Malawi alliance takes presidency back to party of independence

Monday July 06 2020

Malawi’s President and Malawi Congress Party leader Lazarus Chakwera waves to a crowd at a campaign rally, in Lilongwe. PHOTO | AFP


The victory of Lazarus Chakwera in the repeated Malawi presidential election in June shows that African liberation parties can return to power if they form alliances.

President Chakwera, who was running on a Malawi Congress Party (MCP) ticket, made history by leading the first independence party in the region in making a comeback. Most of them were pushed aside by a wave of multi-partism of the 1990s, and voters too young to have any patriotic connection.

In Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, the independence parties are struggling to remain relevant in a changing political environment with varying results.

The Kenya African National Union (Kanu), the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in Zambia have never made a comeback since they lost power.

The only exception is Tanzania, where Chama cha Mapindizu (CCM), an offshoot of the Tanzania African National Union, still remains in power since it was formed in 1977.

Tanzanian political commentator Nicodemus Minde said that Malawi’s MCP comeback can be tied to a working alliance of parties, but that the determining factors were the failure of the other parties to live up to the promises of their election victories, and virulent dynasties that plundered the Malawian economy.


“While in Tanzania it is highly unlikely for CCM to lose its grip on power soon, the opposition victory in Malawi will serve as a reminder that there is a discernible shift in electoral patterns in Africa,” said Mr Minde.

The MCP, founded by Malawi’s first president Kamuzu Banda, was ousted in 1994 by the United Democratic Front led by Bakili Muluzi, after 30 years in power.


Forming an alliance paid off when President Chakwera forged a nine-party coalition that included vice-president Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement, and won the backing of former president Joyce Banda.

President Chakwera defeated incumbent Peter Mutharika with 58.57 per cent in a re-run election, after the Malawi Constitutional Court found that the May 2019 election was marred by irregularities.

Unlike other liberation parties in the region that have been struggling to stay relevant, MCP candidates have always emerged second in the presidential election since its defeat in 1994. They are John Chakuamba in 1999, John Tembo in 2004 and 2009, and now-president Chakwera in 2014 and the annulled 2019 election. In Uganda, the UPC has been performing poorly since its co-founder Milton Obote was ousted from power in 1985 by Gen Tito Okello. Currently, UPC is split into two factions, one led by the party’s presidential candidate in the 2011 elections Olara Otunnu, a former UN under-secretary general, and the late Obote’s son Jimmy Akena.

The UPC has been divided since 2015, when Mr Akena ousted Mr Otunnu.

Retired Ugandan diplomat Harold Acemah said that UPC has been struggling for the past 30 years, even after changing its ideology from African socialism to liberal democracy.

Since the 2006 elections following the re-introduction of political pluralism in Uganda, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Kiiza Besigye, appears to have taken over UPC’s former stronghold in the north.

The party’s attempts to invoke nostalgia by fielding Obote’s widow, Miria Obote, in the 2006 presidential elections backfired as she only garnered 0.8 per cent of the vote.

Currently, the Akena faction is trying to renew the party structures and recruit younger members, while looking out for alliances before next year’s elections.

In Kenya, Kanu, the party of independence currently led by Gideon Moi, has been surviving by aligning itself with successive parties in power since it was ousted in 2002. It has never fielded a presidential candidate since then.

In 2007, Kanu, then led by Uhuru Kenyatta, supported Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity.

Kanu has been working with the ruling Jubilee Party since 2013, and is yet to make a serious presidential bid.


A former deputy Speaker of Kenya’s parliament, Farah Maalim, who is currently the deputy leader of opposition Wiper Party, said that Kanu as a brand went into hibernation but could easily re-emerge in another form.

“One cannot absolutely say that the party is down and out because anybody who matters in the Kenyan political landscape today is a former senior official of Kanu. We are now seeing a campaign to bring Kenyans together, which was basically Kanu’s slogan,” said Mr Maalim in reference to the Building Bridges Initiatives.

In Zambia, UNIP, which won Independence in 1964, has never recovered after Fredrick Chiluba defeated the founding president Kenneth Kaunda in 1991.

The party boycotted the 1996 elections after Mr Kaunda was barred from contesting. However, in 2001, Mr Kaunda’s son, Tilyenji Kaunda, ran for the presidency and got 10 per cent of the vote.

In 2006, UNIP changed tack by joining the United Democratic Alliance with two other opposition parties. However, their joint candidate, Hakainde Hichilema, finished a distant third.

In 2008, UNIP stayed out of the presidential contest but this did not help as the party’s candidate Tilyenji Kaunda continued to lose support. In 2011, he got one per cent, and failed to even get a parliamentary seat.

He contested the 2015 presidential by-election after the death of President Michael Sata and got less than one per cent, and in 2016 garnered 0.24 per cent.

On Tanzania’s CCM, Mr Minde says that the party has recalibrated itself through internal mechanisms that have made the party relevant despite opposition party inroads in the advent of pluralism.

“CCM’s one-party dominance has been aided by the social cleavages of post-independent Julius Nyerere’s legacy of nation building. This project has gone hand-in-hand with instilling the Tanzanian values and nationalism, which has seen even the younger generation imbued to it. However, CCM has also used authoritarian means to consolidate power, a feature of many independent parties in Africa,” said Mr Minde.