted in opposition strongholds of northern Malawi after presidential and parliamentary election results from the June 1999 elections indicated wins for the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). Angry supporters of the opposition coalition of the MCP and the Alliance for Democracy (MCP-AFORD) attacked mosques, shops, and homes of suspected UDF supporters.

Malawi had been running without local authorities since Muluzi first came to power in 1994. He had fired all local authorities, saying they were loyalists of former President Banda. The government in October 2000 bowed to public pressure and withdrew a contentious local government bill designed to give Muluzi the sole authority to appoint city and other municipal or district mayors. The ruling UDF scored a landslide victory in November’s local polls in voting that was marked by low turnout.

Malawi’s economy is dependent on tobacco, but the crop registered a 14 percent drop in earnings in 2000.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The citizens of Malawi are guaranteed the right to choose their leaders. In May 1994, the president and members of the national assembly won five-year terms in Malawi’s first generally free and fair multiparty elections. However, there was limited opposition access to media as well as problems with voter registration. The opposition appealed the result to the courts. The results of the June 1999 presidential poll went to the courts as well. Three presidential contenders sued the electoral commission for allegedly illegally declaring Muluzi the winner. They contended Muluzi failed to win enough votes. Muluzi won 51 percent, compared to 44 percent for leading opposition candidate Gwanda Chakuamba, of the MCP-AFORD alliance. The supreme court in October 2000 upheld the results of the election.

In polls for the national assembly in 1999, the ruling party managed to retain a narrow majority, winning 99 seats compared with 94 for MCP-AFORD. There are no clear-cut ideological differences between the three parties.

The judiciary has demonstrated broad independence in its decisions, but due process is not always respected by an overburdened court system that lacks resources and training. A legal resource center has been established under the Law Society of Malawi with assistance from the British government.

Rights of free expression and free assembly are generally respected. Many human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate openly and without interference. The constitutionally mandated Human Rights Commission met for the first time in 1999. Religious freedom is usually respected, but Muslims were targeted in postelection violence in 1999 in protest against the ruling party. President Muluzi is a Muslim. Malawi is 75 percent Christian and about 20 percent Muslim.

There are no reported political prisoners in Malawi. Police brutality is still said to be common, and extrajudicial killings have been reported, either while detainees were in custody or just after they were released. Arbitrary arrest and detention are common. The government has sought community involvement in its reform of the police. Appalling prison conditions lead to many deaths, including suffocation from overcrowding. The Community Service Act, passed in 1999, permits some offenders to provide community service instead of suffering imprisonment.

Freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed. It is generally respected in practice, although journalists still practice some self-censorship. The government has used libel and other laws to harass journalists. A broad spectrum of opinion is presented in the country’s two dozen newspapers. The state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation controls television and most radio service, which reaches a larger audience than print media do. There are four private radio stations.

About 60 percent of Malawi’s ten million people have no access to land, and the issue is a potential breeding ground for social unrest. The government said in August 2000 that it planned to ask donors for U.S.$25 million to purchase land for a resettlement program for 21,000 landless peasants. Despite equal protection of the law under the 1995 constitution, customary practices maintain de facto discrimination against women in education, employment, and business. Traditional rural structures deny women inheritance and property rights, and violence against women is reportedly routine.

The right to organize and to strike is legally protected, with notice and mediation requirements for workers in essential services. Unions are active but face harassment and occasional violence during strikes, and there have been reports of union employees being fired for their political views. Collective bargaining is widely practiced, but not specifically protected by law. The International Labor Organization and the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions said in October 2000 that the owners of some tobacco and tea estates were using child labor and that the country could therefore face international trade sanctions.

2001 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)