Freedom in the World 2009


Political deadlock in 2008 led to a delay in the reconvening of the parliament and late passage of the budget. Former president Bakili Muluzi positioned himself as a leading challenger to current president Bingu wa Mutharika ahead of the 2009 presidential poll, but he and several of his allies were then arrested on treason charges. Restrictions on media freedom and harassment of the judiciary remained crucial problems during the year.

Malawi gained independence from Britain in 1963. President Hastings Kamuzu Banda ruled the country for nearly three decades, exercising dictatorial power through the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and its paramilitary youth wing. Facing an economic crisis and strong domestic and international pressure, Banda accepted a referendum that approved multiparty rule in 1993. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) won the presidency in a 1994 election that was generally perceived as free and fair. He was reelected in 1999, and the Supreme Court rebuffed a court challenge by his main opponent.

Muluzi handpicked Bingu wa Mutharika, a relative political outsider, as his successor ahead of the May 2004 presidential election. Mutharika defeated his MCP opponent, while the MCP led the concurrent parliamentary elections with 59 of 193 seats, followed by the UDF with 49. The UDF regained its majority shortly thereafter, however, when it merged with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and recruited 23 independent legislators.

In early 2005, a rift between Mutharika and Muluzi, who remained the UDF chairman, worsened after several powerful UDF figures were arrested as part of Mutharika’s new anticorruption campaign. Mutharika resigned from the UDF and formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which many lawmakers then joined. Impeachment charges launched that year alleged that public funds had been used to recruit legislators to the DPP, and the defections appeared to violate a constitutional clause stating that members who switch parties after elections would lose their seats. The Supreme Court upheld the clause on party defections in June 2007, putting the seats of up to 60 lawmakers in jeopardy and leaving Mutharika vulnerable to impeachment efforts.

In that context, Mutharika became locked in an acute conflict with the opposition-controlled parliament. In 2006 and 2007, passage of the budget was substantially delayed as the opposition attempted (unsuccessfully) to force action on the party-defections issue. In 2008, as the opposition prepared to compel the speaker of parliament to address the defections dispute, Mutharika delayed calling the legislature into session. When he finally did so, the opposition initially mounted a boycott and then refused to pass any bills. A deal brokered by church leaders ultimately facilitated the passage of the budget, but the party-defections issue remained unresolved.

Mutharika has also been engaged in a struggle against leading figures in the UDF. His vice president, Cassim Chilumpha, went on trial in February 2007 for allegedly plotting to assassinate the president. The trial was ongoing at the end of 2008. Muluzi in 2008 secured the UDF nomination for the 2009 presidential election, but shortly afterward, he and several other UDF insiders and former security officials were arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. All were later released on bail. Muluzi remained the target of corruption investigations pertaining to alleged theft during his time in office.

Relations with international donors, which account for 80 percent of Malawi’s development budget, have improved since Mutharika took power. In 2008, Malawi obtained an aid pledge of $286 million from the Chinese government as well as increased funding from the International Monetary Fund. Dramatic improvements in agricultural output, partially credited to a popular fertilizer subsidy program, have helped the country to achieve solid economic growth rates over the last few years. Growth rates for 2008 were estimated to be 7 percent.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Malawi is an electoral democracy. The president is directly elected for five-year terms and exercises considerable executive authority. The unicameral National Assembly is composed of 193 members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms.

Elections in Malawi have been characterized by significant tension and occasional violence by police or party thugs. While generally free from overt manipulation, recent elections were marked by irregularities and bias by the electoral commission in favor of the government. The judiciary has continuously upheld President Bingu wa Mutharika’s appointment of additional commissioners in 2007, despite claims that he did not consult with the opposition as required by law.

The main political parties are the ruling DPP, the opposition MCP, and the UDF, which cooperates with the MCP.Political divisions are generally based on ethnoregional loyalties and personality rather than policy. The government has targeted members of the UDF with treason and corruption charges since 2005. The efficacy of opposition parties was undermined in 2008 by the president’s prolonged refusal to call the parliament into session and the subsequent unwillingness of the speaker to act on petitions to expel lawmakers who had switched to the DPP.

Mutharika has claimed that fighting corruption is a top priority. However, the opposition and civil society groups have charged that the effort has been directed primarily at Mutharika’s political opponents. In 2008, in addition to ongoing investigations against former president Bakili Muluzi, a senior UDF figure was charged with theft, and another was sentenced to six years in prison for graft dating to his time as a cabinet minister in the 1990s. Still, some government figures have also been investigated and convicted on corruption charges since Mutharika took power. Anticorruption efforts have been undermined in part by the shifting leadership of the Anti-Corruption Bureau; since 2004, the bureau has had four different directors. The World Bank in 2006 noted that Malawi had failed make significant progress on controlling corruption, and the Bank’s Governance Indicators since then show no improvements in this respect. Malawi was ranked 115 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of the press is legally guaranteed. Despite occasional restrictions, Malawi’s dozen or so newspapers present a diversity of opinion. The government controls the only television station in the country (TVM), and while there are a number of radio stations, the government-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) continues to dominate. Both the MBC and TVM display a significant bias in favor of the government, which led the opposition-controlled parliament to cut off funding in 2007 and 2008. Both outlets continue to operate, albeit under some duress, relying on advertising and loans to fund operations. Private outlets have encountered government harassment. In 2007, regulators ordered a television station owned by Muluzi off the air. In July 2008, immigration authorities raided Muluzi’s Joy Radio and threatened to deport its manager, and the information minister indicated that the station should have its license revoked. In November 2008, the government regulatory agency revoked the license of Joy Radio; however a court order shortly thereafter returned it to the air. Separately, in February 2008, a reporter was arrested for coverage of allegations that the government planned to rig the 2009 elections. Both the Media Council and civil society groups have condemned the incendiary tone of political programs on the radio. There are no restrictions on access to the internet, although it is not widely used.

Religious freedom is usually respected, and the government does not restrict academic freedom.

The government generally upholds freedoms of association and assembly. However, since 2007, the UDF and Muluzi loyalists have had difficulties holding rallies. In June2008, police used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse crowds that gathered to support Muluzi when he was accused of treason. At least one individual was also severely beaten by the police. In both June and August, police halted Muluzi’s rallies, in one case threatening to arrest participants. In both cases, police were eventually forced to allow rallies in the wake of court rulings and legal action by the opposition.  

Many nongovernmental organizations—including the constitutionally mandated Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC)—operate without interference. The right to organize labor unions and to strike is legally protected, with notice and mediation requirements for workers in essential services. Unions are active, and collective bargaining is practiced, but workers face harassment and occasional violence during strikes. Since only a small percentage of the workforce is formally employed, union membership is low.

The generally independent judiciary has become embroiled in political disputes and faces government hostility. Mutharika has repeatedly criticized the judiciary after antigovernment decisions and sent anticorruption police to investigate one judge in 2007. It was reported in 2008 that judges hearing a case concerning the legality of Muluzi’s presidential candidacy were placed under “surveillance” by the government. The police and prosecutors have increasingly come to be associated with the politicized pursuit of government opponents.

Due process is not always respected by the overburdened court system, which lacks resources, personnel, and training. Police brutality is reportedly common, as are arbitrary arrests and detentions. Prison conditions are appalling, with many inmates dying from AIDS and other diseases.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language or culture, and it is not a major problem.

The government maintains respect for private property and has generally embraced free-market principles. However, in 2008 the president banned the private trade in maize, the staple crop, requiring producers to sell to the state’s grain marketer. The move, undertaken on food-security grounds, was being challenged in court at year’s end.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equal protection, customary practices perpetuate discrimination against women in education, employment, and business. Traditional rural structures deny women inheritance and property rights. Violence against women is common, though in recent years there has been greater media attention on and criminal penalties for abuse and rape. Abusive practices, including forced marriages and the secret initiation of girls into their future adult roles through forced sex with older men remain widespread. The practice of kupimbira, in which young girls of any age are sold by families to pay off debts, still exists in some areas. Trafficking in women and children, both locally and to locations abroad, is a problem. A 2008 study by the Malawi-based Center for Social Research and Norwegian Church Aid indicated that between 500 and1,500 women and children are trafficked within the country annually. Penalties for the few successfully prosecuted traffickers have been criticized as too lenient. Despite a government program to protect vulnerable children, the U.S. State Department’s 2008 human rights report noted that there was no reportable progress on the development of a nationwide, interministerial plan to identify the extent of trafficking and propose possible solutions.

2009 Scores


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Freedom Rating


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