WATIPASO MZUNGU, A CONTRIBUTOR:
In building a society of entrenched democracy and good governance, government is central to creating an environment for citizens to play their rightful role in the promotion of good governance, rule of law and respect for human rights.
And this entails building an open society governed by democratic principles and institutions, which encourage effective participation of individuals, groups and communities in the political, economic and social human development of the country.
Governance experts such as Steven Duwa of the Pan African Civic Educators Network enthuses that democracy is more than elections, citing Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe, which arrange regular elections but can hardly be labelled as democracies.
In view of the foregoing, government established the Office of the Ombudsman in 1994 to safeguard and promote good governance and respect for rule by professionally, independently, impartially and fairly investigating and resolving cases of alleged injustice and providing remedies.
The office was, thus, established to contribute towards efforts to promote and consolidate the hard-won democracy and enabling Malawians to enjoy their democratic rights to the fullest.
According to Huntington’s definition, Malawi is now to be considered a consolidated democracy.
Yet, as disillusioned voters burnt government offices and set up roadblocks on election day in the city of Blantyre in the aftermath of the May 19 2014 Tripartite Elections, Malawian democracy could not appear anywhere near the consolidated one.
In fact, according to commonly used measures of democracy, the level of democracy has declined in Malawi since 1994 despite high levels of electoral competition.
As former president Joyce Banda’s defeat illustrates with perfect clarity, even electoral contests tilted in favour of the incumbent can be lost.
And as Duwa would note, Malawians are still far from realising their dream for an entrenched democracy where State organs are able to operate within the dictates of the law.
He says the local politics remains highly regionalised as evidenced by the 2014 polls where all the country’s four main regions voted overwhelmingly for different presidential candidates.
“Moreover, material ‘handouts’ were commonplace in electoral campaigns throughout the country. At face value, the Malawi election seems to add evidence to the dominant view of African elections as more or less determined by ethno-clientelism,” he says.
Experts further assert that improving the quality of election administration plays a central part in strengthening democracy on the continent.
However, there has been little research aimed at increasing knowledge about the deficiencies of local election authorities.
“Election management in the 2014 election was poor. Malawi experienced severe problems in voter registration, most polling stations were unable to open in time, and large confusion surrounded the reporting of the election results. These obstacles may sound trivial but ultimately undermined the public perception of electoral legitimacy,” says a contributor in the Democracy in Africa magazine.
Of greater sadness is the fact that government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are also in the forefront championing impunity and moral decadence.
Ombudsman Martha Chizuma-Mwangonde says MDAs have been playing a greater role to the breakage of law by defying determinations from institutions the government set up to entrench democracy and governance in the country.
“Non-compliance to our determinations by MDAs remains one of the biggest challenges towards entrenching the spirit of the rule of law and consolidation of good governance in the country. We have non-responsive MDAs to complaints that are under investigation or untimely responses on the one hand and MDAs that fail to comply with determinations issued by my office,” she says.
She further states that there is general lack of understanding and appreciation among MDAs’ controlling officers on the existence and importance of the office, leading to the dragging of the cases under investigation, thereby denying complainants justice.
But Chizuma says the office has made strategies to have agenda specific meetings with them so that, together, we can appreciate the challenges faced in implementing best practices and map way forward for the benefit of all Malawians.
“We are also engaging the Legal Affairs Committee to impress upon them to assume a greater role in ensuring that these MDAs are adhering to our determinations. This is critical for the consolidation of democratic governance,” she says.
The office has lined up a number of activities to raise awareness and some of these are already rolling out including public awareness campaigns, media engagement, Ombudsman open days, sensitisation workshops and multi-level stakeholder engagement, according to its 2016-2021 strategic plan.
It has also signed a memorandum of understanding with National Initiative for Civic Education Trust in an effort to popularise the office of the Ombudsman right at the grass-roots level.